Russia is set to maintain an indefinite presence in its airbase in Syria’s western Latakia province, from where it has been carrying out airstrikes in support of its sole remaining regional ally, the regime in Damascus.
Following the Kremlin’s decisive intervention in the Syrian conflict last September 30, Vladimir Putin lambasted the western powers at the United Nations for, as he sees it, wrecking havoc in the Middle East by supporting the opponents of the various authoritarian regimes there. Conversely he characterized his own country’s intervention in Syria as a necessary move to preserve the stability of the region and combat terrorism.
Part of the move was clearly to ensure that Russia did not lose its only Arab ally. In the post-Arab Spring order Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has remained one of the few leaders in the revolting Arab countries who wasn’t overthrown, like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, or forced to step-down, like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
Russia has clearly gained a lot from the failure of the revolts and the reinforcement of authoritarian orders that followed those failed region-wide uprisings. To understand trends in the Middle East it’s important to understand the political situations in the three Middle Eastern bellwether states: Egypt, Iran and Turkey. In all three countries Russia has been gaining significant influence.After a seven month fallout with Turkey following the November 27 shoot-down incident (which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apologized for in a letter sent to Moscow in June) the Kremlin has began to restore ties with that country. Turkey has even agreed to cooperate with the Russians in Syria despite their long-held aversion to Russia’s ally in Damascus. This comes as Turkey is becoming more distrustful of, and estranged from, the US – which has been home to Fethullah Gulen, the cleric Turkey accuses of orchestrating the failed coup last month, since 1999. Washington has expressed worry over Turkey’s post-coup crackdown while Moscow simply welcomed the restoration of ties and spoke out against the coup attempt as it took place. Something Erdogan personally thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for during his recent visit to Russia which, incidentally, was his first trip abroad since the failed coup.
We may see a situation develop in the near future whereby Turkey will enhance its already substantial economic ties with Russia and perhaps even cooperate more with them in the military arena given their distrust of Washington and desire to avoid relying solely on its NATO allies. We saw an earlier indication of this when Turkey sought to buy long-range Chinese-made anti-aircraft missiles two years ago only to be warned by American and European companies who have joint military projects that their “partnership in certain fields will be over” if they purchased such missiles. Consequently that deal was scrapped, but the fact that Turkey was and has been seeking, for some time now, to diversify its military and bolster its domestic arms industry is very telling (see also “Turkey’s growing domestic arms industry“, offiziere.ch, 21.05.2016).
A not too dissimilar trend has been unfolding with Egypt in recent years. While a long-time US ally, the current regime of President Fatah el-Sisi in Cairo – born of the July 2013 military coup he led before becoming president – knows it cannot rely on Washington given its authoritarianism and rampant human rights abuses. So, Sisi has enhanced ties with Moscow, reportedly ordering a fleet of 46 Russian MiG-29 Fulcrums to diversify its air force, which mostly consists of American technology, so it can remain a formidable power if the day comes when Washington threatens to place an arms embargo on Cairo as part of an attempt to sanction it for its abuses.
On top of this, Iran and Russia are working more closely in the region. In a meeting in early August Putin and the Iranian President Hasan Rouhani met in the Azerbaijani capital Baku for a summit in which Putin said that Moscow-Tehran relations have reached the point of strategic cooperation from the economy to politics. Neither of them want to see the Syrian regime toppled nor the Americans and their NATO allies becoming the predominant foreign power in the region. Also Russia is in the process of delivering Iran advanced S-300 long-range air defense missiles and possibly even a sophisticated fleet of Su-30 Flanker air superiority jet fighters. Possession of both weapon systems would substantially enhance Iran’s ability to defend its airspace and deter adversaries.Strategic cooperation between Moscow and Tehran was aptly demonstrated on August 16 when Russian Tu-22 supersonic bombers, along with Su-34 Fullback fighter bombers, took off from the Hamedan airbase in the western Iranian city of Hamadan and bombed targets in Syria. Basing these strike aircraft in Iran shortened the flight distance of that bombing run from approximately 2,000 to 700 kilometers. The aircraft were also, notably, escorted by Su-30 and Su-35 Flanker air superiority jet fighters based in the Russian airbase in Khmeimim near Latakia in western Syria throughout that strike. That was the first time Russian aircraft operated from Iran throughout this campaign and underscores the extent of the two countries increased cooperation in recent months.
While Russian power and influence in the region may not be predominant, it certainly is a lot stronger and more formidable than it was just a short few months ago.