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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I cannot but more than agree with the main point of professor Brenda Shaeffer’s article!

As Kissinger uses to say and write: if you do not recognize and acknowledge legitimate Russian GeoPolitical interests, Moscow will make sure you pay a price for this unwillingness, blindness and/or stupidity.

On the other hand, provided Russia’s basic and fundamental Geopolitical needs are fully recognized and mutually acceptable ways not to endanger them are found and negotiated, it should be possible to get Moscow aboard an informal/implicit coalition that will take all necessary measures to keep Damascus and company (all the bad guys) on a very short leash.

Let the Russians have a naval basis in Syria -whoever “wins” the civil war, whatever happens to that unfortunate people! Do not station US missiles on Czech and Polish territory that Moscow can ONLY see as directed against Russia! Do not try to put Ukraine or Bielorussia (two territories seen by the Russians as provinces of the “eternal Russian Empire”) in NATO, do not meddle in Georgia that should remain chasse gardée of Russia, let the Russians control Moldova (a misnomer for another Russian Province called Bessarabia), etc etc.
Chalom Schirman
Associate Professor of Geopolitics
Director of IEDP (Executive Education), Tongji University, Shanghai, China

Posted by ProfCS | Report as abusive

So if we appease the aspiring school yard bully, maybe he will play nicer with us? I believe a fellow named Neville Chamberlain tried that just prior to WWII. Didn’t work.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

This is an interesting piece, but it looks more like an attempt to rationalize a series of bad decisions that Putin has made from the moment this game began to unravel, exposing him with a weak hand, a poor interpretation of the situation, no backup plan and no exit strategy.
The fact of the matter is that Russia already lost the game, and on top of this it lost many friends in the Arab world who oppose what they see as an unholy alliance between Russia and Iran.

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive


You wrote (quote): “The actions are straight out of the Zionist playbook, when they wanted to empty important areas of Palestine of Palestinians, back in 1948.”

You’re unaware of the fact (or attempting to conceal it) that in 1948, the land of Palestine / Israel was invaded by four Arab armies from Syria Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq (although the latter didn’t have a common border with Israel). The Palestinians invited these Arab armies in to help them ‘clean’ the area (i.e. ethnic cleansing) from all Jews living in it, and (quote) “Throw them back into the (Mediterranean) sea”. This was the purpose of that war, and neither the Palestinians nor their Arab allies hid it – It was their openly stated policy.
The end of the story was that the young Israeli nation beat all these armies as well as their Palestinian hosts, of which many had gone to exile.
Israel has never undertaken actions such as you describe: This is pure fantasy, or simply a lie. The lines between fantasy and lie often get blurred in that part of the world.

I hope you learned something today.

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive

This is common sense coupled with intelligence.


“Moreover, political turmoil continues to affect the region, from Tunisia to Iraq, while some countries are either unwilling (Turkey) or unable (Lebanon) to react in credible, coherent and decisive fashion against the actions of the Syrian regime, as it uses planes, tanks and missiles in its onslaught against both rebels and civilians.”

How should a government react when facing radical extremists who blow themselves in civilian crowds, destroy the country infrastructure indiscriminately and eat the organs of their opponents? Greet them with flowers?

Why is Syria using planes, tanks and missiles against extremist militants an issue? The US does it all the time, France is doing it right now in Mali, Turkey does it every day, Israel does it day and night, Algeria did just that a few months ago.

The lie that the Syrian government is using planes, tanks against civilians has been debunked. Syria is fighting the same dangerous sub-humans that the US has been sending to Guantanamo, those who murdered 3,000 innocents on US soil.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

This is a good article, and a cautious departure from the usual anti-Russian hysteria Reuters has championed for many years.
However, at this point, it appears that the West has invested too much into demonizing Assad and company, and now when events on the ground are spiraling out of control, there is no “legitimate” party left on the Syrian government side to negotiate with. So, what is the solution to this riddle – well, use Russia as the main negotiating partner instead.
I’ve noticed similar articles like this one, in a number of publications even in Al Jazeera.
The new narrative seem to put pressure on Russia via exaggerating its Geo-political interests and influence in the region.
In turn, Russia is attempting to counter that by pushing Iran’s participation in the negotiations.
Overall, I question the true motives behind this article – seems to rationalize the new political maneuvering of the West, a bit too conveniently for it to be a genuine editorial.

