Reconsidering Russian Influence in The Middle East

Published September 9th, 2022 - 06:50 GMT
Russian parade in Syria
Russian (L) and Armenian military personnel, wearing the Saint George ribbon, take part in the Victory Day parade in Syria's northern city of Aleppo, May 9, 2022. (AFP)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has displayed disturbing echoes of its military intervention in Syria.

Vladimir Putin savoured military success by snatching victory from opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime through a ruthless show of air power. The violence of this intervention stamped a brutal flavour on Russia’s regional operations; foreign reporters struggled to find words to convey the devastation of Aleppo wrought by Russia’s air force and the wholesale stripping of its buildings.

Such an abandoned use of force – barring nuclear weapons, so far – has stained Russia’s conduct in Ukraine as the world awaits the latter’s investigation of more than 21,000 war crimes and crimes of aggression to come to light and lucidity. As boasted by Putin, the campaign in Syria was "more effective training for the country's military than drills." 

The Syrian prequel to Ukraine was driven by similar motives: the ruin of al-Assad’s regime risked Russia’s sphere of influence, as did the Westernisation of Ukraine, politically and in terms of security (i.e., the potential of NATO expansion).

Regrettably for Russia, such parallels cease abruptly when considering the nature of the opposition; unlike Syria, Ukrainian military opposition has been decidedly cohesive, supported by an equally cohesive Europe and the steady flow of American largesse.

The thickening of war in Ukraine has implications for Russia’s present and future impact in the Middle East.

An obvious consideration is whether the intense concentration of Russia’s political/military efforts in Ukraine has affected its regional engagement.  Amongst the observable implications has been the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria (and Russian mercenaries from Libya).

Moscow would like to confine the scale of this departure given Russia’s heavy investments in Syria; however, military imperatives in Ukraine might frustrate this ambition.  

Such reports have generated concern in Israel about Iran taking up residence in Russian military bases and operating with more autonomy. A diminished Russian military encourages the Assad regime to invite greater Iranian control over the contested areas of the country; and naturally, this promises greater Israeli activity in Syria.

Moscow’s attempts to muster diplomatic support have been in vain. Despite initial hesitation, a U.N. resolution condemning Russia in March was supported by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. No doubt this change of heart was spurred by stiff conversations between Washington and its Arab partners.

Late and lame diplomatic opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, should not be viewed as an indictment of Russia’s influence in the Middle East nor its relations with regional partners.

The collapse of Russia’s bid to become a major supplier of military hardware in the Middle East may be a more long-term consequence of this war. Firstly, there are now towering environmental complications for purchasing Russian arms because of sanctions. And secondly, Russian military hardware has been tried and found wanting amid ignominious defeats by Ukrainian resistance.  

With the flow of its weapons blocked and their reputation spoiled, Russia’s sizable inroads into the Middle Eastern arms market will retreat.

Evidence and prospects of Russia’s shrinking engagement and influence, however, halts there. This war has also shown the resilience of its influence and support in the region.
Russia-Syria relations have remained predictably steadfast. Syria’s military has even begun recruiting troops from its own ranks to reinforce Russian forces in Ukraine, offering payments dramatically exceeding the monthly salary of a Syrian soldier.  

A notable development engineered by the war has been the improvement of Russia’s relations with Iran, previously stunted by conflicting aspirations in Syria and its function in rivalry between Tehran and Tel Aviv.

Iran’s lavish diplomatic support for Russia has been burdened with its ethos of mistrust towards the West.

As Khamenei gushed to Putin, “In the case of Ukraine, had you not taken the initiative, the other side would have taken the initiative and caused the war. NATO would know no bounds if the way was open to it. And if it wasn’t stopped in Ukraine, it would start the same war sometime later using Crimea as a pretext.”

With both countries now tasting similar economic isolation in the global economy – hopes for a new Iranian deal presently looking misplaced, again – their dependence will grow rather than fade. As such, Tehran is sharing its extensive knowledge of evading international sanctions to assist Russia’s new predicament.

Tehran’s gruelling experiences under sanctions, from lengthy recessions to the indignities of oil smuggling, do not provide an altogether inspiring model for Russia’s future.

Moscow’s acquisition of Iranian-made combat drones, confirmed by US officials in late August, is further testament to deepening Russian-Iranian cooperation.  Whether this move emphasises Iran’s technological prowess, or Russian desperation over its military travails, is moot.

Iran thus has become a key member of the equally exclusive and unenviable club of countries militarily supporting Russian aggression in Ukraine, in lockstep with North Korea.

Russia’s coupling with Iran has upset Israeli hopes that competition between the two in Syria would thin relations.

Although Gulf countries have not broken faith with America, they have coordinated with Russia since the war to keep energy prices buoyant. The UAE energy minister feebly defended such action, citing “the major hike is geopolitical tensions” rather than “supply and demand” as the impetus behind surging global oil prices.

MBS’s cool dismissal of US demands to increase oil production spoke of a greater meeting of interests between Saudi Arabia and Russia than its traditional ally, demonstrating that loyalty to the US does not supplant OPEC+ imperatives.

Russia’s position in the region has not been greatly affected by Ukraine yet. However, the further Russia sinks into Ukraine, the less liable it is to cut loose; and steadily, this will unsettle its power and aspirations in the Middle East.

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