Will Western-Russian Confrontation Shake the Middle East?
Regardless of how things play out in Ukraine over the near-term, it appears all but certain that Russia and the West will find themselves locked in a protracted confrontation for years to come. Will that confrontation be global or confined to Europe? All-encompassing or limited? Regulated by some residual rules or totally anarchic? As answers to these questions begin to crystallize, the Middle East will be a key region to watch.
The Syrian civil war and the Iran dossier provide good test cases for assessing how the new Russian-Western confrontation could affect the Middle East. In Syria, Russia and the West have in recent years competed for influence, deconflicted to avoid clashes, while cooperating selectively on counter-terrorism, humanitarian issues, and a political process under U.N. auspices. On Iran, they have managed to insulate cooperation on the nuclear dossier even amid growing tensions surrounding Ukraine, yet failed to join forces in tackling a broader regional arms-control agenda.
Russia will likely seek to avoid coming to blows with NATO forces in Syria while its military remains fully committed inside Ukraine. However, Russia’s previous nod to U.S. counter-terrorism strikes in Syria, or acquiescence to limited flows of international humanitarian aid into the country’s northwest, could change. Restoration of the Iran nuclear deal might still succeed, but additional efforts on regional arms control could take a backseat amid Russian equivocation and U.S. preoccupations elsewhere. Overall, the Syrian and Iranian dossiers suggest that heightened Russian-Western confrontation will likely manifest in the Middle East through a mix of aversion to direct military confrontation, yet intensified competition and shrinking opportunities for cooperation.
Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015 laid the foundation for a sustained military presence in the Levant. Its anti-access/area-denial deployments at the Tartus naval port and the Khmeimim air base allowed the Russian military to establish a buffer zone on its southern flank and signal that it has the capacity to push back against NATO forces outside of Europe. Russian exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean last summer, which involved Tu-22M3 bombers and MiG-31K interceptors with Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missiles, served as a reminder that Russia can quickly position serious naval and aerial assets to Syria. Ten days prior to its invasion of Ukraine, Russia redeployed the same systems to the area. Such Russian military muscle-flexing has complicated the operations of NATO’s navies and air forces, given the potential for unsafe and unprofessional intercepts or aggressive actions by Russian forces. While 2021 saw a reduction in incidents of brinkmanship between Russian and U.S. troops in northeast Syria, the United States complained about increased occurrences of Russian harassment in the weeks prior to the invasion of Ukraine.
Now that Russia has the bulk of its active-duty military committed to Ukraine and faces a war of attrition, the risk of it picking a fight with U.S. forces in Syria in the near future should be lowered. Though Russia technically maintains the capacity to “lash out” in Syria with existing aerial and naval assets, it is in a weaker position to do so since invading Ukraine, where it now desperately seeks to gain momentum. Reports of Russia recruiting Syrian fighters for urban warfare in Ukraine are indicative of the shortages faced by the Russian military. Against that backdrop, collision with U.S. or Turkish forces in northern Syria would now come with far greater risks to Russia. Recently, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie indicated that Russian forces in Syria have shown no signs of intent to escalate tensions with U.S. troops there since Russia invaded Ukraine.
While we might see such Russian risk aversion in the immediate term, it is not a given that Moscow’s acquiescence to U.S. counter-terrorism operations will stand the test of time. U.S.-Russian counter-terrorism cooperation was always hindered by stark disagreements over the anti-Assad armed opposition, but Russia usually refrained from challenging U.S. air access for counter-terrorism strikes. Deconfliction channels for air security and ground operations enabled the U.S. military to safely operate within specific boundaries, though the Pentagon was adamant that such mechanisms did not constitute cooperation with Russia.
Just a few weeks prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. military killed Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in an airstrike, reportedly informing its Russian counterpart of the planned operation in advance. As Mackenzie noted, “Sustained [counter-terrorism] pressure is what prevents groups from being able to grow, to train, to think about plotting beyond their immediate survival, for example up and down the Euphrates River Valley in Iraq and Syria.” Should terrorist cells remain in Syria, and even regain strength, America’s ability to maintain such sustained pressure is not cast in stone. Russia, all-consumed by the Ukraine battlefield, might refrain from challenging U.S. forces in Syria in the near-term — given resource constraints, risk aversion, and the fact that it is far from obvious how military action on its southern flank would help it turn the tide in Ukraine. Taking the longer view, however, the U.S.-Russian deconfliction mechanism in Syria could become a victim of their intensified and protracted confrontation.
Heightened Russian-Western friction could also adversely affect the situation in Syria in other ways. Going forward, Western capitals will be eager to further complicate Russia’s efforts at normalizing Syria’s position in the region, since such normalization would enhance Russia’s own net gains by easing the burden of shouldering reconstruction costs for the war-ravaged country. The West will also be hard-pressed to ease pressure on the Syria dossier at the U.N. Security Council, notwithstanding rumors to the contrary. Further, neither Russia nor Western countries should be inclined to see their Syrian partners yield in negotiations led by the constitutional committee, whose “small body” is presently convening in Geneva.
