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Russia and Syria: How Moscow views the Middle East today

  • The Jerusalem Post
  • 2 Jul 2019

Russia has been wrestling with its Middle East policy amid US-Iran tensions, hoping to make Moscow appear as the stable and mature force as others squabble. Russia routinely portrays its policy as consistent, while asserting that the US and its support for various policies have plunged places like Libya into anarchy and chaos. In addition, Russia attempts to argue that its role is in line with international law while others may be disrespecting the “sovereignty” of states or violating various norms.

Russia’s embassy in Israel puts out a weekly newsletter that is particularly interesting, revealing Moscow’s views of the region and Israel-Russia relations. This is important, because it hints at some of its long-term policies in Syria and how it views US-Iran tensions.

In the recent newsletter covering the period June 21-27, it mentioned that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be in Osaka for the G20 and that he would have bilateral meetings with counterparts from Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the US. “Moscow has watched with concern as the US has ratcheted up tensions around Iran for over a year,” the statement says. Washington has leveled “baseless charges” at the Iran deal and taken actions that are “intended to provoke Iran.” Russia says that the US is trying to dictate policies to others, but that Moscow “stands in full solidarity with the friendly people of Iran and its government.” America takes “reckless” action that could destabilize the Middle East, the Russians say.

However, Moscow sent Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolai Patrushev to Israel to meet with National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and US National Security Adviser John Bolton on June 24. They discussed the region, and Russia said it was committed to the sovereignty of Syria. Moscow believes the Syrian conflict has “no military solution” and they want to reduce tensions in “Israeli-Iranian relations” through reciprocal steps. Syria must not become a place of geopolitical confrontation.

Russia rejected rhetoric by the US that blames Iran for terrorism and said Tehran is an “ally and partner” of Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the US was focusing on Iran and that this obsession could harm the larger region. Moscow, in contrast, was supposedly working for dialogue between Arab countries and Tehran, and argued that Syria should be reinstated into the Arab League. Lavrov also said that Russia was opposed to “any attempts to move the entire Syrian discussion onto an anti-Iran track.”

A SECOND STATEMENT on June 18 made in the city of Ufa by Sergey Naryshkin, director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, during a meeting of national security officials from around the world also included comments on Russia’s regional view. He asserted that conflicts today were “hybrid” in nature, meaning they constituted “social, economic and spiritual spheres as well.” Today, with increased globalization and new technologies, this is important to understand even more. “Naturally, under these conditions, the role of non-military tools in interstate relations is growing – which, however, does not deny the importance of possessing powerful armed forces.

“It’s an open secret that over the past several years, [sanctions] became a favorite method of US policy… The most recent dramatic example is the inclusion into the American terrorist lists of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps [IRGC] – the very organization that has made a great contribution to the fight against the Islamic State on the territory of Syria and Iraq,” Naryshkin said. The US, he said, was being “extremely destructive” in these policies, and was aggressive and unpredictable. He hinted that sanctions were forcing countries to “rearrange their economic activity and incur extra costs. Global chains of production and delivery of raw materials, goods and services break down, affecting negatively the whole of the world economy.”

This has ramifications. “The use of the American currency is now associated with such serious risks that an increasing number of states justifiably think of looking for alternative tools for foreign trade operations, and step-by-step move away from using the dollar in international payments.”

He slammed the West for downgrading recognition of Russia’s role in the defeat of the Nazis and also the Western support for drug use. “Various programs promoting the rights of LGBT community and spreading the ideas of radical feminism are implemented in order to accelerate the process of diluting the notion of sex identity, the values of family and marriage.”

Although these comments were not directly related to Russia’s role in the Middle East, they show that Russia sees itself as a different civilizational model than the West, connected more closely to more conservative countries.

In the speech, Russia claimed that propaganda spreading on social media was used to “justify possible foreign interference in case it becomes necessary. One of the most illustrative examples of the realization of such a scenario can be seen in Venezuela. “Moscow slammed the situation where “selective accusations of terrorism support are a favorite pretext to organize international pressure on regimes that are ‘out of favor.’ No less irresponsible are attempts to divide terrorists into ‘bad’ and ‘good’ – in other words into friends and foes, while manipulating both of them.”

Russia also alleged that in the Middle East, this has led to “anarchy and chaos,” pointing to Libya as an example. “Now, many in the West repent for what they have done, facing the flow of migrants from the former Jamahiriya [system of Muammar Gaddafi].” The West spent billions in Syria and didn’t distinguish between supporting extremists and moderate rebels. “One may possibly expect that after abandoning the project of establishing a ‘Caliphate’ in Syria and Iraq, the jihadist front would move somewhere farther from Europe: to Afghanistan or Central Asia, in particular.” Moscow claims it is concerned that “our Western partners led by the USA are gradually rejecting basic rules and multilateral modes even in such important questions of strategic stability as arms and WMD control.”

NONE OF WHAT Russia has said in these last statements is entirely new. Russia has often said it rejects US support for Syrian rebels, or US involvement in Syria. It has warned against the spread of “chaos” and asserted that Western claims of support for democracy have led to instability. Putin gave an interview to the Financial Times this month in which he rejected “liberalism,” which he said has become obsolete.

Russia’s goal is to present itself as the key mediator in conflicts such as Syria and appear to be an alternative model to the West or the US. It does this by trumpeting its consistent foreign policy. In a sense, it also argues that, although in the West its support of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad was condemned as supporting a crackdown on dissent and the bombing of cities, Russia was correct in its overall portrayal of the Syrian rebels as being infiltrated by instability and terrorists.

Russia also wants to balance its various allies and partners. For instance, it has brokered agreements in Syria to stop a regime offensive into Idlib where Turkish forces are located. Russia also says that it has discussed “Russian-Israeli cooperation in fighting terrorism; issues related to ensuring the safety of Russian citizens in Israel; ways to deepen ties between the law enforcement agencies, special services and defense agencies; as well as other issues on bilateral, regional, and international agenda.” Russia understands Israel’s concerns about Syria. This is a corollary to its messages to the Middle East.

Today, Russia is increasing its influence. This includes the conference it held at Ufa and also Putin’s meetings at summits in central Asia earlier this month. Russia is cultivating ties not only with Iran but also with China and Turkey, seeking to build a more comprehensive partnership that includes key regional powers and global economies, all looking at certain issues similarly, and mostly opposed to US hegemony. The idea is that as we approach 30 years after the Cold War ended and Russia was plunged into its own internal instability, the world has changed. Russia also wants to be the go-to for countries that require it to help reduce tensions in places like Syria. It wants to be an alternative to the US and show that it plays a constructive role.

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