March 2, 2022

IntelBrief: How Will Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Impact the Middle East?

AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

Bottom Line up Front

  • Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will reverse the progress Russia has made in recent years expanding its influence in the Middle East region.
  • A prolonged battle in Ukraine might cause Russia to reduce its military involvement in Syria.
  • A drawdown of Russia’s military presence in Syria would enable Iran to extend its influence over the Assad government in Damascus.
  • Some Middle Eastern states may eventually curtail ties to Russia because of its aggression in Ukraine, though few have spoken against Russia at this stage.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned Moscow into a global pariah, likely reversing the progress Russia has made in recent years to increase its influence in the Middle East region. The expansion of Russia’s regional reach has been a direct and indirect consequence of its military intervention on behalf of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The popular rebellion that erupted against Assad’s regime in February 2011 expanded into a country-wide armed rebellion that nearly defeated him in 2012 - 2013. Iran and Iranian allies such as Lebanese Hezbollah intervened with ground forces in 2013 to help stabilize Assad’s military situation, but it was Russia’s September 2015 intervention with air power that decisively turned the conflict in Assad’s favor. Russia’s objectives in intervening were primarily to protect its longtime ally in Damascus and to prevent the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups from operating freely from Syrian territory. The Russian intervention has consisted of about 3,000 - 5,000 military personnel based in two main facilities—a naval facility at Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast, from which Russia has operated for many decades, and the Basel al-Assad (BAA) airbase (referred to as Hmeymim by the Russians), in Latakia province. The Iran-Russia partnership on behalf of Assad has brought the two countries closer strategically, as both seek to undermine U.S. interests and roll back U.S. influence throughout the region, where possible. Yet, Russia fears a strategically powerful Iran, and it continues to cooperate with U.S diplomats in ongoing talks in Vienna to restore full compliance with the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear deal.  There is however widespread skepticism about the prospects for wider nonproliferation efforts in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the failure of the Budapest Memorandum to deliver any longterm assurances.

The Russian military attack on Ukraine could potentially alter the course of the nature of the battlefields in Syria. For at least the past four years, Assad’s opponents have been largely confined to Idlib province, in northern Syria, and incapable of threatening Assad’s grip on the heavily populated Damascus and western spine of the country. If Russia’s invasion of Ukraine were to evolve into a long-term counter-insurgency campaign there or expand into a broader war in Eastern Europe, it is conceivable that Russian President Vladimir Putin might be compelled to redeploy Russian military assets from Syria to Ukraine.

Syrian forces alone, exhausted from the years of war, are not sufficient to prevent the opposition from advancing on regime-controlled territory if Russian airpower is removed from the battlefield. The bulk of the military mission in Syria would inevitably fall to Iran and its partners, and Iran’s leverage over the Assad regime would increase accordingly. Yet, Tehran’s interests in Syria sometimes contradict those of the Assad regime, which fears being drawn into direct conflict with Israel or the United States. Iran already has organized Syrian militia units loyal to Tehran, not Damascus, in eastern Syria. In Syria, Iran has also been expanding its military production facilities and weapons supply corridors to Hezbollah—all of which have attracted regular Israeli airstrikes. A reduced Russian military role in Syria could potentially also enable Islamic State (ISIS) cells in Syria, as well as in Iraq, to expand their operations and attempt to recapture the territory they lost to U.S. and allied operations since 2014. Iran and Hezbollah are opposed to the Islamic State, but fighting ISIS and other terrorist organizations inside Syria has never been as high of a priority for Tehran as it has been for Damascus. It is also possible that regional power Turkey might seek to take advantage of a Russian drawdown in Syria by supporting renewed offensives by Assad’s armed opposition.

Elsewhere across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Russia has sent contract forces into Libya to assist eastern Libya strongman Khalifa Haftar in his efforts, unsuccessful to date, to consolidate control over post-Qadhafi Libya. Russia and other outside powers in Libya have more recently backed a U.N.-led process to promote reconciliation through elections, but continuing disputes threaten to undermine not only the planned election but also the fragile ceasefire reached in late 2020. Russia’s focus on Ukraine might keep the country out of any renewed armed conflict in Libya, if fighting were to resume there. In the Persian Gulf, Russia has sought to market advanced weaponry, such as its S-400 missile defense system, in an effort to build security ties to the Gulf states. Suggesting some success for that effort, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) abstained in the February 25 vote on a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Council watchers have also noted that the UAE remains keen to propose sanctions against the Houthis in Yemen, and will require Russian support for that, as well as other priorities it wishes to achieve during its tenure in the Council until the end of 2023. However, the Gulf states, as well as other Arab states such as Egypt and Jordan, are allies of the United States and will now come under significant pressure from U.S. officials to break off any security-related discussions with Moscow and to enforce all U.S.-led sanctions on Russia. Russia’s pariah status will also cause Gulf leaders to think twice about entertaining Russian pleas to help rebuild Syria. It is possible that a quick Russian conquest of Ukraine may enhance Russia’s role in the Middle East and cement its role as a strategic security actor, even as Lebanon and Kuwait publicly oppose the invasion. However, among traditionally nonaligned states around the world, there is also some reluctance to get involved in the great power struggle and risk unbalancing carefully calibrated security and diplomatic relationships. Notably, India, also a Security Council member, has joined the UAE and China in abstaining from Security Council resolutions on Ukraine, given their longstanding defense and diplomatic relationships with Moscow. The failure of Moscow’s offensive thus far to subdue Kyiv, and the global effort to isolate President Putin for launching the attack, have prompted a wide range of experts and officials to assess that Russia’s influence in the Middle East will shrink rather than expand over the next several years, particularly if Russia fails to secure any strategic objectives and becomes increasingly isolated globally.