January 13, 2017

Russia’s Middle East Policy and the Trump Administration

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, center, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, attend a joint news conference after their talks in Moscow, Russia, Dec. 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

With the Trump administration about to take office, the Russian position in the Middle East appears quite strong. Russian military forces (along with Iran and other allies) have helped the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad drive its opponents out of Aleppo. Russian-Turkish relations have improved dramatically from their low point following the November 2015 downing of a Russian fighter jet by a Turkish F-16, as Turkish relations with the United States and the West more generally have deteriorated. Russian-Iranian-Turkish negotiations on a cease-fire for Syria appear to be bypassing Washington altogether.

Indeed, compared to Washington’s troubled relations with many Middle Eastern states, Russia appears to have improved relations with many of them even despite the misgivings that some have about Russian support for Assad and close ties to Tehran.

Although hearings with some of Trump’s Cabinet nominees suggest concerns about Russia, Trump continues to have a positive view about the prospects for U.S- Russian relations. Many of Trump’s top foreign policy personnel picks see Russia as an ally against radical Sunni jihadists and less of a threat than Iran. Indeed, Trump himself has called for the United States to work with Russia in Syria to fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, in particular.

As for Russia’s view of the incoming administration, President Vladimir Putin appreciates that Trump has expressed little interest in democracy or human rights in the Middle East (or Russia, for that matter). Truly believing that the expression of concern about these issues by the Obama administration, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in particular, underlay an attempt to overthrow him during the massive demonstrations against his rule that took place in 2011-12, Putin has exhibited no such concerns about Trump.

Trump and some of his advisors have expressed hostility toward the Iranian nuclear accord that the Obama administration spent so much time and effort negotiating. It is not clear that Trump will “tear up” the agreement or render it inoperable as he has suggested he might do, but if he does, Putin will not be especially upset. While the accord was being negotiated, numerous Russian sources expressed concern that it would lead to an overall improvement in Iranian-U.S. relations, and that this would make Russia less important for Iran. Obviously, this did not occur. The Trump administration “tearing up the treaty” would not only ensure that Iranian-U.S. relations remain poor, but would worsen U.S. relations with its European allies who value the accord – something Putin would welcome. And even if Trump doesn’t tear up the treaty, Putin does not need to worry about Iranian-U.S. relations getting better than they are now.

Russia’s position in the Middle East is likely to remain strong because Trump does not seem to regard Moscow as a competitor in the region. Still, there are several things that could go wrong for Russian foreign policy toward the Middle East.

First is the possibility that the Trump-Putin “bromance” could quickly turn sour. Every other attempt at improving U.S.-Russian relations has started hopefully, but ended in disappointment due to differences over third countries, such as Serbia and Kosovo, Georgia, and Ukraine. This could easily happen again. And given that both Putin and Trump seem quick to take offense, a deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations could occur far more rapidly than occurred under previous U.S. presidents.

But whether this occurs or not, there are other problems in the Middle East that Russia faces –even if the Trump administration concludes that countering the spread of Russian influence in the Middle East is not a U.S. priority.

One problem is that Putin does not seem capable of actually resolving any of the region’s many conflicts. While Moscow now claims to be working on a cease-fire with Iran and Turkey in Syria, the Syrian opposition groups he seeks to recruit for this endeavor have recently balked. Iran also seems to have grave misgivings about Turkey’s actions, as indicated by Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Baharam Ghasemi recently denouncing “Turkey’s deviationist positions on Syria” after the trilateral Russian-Turkish-Iranian meeting in Moscow in December 2016. In response to Israeli and Gulf Arab state fears about the role Iran is playing in Syria, Moscow is reported to have told officials from these countries they are better off with Russian forces present in Syria because they serve as a check on Iran. The Iranians, though, are undoubtedly aware of the reports that Russian officials are making these arguments, and cannot be pleased about them.

Right now, it appears that Russian-Iranian-Turkish cooperation on a Syrian cease-fire is excluding not just the United States and the West, but the Gulf Arab states – especially Saudi Arabia and Qatar – that have supported the Syrian opposition against Assad. If Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara really can arrange a cease-fire, Riyadh and Doha will be confronted with the choice of continuing to support a weakened Syrian opposition on their own with little chance of success, or having to accept the reality of a victorious Assad regime with firm external backing. But if Moscow is unable to manage Iranian-Turkish rivalry and the conflict continues, Ankara is likely to see Riyadh and Doha as its primary allies in Syria.

This points to another problem. While many Sunni Arab states and the West are rightfully concerned about what will happen if Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime effectively defeat the Syrian opposition, their doing so will lead to difficulties for Moscow, too. Without a common enemy, a struggle for influence in Syria between Moscow on the one hand and Tehran and its allies on the other might well occur, not least of all because of long-standing Iranian mistrust of Russia. Iranian media regularly points out that the Russian Empire seized the South Caucasus (what is now Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan) from Iran in the early 19th century, czarist forces intervened in Iran to crush the constitutional revolution in the first decade of the 20th century, the Soviet Union promoted secessionism in Iran’s northwest after both World War I and World War II, the Soviet Union (along with Britain) occupied Iran during World War II, and Moscow supported former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. The retelling of such events is meant to remind Iranians of Russian perfidy. Russians, for their part, see Iranians as ungrateful and duplicitous, and constantly fear that an improvement in Iranian ties to the West (even if this does not seem imminent) will diminish Russian influence in the region.

Similarly, although Moscow claims to be friends both with Israel and the Palestinians, it seems unable and unwilling to do anything about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And while Moscow claims to want good relations with Iran and the Sunni Arabs of the Gulf, the only thing it seems willing to do in response to tension between them is to offer to sell arms to both. The Gulf Arab states may tolerate Russia being annoyingly evasive about its position for fear that criticizing Moscow will result in it siding even more with their nemesis, Iran.

Putin will undoubtedly play an active and assertive role in the Middle East whether Russian-U.S. relations are good or bad. And it is highly probable that the Trump administration, like previous ones, will make its share of mistakes in the region that Moscow can take advantage of. But Moscow’s being alert to taking advantage of any new U.S. mistakes provides no guarantee against making mistakes of its own. Though Middle Eastern governments may quietly acquiesce to Russia engineering an unwelcome but stable outcome in Syria, one consequence is that public opinion in some predominantly Sunni states – especially since the recent battle of Aleppo – has turned increasingly anti-Russian. In the Gulf Arab states, however, dislike for Moscow’s intervention in Syria is mixed with grudging respect for Russia as being a more reliable ally to Assad than the Obama administration has been to the Syrian opposition, which the United States claims to support. Yet while this trend may be welcome to Moscow, what is not is growing anti-Russian sentiment from its supposed ally, Iran. This was most recently expressed when crowds shouted anti-Russian chants at the funeral of former Iranian President Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani in Tehran. The rise of anti-Russian feeling in the Sunni Arab world and Iran does not bode well for Russia’s long-term influence in the Middle East.

Mark N. Katz is a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.