For Russia, Syria is not in the Middle East

By Brenda Shaffer
May 20, 2013

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with (clockwise, starting in top left.) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, British Prime Minister David Cameron, next Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. REUTERS/FILES

A string of leaders and senior emissaries, seeking to prevent further escalation of the Syria crisis, has headed to Moscow recently to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. First, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, then British Prime Minister David Cameron, next Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and now, most recently, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon These leaders see Russia as the key to resolving the Syria quandary.

But to get Russia to cooperate on any stabilization plan, the United States and its allies will have to take into account Russia’s significant interests in the Mediterranean region.

Moscow’s refusal thus far to act on Syria seems puzzling. Russia has let other of its Middle East client regimes fall without much action on its part in the past. Why is Syria different to Moscow than those other Russian allies in the Middle East? Because, in Russia’s view, the outcome in Syria affects Moscow’s core strategic interests – including its global naval strategy and energy exports.

To understand Moscow’s policy toward Syria, it is important to understand that Russia sees Syria as part of its Mediterranean policy and not a part of the Middle East. The Arab Middle East has been a relatively low priority in Russia’s foreign policy. The Mediterranean, however, and especially the Eastern Mediterranean region, is a policy priority for Moscow.

During the winter, when most of its ports freeze and are not accessible, Russia’s warm Black Sea port is the country’s lifeline and critical to its oil export business. Thus, Moscow’s ability to keep the Mediterranean open to uninhibited Russian shipping and naval activity is a top policy priority.

Russia’s naval presence in Syria supports and provides an anchor and protection for its activity in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially in the energy sector. In order to get Russia on board in resolving the Syrian crisis, it is important to grasp its vital Eastern Mediterranean interests.

In diplomatic conversations with Moscow, Russia’s concerns should be recognized and discussed. A policy should be designed, for example, that would allow Russia to maintain its naval presence in the region.

Russia’s naval fleet is a dominant presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Russia is the major player in oil and gas markets throughout the region, especially in Turkey, Italy and Greece. Russia is now the lead bidder to gain control of Greece’s gas transmission system. It is also attempting to gain a foothold in Israel’s and Cyprus’s newfound natural gas resources. Russian companies have significant investments in the region and possess critical infrastructure. Indeed, Russia offered Cyprus a large loan in 2011 to protect its own investments on the island and to lure Nicosia to orient toward Moscow.

Moscow also has influence in the domestic politics in many of the regions’ states because of its close relationships with local political elites (for example, in Italy and Israel) and through the increasing numbers of Russian nationals and immigrants in countries across the region. There are now, for example, roughly a million Russian immigrants in Israel.

Washington and its allies might consider making a concession to Moscow and also refrain from undermining Assad’s regime in Syria, while getting explicit recognition from Moscow that it would, in turn, abstain from undermining the stability of U.S. allies in other regions, such as the Baltics or Caucasus.

The United States and the European Union may not like it that Russia is a thorn in their side in a number of regions, but when Russia’s interests are not recognized by the West, Moscow shows its displeasure by retaliating against U.S. allies around the globe. When the Bush administration, for example, ignored Moscow’s requests not to recognize Kosovo, Moscow responded by destabilizing neighboring Georgia in 2008.

If its interests are ignored, Moscow will find the outlet for influence against U.S. interests in other arenas, especially those bordering Russia.

Russia might have only relative power in comparison to the United States, but in many regions, it has more “relevant” power. Thus, in certain regions in the world, Russia can both contribute and undermine U.S. policy goals. With that in mind, its interests should be recognized in order get its cooperation on a plan to stabilize Syria.

 

PHOTO (Insert A): Russia President Vladimir Putin (R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shake hands as they meet in Moscow’s Kremlin December 19, 2006. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

PHOTO (Insert B): President Vladimir Putin speaks during his meeting with senior officials at the Bocharov Ruchei state residence in Sochi May 13, 2013. REUTERS/Maxim Shipenkov/Pool

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