Posted by Abby.S | Report as abusive

Since we do not have a known friend in Syria, but only known enemies and potential ones, having Russia back the loser is in our interest and long as it is not enough to make it a winner.

I assume anti Hezbollah and anti Iranian states in area will funnel enough weapons to the rebels to prevent victory by Russia.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

Why wants Mrs Schaeffer diminish the role of Russia in the Syria conflict? Why does it seem better that the Russia operates in the Mediterranean aera rather than in the Middle-east? There are no reasons to that. Russia operates always along its borders. It is a continuity from Stalin to Putin. The debate upon the geographic aera is hidden the debate on the alliances. Who are the allies of Hassad? They have built an alliance bigger that those of the nazis and it is a pity that Mrs, Schaeffer doesn’t point out this change in the position of Russia an new kind of nazism.

Posted by meleze | Report as abusive

This is a very interesting perspective that I haven’t heard until now. Russia’s view of Syria as part of a wider oil and gas policy in the Mediterranean makes a lot more sense than those popular amorphic explanations I keep hearing such as “Russia doesn’t like the USA” or “Russia wants to be an empire again”. Oil and gas concerns are known to weigh heavy in Russia’s foreign policy due to the crucial role of energy export revenues in its economy. Looking at Russia’s policy toward Syria through these materialistic concerns regarding the Mediterranean makes for a much more convincing explanation and also sheds more light on Russia’s involvement in Israel and Cyprus.
This also completely changes the way in which this situation needs to be approached by the U.S. and the E.U. when they negotiate with Russia about its stance on Syria. It’s obvious that humanitarian arguments don’t work, but providing a guarantee to Russian concerns in the Mediterranean oil and gas sector (as opposed to the Middle-East) is definitely something that would get their attention. Having said that, perhaps Russia is already doing this? Perhaps they are trying to connect their support for Syria with a promise from the E.U. to stop pipeline construction for natural-gas from Central Asia?
I would very much like to hear more about this angle from Prof. Shaffer.

Posted by E-Ret | Report as abusive

I’ll stick my neck out and say the chances of a deal being reached with this cast of characters (Putin, Assad, Salafist rebels) are slim and none, and Slim moved to Texas.

1. Unlike America and Europe who sometimes calculate morality into their thinking (Libya, Bosnia), the Russians always do what is expediently in their national, geopololitical self-interest. The icing on this cake is that the current boss is the former head of the KGB. In their hayday the Soviet Union, had a significant sphere of influence in the Mideast (Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen) that rivaled our own.

All the Russians have left today is Syria and its important Mediteranean ports for the Russian Navy at Latakia and Tartus.

2. As has been widely reported in the media in the last couple of weeks, the regime has not only halted the rebel advances, they have reversed them, as Assad’s forces are re-taking cities and villages that had been overrun by the rebels.

With the rebels in retreat (largely due to an infusion of thousands of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon, and a smaller number of the Iranian Basij militia), the Russians will have no interest in seeing Syria break into statelets, where at best their influence willbe limited to a mini-Alawite state in the northwesy where the Nusariya Mountains meet the Meditaranean Sea.

Posted by bojak | Report as abusive

@fromkin Attacks on civilians debunked by whom? The use of indiscriminate methods of war ranging from Scuds to barrel bombs dropped from helicopters, have been recorded repeatedly and verifiably. I suspect Third World propaganda pushers like Presstv, Russiatoday or the laughable SANA, might some ‘debunk’ documented facts to your satisfaction, but not for anyone else who cares for basic facts or common sense. ath-skies

Perhaps Human Rights Watch is part of the Illuminati/Masonic/Zionist conspiracy because it might call the dictator Putin out on his many misdeeds.

The US should let the Russian dictator stew. A Third World, third rate bully has decided to invest in Iran’s Vietnam. It should perhaps improve aid to the rebels a little, to increase the foulness of the broth. Perhaps Putin might have less time to plot assassinations of opponents. Let Putin keep digging. No need to disturb an opponent while they make such an error.

Posted by Pasha245 | Report as abusive