Unfriended: How Russia’s Syria quagmire is costing it Middle Eastern allies

At a time when most Russians were taking a long break from politics until after the Orthodox Christmas on January 7, there has been no respite in Russia’s air operations in Syria, nor in the quarrel with Turkey. Rather than focus on the bread-and-butter issues of making ends meet, Russian policymakers seem to be instead preparing their next round of conflict escalation in an attempt to energize the populace around a new rallying cry.

The Kremlin cannot afford a sobering up that awakens the public to the stress of falling incomes and shameless corruption. So, it is working to supply another attention-grabbing crisis. The incentives for fanning violent conflicts, therefore, are greater than just “Vladimir Putin’s obsession for payback,” as Garrett Campbell recently (and accurately) described on this blog. Moscow cannot be content with than an eye for an eye, it needs a victory bright enough to camouflage Russia’s grim economic reality.

Scoring before the next setback

Up until a Turkish F-16 fighter fired a high-precision missile at the Russian Su-24 bomber on November 24, the Russian intervention in Syria had gone remarkably smoothly. It’s true that Russians’ risk assessment was shockingly superficial—they took only scant account of the complexity of protracted civil war, in part because they faced a deadline set by Putin’s pre-scheduled speech at the U.N. General Assembly on September 28. But it’s also true that the Russian air force delivered a series of picture-perfect strikes sufficient for generating huge political resonance. 

Picture-perfect does not a winning campaign make, however, and it has transpired by now that Russia’s actions have been insufficient for changing the course of war. Hundreds of sorties have provided close air support to government forces, but the quality of Bashar Assad’s troops is such that they cannot execute a successful offensive. Russia cannot curtail the intensity of its air campaign because its allies on the ground might panic and run, but the track record of technical failures and crashes in the air force is so dismal that a disaster at the crowded air base outside Latakia could strike any day. There is no chance of creating anything resembling a victory in Syria that could possibly cover up such a setback.

Turkey has provided a useful diversion from the Syrian deadlock. The hysterical propaganda campaign has been so effective that in the Russian public perception, this erstwhile strategic partner has surpassed Ukraine and the United States as the foremost “enemy.” The Russian Foreign Ministry has issued derogatory statements accusing Turkey of every conceivable sin: from colluding with the Islamic State in oil smuggling to brutally suppressing its Kurdish minority. Putin’s new National Security Strategy asserts that the emergence of the “self-proclaimed Islamic State” was a direct result of the policy of double-standards on behalf of “some states engaged in the struggle against terrorism.” The government has imposed new sanctions, effective January 1, that effectively prohibit food imports from Turkey and restrict investment activity.

Turkey has provided a useful diversion from the Syrian deadlock.

These incessant reprisals keep the quarrel loud but produce little gratification, while adding to the squeeze on Russian consumers. Turkey, meanwhile, is playing the conflict carefully, refraining from any airstrikes in Syria and preparing international legal action against Russian sanctions. Ankara can afford procrastination, which gives it time for securing more support from NATO for protecting its borders. It also has good reason to expect that Moscow would take a risk too far—not only because time is working against its intervention, but also because Russia’s pro-Assad and counter-revolutionary policy fails to take into account the complexities on the ground in Syria and its region. 

The Iran connection becomes a trap

Upon launching its bold intervention in Syria, the Russian leadership had some expertise on the friendly environment in the Tartus-Latakia area, but little understanding of the consequences of joining the motley Shiite alliance led by Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to explain to Putin that such an alliance was a bad idea, ramping up airstrikes against Hezbollah in order to make his argument more convincing. Still, he could not dissuade Moscow from delivering to Iran the long-contracted S-300 surface-to-air missiles, a weapon system that is disturbing to Israel and Saudi Arabia alike. This physical manifestation of Russia-Iran alliance-building has produced new tensions in the South Caucasus, which Turkey follows very closely. It also upsets many Muslims inside Russia (Tatarstan in particular), who fear the escalation with Turkey signals that tensions go beyond just a personal row between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

Moscow now finds itself in a very awkward position in the region, particularly vis-à-vis Iran-Saudi Arabia tensions, which have sharply escalated after the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr on January 2. Over the past year, and particularly since Russia’s Syrian intervention, Putin has networked extensively with the Saudi royal family and other Gulf leaders—but now these ties are coming undone because Russia is perceived as Iran’s ally. Turkey has greater flexibility—and even mediating ability—in these sectarian and geopolitical conflicts, but Russia has become a part of the problem. Moscow could have cherished hopes that the Saudi-Iranian conflict would push the oil price up, but the market has not obliged. And in the tight Syrian-Turkish corner, even if Putin resists the temptation to break out of his current predicament by making a rash proactive move, it would only amount to sitting and waiting for bigger troubles to come.