home All, Europe, Feature, Middle East, Politics Winter is coming to the Middle East: Understanding Russia’s Intervention in Syria

Winter is coming to the Middle East: Understanding Russia’s Intervention in Syria

Recently, Russia has made a number of aggressive foreign policy decisions in Syria. When looking in depth, it becomes apparent that these newly assertive moves have the opportunity to generate significant returns to Russia at the expense of significant players in the region.

By reinforcing the Mediterranean Allawite stronghold of Tartus and Lattakia, the Russians will be able to maintain control over the huge Mediterranean gas finds between Egypt, Cyprus, Israel and Lebanon. By reinforcing Egypt’s navy with the latest Mistral ships that were originally built for the Russians by the French, Russia together with Egypt will serve as a very big check to Turkey and Israel in attempting to exert control over these gas fields. Egypt’s dislike for Qatar and Turkey cannot be underestimated, considering that these countries represented the two main supporters of the current military regime’s perceived existential threat – the Muslim Brotherhood- and an alliance with Russia, which will check both Qatar and Turkey would be music to Egypt’s ears. Egypt also continues to be suspicious of the US’ role in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood at the expense of the ruling military regime. No wonder President Sisi has met Putin 5 times in the last year versus the one meeting with president Obama. With Greek Cyprus being a Russian dependency, any Turkish threats to disrupt Cyprus’ finds will be restricted. At the same time Israel will be dependent on Egypt and/or Russia for the monetization of its gas finds. By controlling this potentially game changing gas find, Russia continues to maintain substantial control of the global gas market vis a vis its competitor Qatar.

Furthermore, the primarily Turkish/Qatari/Israeli interest of attempting to create an alternative Oil and Gas supply into Europe to counter the Russian monopoly through the Ukraine has been subverted. By ensuring that Assad remains in power, by maintaining an alliance with a now sanctions free Iran (another major gas producer), and by enlisting Iraq into the mix, Russia’s alliance of these major oil and gas producers creates a significant power center from the Mediterranean to the GCC of oil and gas producers. That alliance keeps Europe’s requirement on Russia’s good graces for a vast sum of its gas supplies intact.

The practical steps to achieve the 2 stated Russian priorities of preserving Assad and defeating ISIS will then be achieved as follows:

  • First the rebel areas that provide access into Syria from Turkey and Jordan will need to be retaken. That will also serve to retake the oilfields that provide funding for some of the rebel groups.

What will Turkey/Saudi/Qatar/USA reaction be? Will there be an attempt to create a no-fly zone? Hillary Clinton has already said it was a good idea. Will Russia accept? Will there be a confrontation?

What is the position of Jordan in this mix? If the CIA trained rebels were being trained in Jordan, is Jordan now on the frontlines of a faceoff with Russia? Does Jordan up the ante and increase disruption to Russian backed Syria from the border, or does it jeopardize its relationship with Saudi if it choses to back down?

  • Second will be to form an alliance with the Syrian Kurds, in order to seal the border with Turkey. What will Turkey’s reaction be? Where will the Iraqi Kurds fall in this mix? Will the Iraqi Kurds of Suleymaniya who typically lean closer to Iran split with the US/Turkey leaning Barzani’s on this issue? There already exist power struggles between the Suly Kurds versus the Barzanis along these lines as evidenced by their campaign to disallow President Massoud Barzani to continue in his role.
  • The 3rd piece of the puzzle will be to cut off ISIS Syria from ISIS Iraq.

While both the western coalition and the Russian coalition want ISIS destroyed, they will both be careful not to remove a potential adversary that may serve as a check to their rival coalition. We also know that there are no moderate rebel groups fighting today in Syria. If Russia makes gains on these rebel groups, will they run to the arms of ISIS?

The GCC obviously feel that their relevance as a major producer of Oil and Gas will have been diminished in the face of this new Iran/Iraq/Mediterranean oil and gas behemoth whose security is underwritten by a global superpower (maybe two if China is included)
The GCC must be asking itself that if the West could see this new regional behemoth emerge, why did the US and the west bend backwards to bring Iran out of the cold into the international fold? Why are French and European companies falling over backwards to do business in Iran while the ink on the nuclear deal has not yet dried? How is it that American and European Oil companies continue to do business in southern Iraq with the aim of increasing oil production capacity significantly?

This while the GCC is mired in a fight with Iran to maintain control over its territory in Yemen and Bahrain. In the meantime, not only did the west make a deal with Iran, they also indirectly supported Iran’s Qasem Suleimany in a fight against ISIS in Iraq; which naturally made their support for the effort wane. Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies feel rightly insecure about what’s happening in its back yard and rightly so.

Israel is also asking itself why the whole world allowed Iran to sign this deal, and follow it up by giving this new Russian alliance nuclear cover? Where does this leave Israel? Hizbollah’s activities may now be protected by the Russian Airforce, and Israel’s ability to roam the Syrian Lebanese skies has been restricted. As America retreats from the Middle East and Russia fills in a huge vacuum, will Russia and its Shiite coalition be as willing to give Israel so much leeway in its dealings with the Arabs? Or will it check its American guaranteed freedom of movement and finally bring it back from being a rogue nation defying international law as it pleases? There are those in Israel that are justified in speculating that t has been handed a strategic blow by the Russian entry into Syria

The ideologues behind the United States invasion of Iraq, must be wondering how the policy of intervention in the region that was meant to weaken Iran and strengthen the position of the United States in the region, has ended up weakening the United States’ Allies (GCC and Israel) while handing the region on a platter to Iran and Russia after orchestrating an international de-isolation of Iran.

If you can tell who the most worried are, by the voices screaming loudest, then Israel, Saudi and the republicans are extremely concerned by the turn of events in Syria; and it seems they have good reason to be.

Wherever this ends, it is likely to get worse before it gets better; but regardless the outcome, Russia has clearly positioned itself to improve its global strategic prospects at the expense of important regional players, who may be concerned that this Russian move has cost them dearly and taken them by surprise. As we wait for the chips to fall where they may, we must be prepared…. Winter is Coming!