The United States has downsized its operations on the Middle Eastern stage. The Syrian collapse and Russian intervention.

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Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, Russia has limited itself to its traditional role of providing arms as well as military and logistical experts to its Arab allies. As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime weakened, the Russians intensified their military support dramatically. Recently, the Russian ‘Caesar’ opted to expand his role in Syria to include direct intervention against enemies of the regime. The move towards direct intervention constitutes a revolution in Russia’s role in the Middle East and portends a deeper shift in the region.

Russia has claimed that its intervention in Syria was intended to destroy IS after the US-led campaign proved to be an “abject failure”, according to an unnamed US military official speaking to CBS News. Well acquainted with terrorism, one might argue that Moscow is undertaking a pre-emptive war against Islamic extremist groups. But some have linked the intervention to the Ukrainian crisis as well as the desire for increased leverage in the Middle East and more power at the negotiating table.

Thus Russia’s stated intentions have been met with scepticism about the real motive behind the decision to intervene directly. One widespread opinion is that Russia wants to secure a military presence on the Mediterranean Sea. While this sounds plausible, Russia has been enjoying this presence for some time already. So what really lies behind the dramatic shift in Russian foreign policy?

A few years ago, the president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, Richard N. Haass, wrote that the era of the United States’ domination in the Middle East was coming to an end and that the region’s future would be characterized by reduced US influence. Many observers do not believe the US will voluntarily abandon its role in the region, but the actions of other nations, combined with the Russians’ plans in Syria, clearly point in this direction.

Under the slogan “fight against terrorism”, China has deployed an aircraft carrier to Tartus. In coordination with Tehran and Baghdad, Beijing will reinforce this move with jets and helicopters equipped with anti-submarine capabilities.

France and Great Britain have followed suit. The UK announced that it will mobilize military reinforcements capabilities to the Mediterranean, and Paris will send an aircraft carrier to participate in operations against IS as well as position six Rafale jets in the United Arab Emirates and six Mirage aircraft in Jordan.

For its part, the US, whose aircraft carriers have been absent from the region since 2007, ordered a mere 50 special operations troops to Syria in order to help coordinate ‘local’ ground forces in the north of the country. US President Barack Obama condemned Russia’s direct intervention strategy, saying it was “doomed to fail”. And yet in a press conference in August 2014, he acknowledged that the United States “does not have a strategy” in Syria.

Despite certain analyses, Washington was not taken by surprise when the Russians commenced their operations in Syria. The US was aware of the Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani's visit to Moscow in July. The visit was preceded by highlevel Russian-Iranian contact and meetings to coordinate military strategies. Two months later, Russia, Iraq, Iran and Syria agreed to set up an intelligence-sharing committee in Baghdad in order to harmonize their efforts in fighting IS.

A senior US official confirmed on 18 September that more than 20 Condor transport plane flights had delivered tanks, weapons, other equipment and Marines to Russia’s new military hub near Latakia in western Syria, followed by 16 Russian Su-27 fighter aircraft, 12 close-support aircraft, four large Hip troop-transport helicopters and four Hind helicopter gunships. It seems that the US has accepted a minimum presence in Syria so as to share in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence and achieve a strategic gain.

But according to experts, Russia’s stated motivations for its involvement do not match the facts on the ground. Fighting ISIS – which has neither fighter jets nor missile defence systems – fails to explain the sophisticated air defences that the Russians have installed at Hmeimim airbase as well as the announcement that 40 naval combat exercises were due to start in the eastern Mediterranean, including rocket and artillery fire at sea and airborne targets.

Thus Russia’s intervention can be viewed as part of its new maritime strategy, published on 26 July 2015. The new maritime doctrine is a comprehensive state policy for governing all of Russia’s maritime assets, military fleets, civilian fleet, merchant marine and naval infrastructure until 2020.

Russia might also be looking to kill as many birds as possible with one stone. Cases in point: Moscow will now dictate its political will on any future regime in Syria; Iran and Russia have been included in peace talks in Vienna; and the US, Germany and the UK have announced that Assad may retain power.

The Russian intervention came as the Syrian regime was about to fall – it currently controls only 18 percent of the country and its army has exhausted 93 percent of its resources. Even if Assad is removed from power, any nascent regime will have to seriously consider Russia’s role and presence in the country. And although Russia and Iran appear to have a common goal in Syria, Russia’s increased involvement breaks Iran’s monopoly over the future of the country.

Meanwhile, Russia is also expanding its military presence and reviving its military-industrial market. The Russian Defence Ministry is currently working on major deals with Arab Gulf states in order to develop their marine corps, air defence systems, drone technologies, armoured vehicles and signal systems. Russia is also building two nuclear facilities in southern Iran and negotiating with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and Jordan on deals to develop nuclear power.

The recent Russian intervention in Syria was not the first move in that direction. Regional powers have been aware of an increasing Russian influence for some time. Visits to Moscow by Middle Eastern leaders are merely a reflection of Russia’s expanding role in the region.

In short, Russia must now be taken seriously as a major player in the Middle East. 

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