Moscow to the Arabs: Iran is our top ally

Arab-Russian Forum convenes in Moscow next week in the midst of the battle for Syria

Raghida Dergham

Published: Updated:

The Arab-Russian Forum will convene at the ministerial level in Moscow next week, in the midst of the battle for Syria amid growing Russian-Turkish tensions and increasing talk of Saudi and Gulf ground intervention in Syria. The Russian foreign minister will be very clear in drawing the strategic frameworks for Russian policies in the Middle East, and will insist on an agenda that Arab ministers are unlikely to find compatible with Arab priorities.

Sergei Lavrov will not soften his rhetoric just because he will be playing host, because the broad features of Russia’s Middle Eastern policy, as drafted by President Putin, are not subject to negotiations from Moscow’s viewpoint. If the Arab ministers still believe it will be possible to induce a radical change in Russian policy, then they will hit a solid wall and perhaps even condemnation because this will be seen as tampering with Russian national interests.

These days, the Russian mood is stubborn and rigid, yet Russian diplomacy believes there are ways to soften relations with the Gulf countries despite the rift over Syria. Russia also believes that having special relations with Egypt is a crucial part of its goals in the Middle East, with one eye on Turkey. Meanwhile, Moscow is determined to win the battle for Aleppo at any cost. It does not take seriously the international anti-ISIS coalition in Syria, which it sees as futile.

Russia also wants to let everyone know that its relations with Iran are not affected by anything. So, faced with all this Russian clarity, what will the GCC foreign ministers take with them to Moscow? Is there a single Arab agenda in the Arab-Russian forum? Or will Arab foreign ministers take their differences with them to the Russian capital and leave without making any achievement? Perhaps it is worthwhile for Arab ministers to understand Russia’s military and political thinking before the meeting.

Bone of contention

Syria is a key issue of contention, especially in military terms, in light of Russia’s insistence on settling the battle for Aleppo in the regime’s favor. According to well-informed Russian sources, airstrikes will not stop. Ground operations in partnership with the regime and its allied militias will not relent until Aleppo is secured and supply routes to Turkey are cut off. Moscow has only clung on further to this strategy after Turkey hinted at a ground operation in Syria, before downplaying it days later.

Moscow believes severing routes between Syria and Turkey cuts off supplies it accuses Ankara of providing to terrorist groups, which are not confined to ISIS and the Nusra Front according to the Russian definition. Moscow believes helping the regime restore control of Aleppo would boost its morale and allow it to continue fighting the Russian war against Islamist groups it classes as terrorist groups. Aleppo is therefore key to the strategy pursued by Russia, which will not stop bombing it for the sake of the Vienna process created by Russia or for fear of European or American reactions.

The contrast is clear between the European reaction and the U.S. reaction. Europe fears Russian policies and their implications, including further refugee influx to its shores. Russian diplomacy refers to what it calls Russian-American accord on a roadmap for Syria, which apparently ignores the resurgent cold war between the two countries on more than one issue, including the Middle East. The Vienna Process, which includes a timetable for a ceasefire and elections, is part of this roadmap as seen by Moscow. But Russian diplomacy has different plans when it comes to the war on ISIS, Nusra, and other groups.

If the Arab ministers still believe it will be possible to induce a radical change in Russian policy, then they will hit a solid wall, perhaps even condemnation

Raghida Dergham

First of all, the battle over what constitutes a terrorist group and what constitutes an armed opposition group is an exercise in semantics. The real Russian point of view is that the regime in Damascus is the legitimate regime, and that the armed opposition is illegitimate. Therefore, who is a terrorist and who is opposition is only part of the elasticity necessary in diplomacy, and is not a serious issue. Moscow understands the extent of U.S. support for the armed opposition, which Washington has often questioned, sometimes arming rebels and at others abandoning them.

Second, Russian diplomacy believes U.S. pledges to crush ISIS in Syria as an empty promise. For one thing, Moscow believes, crushing ISIS can only be done in collaboration with the regime in Damascus and its allies on the ground. Therefore, the divergence the U.S. and Russian understanding of what it would take to defeat ISIS is radical: One side believes it would be possible by removing Bashar al-Assad, because he is an obstacle to mobilizing Sunni support against ISIS, while the other side believes I would be only possible by working with Assad and his militias with Russian air cover.

For this reason, Moscow has not welcomed Arab ground forces even if their remit is to fight ISIS in Syria under U.S. leadership of the international coalition. Moscow is committed to the end to the Assad regime, and is shrugging off accusations of bombing the opposition rather than ISIS. It does not care that it is giving the impression of rejecting Arab assistance against “Sunni terrorism”, fearing this could weaken or topple Assad.

There are two views regarding Arab military involvement in Syria: Some say there is no option but to deploy Arab-Islamic ground forces to be the boots on the grounds that the U.S. will not provide. Otherwise, Russia, Iran, and the regime in Damascus will achieve total victory in Syria and eradicate the Syrian opposition.

