ISTANBUL—The conference was meant to show off Vladimir Putin’s new influence in the Middle East. Held at the swanky Intercontinental Hotel Moscow in February, the Valdai Discussion Club brought together Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, as well as former Israeli U.N. envoy Dore Gold; Palestinian legislative council member Sahar al-Qawasmi, as well as Egypt’s former foreign minister Nabil Fahmy. “Russia in the Middle East: Playing on all Fields,” was the name of the conference, touting Moscow’s contacts with all sides of the region’s criss-crossing rivalries and hot conflicts.
But the gathering descended into acrimony almost as soon as the heavyweights, Zarif and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left the opening session. Scholars, ex-officials, and current stakeholders representing various governments and movements began arguing with each other. Kurds blasted Turks. Israelis and Palestinians went at it. Iranians and Israelis, as usual, coldly ignored each other. The Syrian regime’s proponents attacked Turkey’s reps for advocating on behalf of rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad.
“It turned into a shouting match,” said Mark Katz, a specialist in Russia-Middle East relations at George Mason University. “It was clear the Russians were trying to bring these people to resolve these conflicts. Somehow the initiative was supposed to come from regional actors that Russia could facilitate. But the Russians didn’t have any suggestions. The Russians needed everyone to keep talking. But no one budged.”
Over the last few years Russia has increased dramatically its influence in the Middle East, fashioning itself into a major power broker as the U.S. presence and interest declined. But many are skeptical of the Kremlin’s ability to manage or resolve any of the conflicts, especially Syria, where Israel and Iran are increasingly coming to blows over the presence of Iranian backed forces.
In the wake of the recent confrontation between Israeli and pro-Iranian forces in Syria, diplomats and scholars are facing the possibility that rather than some sinister mastermind, Russia is another bumbling superpower flailing in the Middle East, deluded by illusions of grandeur, but way out of its depth.
“It seems to me that the Russians are opportunistic,” said Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria. “I don’t think Putin has a grand strategy. They’re ad-libbing a lot of the time. They’re taking short-term tactical decisions and hoping it works out.”
Putin rarely leads from behind. On May 9, he met with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow. The next day he was massaging the ego of Assad over May 10 Israeli airstrikes that targeted alleged Iranian facilities. Soon after that he was conferring with Hassan Rouhani and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Last Thursday, he met Assad in the Black Sea city of Sochi, telling him the Russians expected “foreign armed forces will be withdrawn” from Syria, an ambiguous reference either to the Iranian-backed militias inside the country, or the Turkish and U.S. troops that irk Damascus. Assad and official Syrian media simply ignored the comment while Iran insisted it was in Syria at the invitation of the Damascus government.
A departure of Iranian-backed forces from Syria was, along with an end to Iran’s nuclear protram, one of the 12 preconditions for removing sanctions set out by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his speech Monday. If not, Tehran would face “the toughest sanctions in history,” Pompeo vowed, and the United States would “crush” Iranian forces operating abroad, including in Syria.
Such talk places Russia in the potentially uncomfortable position of having to mediate between arch-rivals Tehran and Washington, and casts the U.S. as another Middle East player whose interests and expectations Moscow must massage and manage.
While it may appear Putin is playing everyone, telling each leader what he thinks they want to hear, they might also be playing him. “Iranians and Syrians tell Putin, ‘Yes, yes everything is fine.’ But in the end they screw his plans,” said Alexey Khlebnikov, an expert on Middle East affairs at the Russian International Affairs Council. “How many times has Russia tried to make deals with the U.S. or Turkey—and Syria and Iran do something provocative and ruin Russian plans?”
Certainly, Putin’s got clout. He’s the one guy who can pick up the phone and call Tehran or Jerusalem. He can have his surrogates meet with both Assad and his armed rebel opponents in Turkey. Russia’s envoy in Lebanon meets with both Hezbollah deputy secretary general Naim Qassem as well as Western-backed opposition prime minister Saad Hariri. Across the region, he can quickly get a message to the Houthi rebels in Yemen’s Sanaa, as well as the Saudi and Emirati generals calling the shots in the war against them. Libya’s Khalifa Haftar counts him as an ally, while the strongman’s opponents in Tripoli and Misurata also share their gripes with the Kremlin.
But close observers note that having access is not the same as having leverage. Moscow’s solution is always the same: talk to each other. Indeed, after tensions peaked between Iran and Israel following the May 10 airstrikes, Lavrov suggested “dialogue” between the countries, a proposal many consider unrealistic.
“The Russians are telling everyone exactly what they want to hear,” said Nicole Grajewski, an Oxford researcher specializing in Iran-Russia relations. “They’ll say one thing to one country. But the thing they’ll tell another country completely contradicts it. They’re mediating between Israel and Iran in Syria, something the U.S. can’t do. But they’re playing everyone off each other. And I don’t think it’s as thought-out it as appears.”
Scholars and diplomats have long warned that the U.S. attempt to draw back from the Middle East would open a vacuum for other world powers, Russia as well as China, to fill. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have signalled an acceptance of that possibility. But the increasing tensions in Syria between Israel and Iran underscore the perils of that gambit.
Earlier this month alleged Iranian or Iranian-backed forces fired a volley of missiles at the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights in what Damascus said was a response to Israeli tank fire on positions in the Quneitra district of southern Syria. Israel responded with a massive wave of airstrikes against alleged Iranian bases and facilities throughout the country, inflicting what it claimed was $750 million in damage to Tehran’s infrastructure in Syria.
Afterward, Moscow echoed international calls for calm and an easing of tensions between Iran and Israel over Syria but took no sides in the confrontation between the two countries, both of whom it deems allies.
In the absence of solutions to offer, Russia winds up using the Middle East’s simmering conflicts for its own prestige and influence without actually improving anything.
“They see these conflicts as an opportunities to get things from the opposing sides,” said Katz. “The two sides hate each other and see Russia is working with the other side, so they have to talk to Russia. The question is that by arming or encouraging or enabling all sides of the same conflict, are they contributing to a larger conflict?”
In the conflict between Iran and Israel in Syria, Russia appears to be using its extensive contacts as bargaining chips. It reneged on a plan to deliver S-300 mobile anti-aircraft systems to Syria as a way to appease Israel. But Russia is said to have demanded that Israel inform Moscow of any airstrikes beforehand, information it can and likely did pass on to Iranians and Syrians, who suffered minimum casualties during the May 10 strikes.
“It gives Moscow a sort of upper hand in that it can inform its Syrian and Iranian allies of any strikes,” said Khlebnikov. “It bolsters its kingmaker status.”
Russia could play a constructive role in Syria by facilitating messages between the two parties, preventing either party from transgressing the security limits of the other. But Russia’s approach toward the Syria conflict could also exacerbate its dangers. Though neither Iran nor Israel seek an all-out confrontation over Syria, one could erupt anway. Iran and Israel view their security interests as mutually exclusive. On the one hand, Israel won’t tolerate Iran’s growing influence in Syria. On the other hand, Iran won’t give up on its gains in Syria without getting anything in return.
In the Camp David Accords cementing peace between Egypt and Israel, the U.S. lavished each side with cash and security assurances. Russia has little such leverage over Syria, Iran, or Israel.
“We keep thinking that Putin has this grand plan for Syria and knows how to bring a settlement,” said Yury Barmin, a Moscow-based Middle East expert. “He may not be interested in bringing about a solution. He’s okay with the results already. He’s solidified his footprint in Syria, his presence in the Middle East. What happens now is less of interest. A low-key conflict between Israel and Iran might be something he would accept in Syria.”