It is also conceivable that Russia might stop cooperation on the humanitarian dossier. Last summer, the U.N. Security Council unanimously agreed to extend the mandate for the transport of aid to Syria through a crossing on the border with Turkey, adopting Resolution 2585. In July, that resolution will be up for renewal and a Russian veto could precipitate a crippling humanitarian crisis for millions of Syrian civilians. Hopefully, Moscow will calculate that the last thing it needs on its hands now is a humanitarian crisis in Syria. Government-controlled parts of the country — where intermittent instability has caused headaches for the Russians — will likely have to contend with reduced Russian wheat supplies as a result of the war in Ukraine. It is not a given that Russia will want to accelerate a wider food crisis by shutting down cross-border aid, especially if an endgame in Ukraine remains elusive. Still, some observers recommend an overhaul of U.S. Syria policy toward a “freeze and build” strategy, one that pivots away from tactical emergency assistance toward strategic stabilization across northern Syria. Amid such an overhaul, Western “early recovery” projects in government-held Syria might appear less politically palatable. Such projects were endorsed as part of a package-deal compromise in Resolution 2585, following years of Western agonizing over the concern that such aid would effectively constitute “development” assistance to a pariah state. Going forward, any and all forms of humanitarian assistance to Syria could well be looked at again through the lens of competition with Russia.
In past years, Russian-Western engagement on the Iran nuclear dossier remained remarkably insulated from broader tensions, whether during President Barack Obama’s second term, or through 2021. Even as Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, its diplomats and Western counterparts proceeded with talks in Vienna, aimed at restoring the Iran nuclear deal, largely uninterrupted. Whether such insulation can continue was thrown into doubt when Moscow surprised Washington and irritated Iran by demanding written U.S. guarantees that Russia’s trade, investment, and military-technical cooperation with Tehran would not be hindered by the sanctions imposed against it over Ukraine. Russia appears to have walked back its pushy rhetoric since, yet restoration of the nuclear deal is still hanging in the balance.
Even if Russia and its counterparts can push that deal across the finish line, tensions in Europe could affect all sides’ desire and bandwidth to prevent further nuclear or missile proliferation in the Middle East. In the past, U.S.-Russian cooperation was instrumental for arms-control gains in the region. Though Moscow and Washington often disagreed on the right balance between carrots and sticks in dealing with nonproliferation-averse players, past initiatives — such as the Arms Control and Regional Security working group in the 1990s, or the Glion/Geneva consultations in 2013 and 2014 — benefited from U.S. leadership and Russian support. In the absence of U.S. leadership, initiatives usually struggled for relevance. The U.N. conference on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East is a case in point.
Amid new confrontation in Europe, Russia might be less inclined to support Western-led initiatives for arms control in the Middle East. To be sure, its ambivalent stance on the Iranian missile and proxy threats is hardly new and has been rooted in the calculation that those can play into Moscow’s hands. Tehran’s “offensive defense” strategy has been viewed by the Kremlin as convenient, in that it pins down U.S. attention while allowing Moscow to pose as chief regional intermediary. Iran or its proxies overstepping and inviting outright military escalation would not be in Russia’s interest now, while its own diplomatic and military resources are consumed by Putin’s Ukraine gambit. At the same time, Moscow will see preciously little incentive to work with the West toward even the most modest and incremental regional arms-control process anytime soon.
On the back of the Ukraine war, Russia’s lukewarm disposition toward supporting arms control in the Middle East could be compounded by reduced U.S. bandwidth. Already in recent years, regional states’ efforts at balancing between the United States, Russia, and China were largely driven by perceptions of limited U.S. attentiveness to, or unpredictable policies in the Middle East. Washington’s perceived handling of the Iran nuclear dossier and insufficient push-back against Iranian proxies, as well as its failure to turn the tide in the Syrian civil war, unnerved the Arab Gulf states and Israel. U.S. military drawdowns from Afghanistan, the Gulf, and Iraq further amplified the perception of an American pivot to the east. Having long sought opportunities for freeing up resources for the Indo-Pacific theatre, the United States might feel even greater compulsion to realize a low-cost posture in the Middle East, now that the war in Ukraine has ignited great-power competition in Europe.
Could the combination of Russian equivocation and U.S. distraction compel regional adversaries to pursue arms control and trust-building more proactively? It was the perception of U.S. disengagement from the region that partially motivated several Arab states to normalize relations with Israel over the past eighteen months. The Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership last August and Iranian-Saudi talks were further indicators of a growing realization among regional states that they need to talk to their adversaries rather than just shore up deterrent capabilities. Developments since the Ukraine invasion — be it the recent Iranian strikes on Israeli targets in Erbil, the suspension of Iranian-Saudi talks, or Friday’s Houthi attack on an oil depot in the Saudi city of Jeddah — raise doubts over the robustness of that realization, however. Meanwhile, the United States warns that Russia (and China) will seek to capitalize on any opportunities afforded by perceptions of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East amid intensified great-power confrontation.
Don’t Be Optimistic
Assuming that Russia and the West have entered a new era of protracted and heightened confrontation, their appetite for taking that contest to the Middle East, insulating cooperation on urgent matters there, and freeing up resources to stay engaged in the region will impact stability for better or worse. In that context, Syria and Iran offer useful test cases for assessing what to expect. In Syria, Russian concerns with “overstretching” itself should lead its military to refrain from escalating tensions in the foreseeable future. Humanitarian aid flows, U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, and whatever is left of the political process, however, could all suffer as Syria turns into an arena of heightened Russian-Western competition. Regarding Iran, the soon-to-be-decided fate of the nuclear deal will be indicative of a joint Russian-Western ability to insulate regional arms control and nonproliferation in the future. Whether the Middle East can move forward on these issues will also depend on Moscow’s disposition and Washington’s bandwidth to pay attention.
Hanna Notte, Ph.D. is a senior research associate with the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, where she focuses on arms control and security issues involving Russia, the Middle East, their intersection, and implications for U.S. and European policy. She holds a doctorate and M.Phil. in international relations from Oxford University and a B.A. in social and political sciences from Cambridge University. Her contributions have appeared in The Nonproliferation Review, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and Carnegie, among others.