The other view holds that it would be a trap for Saudi and Emirati forces, because Washington, even if it becomes implicated, would leave halfway down the road as it is its habit, and because it is too late to change the Syrian equation after Russia intervened and decided to settle the battle in favor of the Syrian regime.

There are also the Turkish and Kurdish factors at play. Washington backs the Kurds in Iraq being the boots on the ground of the anti-ISIS coalition there, and is sympathetic to Kurdish ambitions but not to the extent of supporting an independent Kurdistan spanning the Kurdish communities of Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey, at least not for now.

The red line

For its part, Ankara sees Kurdish statehood as a red line since it would impact large parts of Turkey. President Erdogan is intent on fighting Kurdish groups in Syria, some of which he sees as terrorist organizations and some as allies of the Assad regime.

Russia is pleased by the Kurds’ military role that benefits the regime in Damascus and Russian strategy in Syria, and is wagering that Washington would pressure Ankara to tone down its threats of ground operations in Syria against Kurds. Russia is hoping NATO would not be involved and implicated, despite the fact that Turkey is a NATO member and there are certain obligations according to the alliance’s charter.

Russia, for its part, happy with contributions Kurdish military in favor of the regime in Damascus and in favor of its strategy in Syria, which is betting that Washington would press Ankara to soften unit pedaling ground intervention in Syria, the prosecution of the Kurds. Bet that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would not descend will not be compromised despite the fact that Turkey is a member in it and there's obligations under the charter. Russia is also betting on American apathy vis-à-vis its policies in Syria to defuse growing European criticism of the Russian role, bombardment, and displacement of refugees in the direction of Europe, which some believe is a deliberate Russian policy.

Amid all this, Russian diplomacy sees relations with Turkey especially as concerns Syria from the lens of the personal hostility between the Tsar Putin and the Sultan Erdogan. However, there are factors involved that certainly go beyond the two men’s characters, and have to do with the ideological and religious orientations each has.

Indeed, Putin believes the rise of Sunni Islamism is a threat to Russia, and sees Erdogan as an incubator of Islamism, be it moderate or militant. For his part, Erdogan has seen himself as the sultan of political Islam who wants to restore Ottoman influence in the Arab region. He has invested a lot in Syria and acted arrogantly, contributing to the disaster in Syria, and today, he is face to face with Russian arrogance, another crucial factor in the Syrian tragedy.

The difference is that Russia considers itself victorious in the Syrian battle, and is enforcing red lines to warn Turkey against confronting it in Syria. This is while Turkey appears confused and weak against Russia in Syria. Turkey also appears to be losing in Egypt, which Turkey had made the first stop for the rise of political Islam to power through the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood project met an early end, much quicker than expected, and were replaced in power by someone completely opposed to Erdogan’s Neo-Ottoman dreams.

Egypt and Iran

Putin then capitalized on this loss, giving Egypt a crucial position in his strategy for the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt, according to the same Russian diplomatic sources, is now one of the most important pillars of Russian foreign policy second in importance only to the Islamic Republic of Iran but ahead of the Arab Gulf states.

Moscow considers the Islamic Republic of Iran central to its international and regional alliances. According to Russian diplomacy, the relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran is part of a long-term strategy. In other words, regardless of whether the moderate mullahs or hardline mullahs in Iran and the Revolutionary Guards prevail, Moscow considers the ties with Tehran the most important bilateral relationship in the entire Middle East, whether Gulf Arabs like it or not.

Developing dialog with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other Gulf countries would therefore proceed based on two key premises: Russian-Iranian strategic relationships are a constant, but this does not prevent establishing and developing relations with the Gulf countries regardless of the disagreement on Syria. And second, the U.S.-Gulf relationship is on the decline and is marred by mistrust, which opens a window for new kinds of relations between Moscow and Gulf countries.

In other words, Russian diplomacy wants to upgrade ties with the Gulf through the gateway of arming Gulf countries. Moscow believes common interests can be served in the arms market: on the one hand it is a strategic and economic asset to Moscow. And on the other hand, it is a way for Gulf countries frustrated by Washington to say they have other options.

In addition, what Putin wants for Russia goes beyond winning Syria. He wants to cement Russia’s position in the Middle East, and there is an opportunity to do so now with the decline of U.S. interest in the region under President Obama. Russian diplomacy under Putin still sees Washington through the lens of the Cold War, even if the two sides are active partners in Syria.

Russian diplomacy does not see any adventurism in its policies, whatever the human cost has been in Syria or the risk of becoming implicated in a quagmire or a protracted war of attrition with ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The most Russia will offer to the GCC countries is turning a blind eye to what is taking place in Yemen, without directly supporting the Iranian position there.

However, military and political plans in Syria are clear and Russian diplomacy will communicate these to the Arab diplomacy at the forum in Moscow. The hope remains that Arab ministers will be clear and candid at the meeting, regardless of whether their choice will be to confront Russia or adapt to what it has imposed through its military intervention in Syria, as a strategic fait accompli with long term goals and Iranian priorities.

This article was first published in Al-Hayat on Feb. 19, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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