May 21, 2020
IntelBrief: Russian Influence Grows in the Middle East and North Africa
As the Trump administration has been consumed with its abysmal response to the coronavirus, the United States has been far less active in world affairs, including in geopolitically critical regions like the Middle East and North Africa. And even as Russia deals with its own coronavirus challenges, Moscow has benefited from the ongoing chaos of the region to step in and fill the void. In both Syria and Libya, Russia has relied on a combination of mercenaries, weapons sales to proxies and clients, and an aggressive disinformation campaign to grow its influence. Yet Russia’s involvement in the region is not without its own share of difficulties—its role in Syria has been more involved and complex than the Kremlin likely intended. But overall, under Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direction, Moscow has succeeded in leveraging its presence in the region in a way that Washington has been unable to do, driven in part by an inchoate strategy and inconsistent approach to working with allies and key powerbrokers. Russia has grown so confident in its regional clout that it recently proposed brokering talks between the United States and the Palestinian Authority, a proposal apparently supported by both the United Nations and the European Union.
In Syria, Russia remains frustrated with the Assad regime’s lackluster performance as demonstrated by an essay published recently by Aleksandr Arksenenok, the former Russian ambassador to Syria, who lambasted the regime for corruption and the ineptitude of Syria’s security services. Still, few expect Putin to abandon Assad anytime soon. Russia has already invested too much time and too many resources in propping up his regime to walk away now. Russia realizes that to keep its Mediterranean port facilities, it needs to have a friendly regime and some semblance of stability in western Syria and along the coastline. Since 2015, Moscow has been crucial to the survival of the Assad regime. Russian airstrikes—which repeatedly and deliberately target hospitals, schools, and critical infrastructure in rebel-held territory—have reversed the regime’s losses, but have failed to secure outright victory in the civil war. The fate of Idlib Province will be in the hands of Russian and Turkish negotiators as much as those from Assad and various rebel groups.
In Libya, Russia continues to provide backing to the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by the warlord Khalifa Haftar. Yet despite enjoying the support of Russia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and others, Haftar’s forces have been losing ground to the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), which has received military support from Turkey. Russia’s involvement in Libya has grown steadily over time, with a number of external nations angling to be in a position to exploit Libya’s vast energy reserves. And while the tide has turned against Haftar, despite robust assistance from the Wagner Group, Russia’s presence in Libya veritably ensures that Moscow will have a voice if and when a political settlement is ever negotiated. The same cannot be said for many Western countries, including the United States, which has seen its role reduced entirely.
Russia’s economy is suffering due to the collapse in worldwide oil market prices and the impact of the coronavirus, where quarantine measures have disrupted vital supply lines. Nevertheless, Putin has masterfully manipulated Russia’s judiciary, which recently cleared the way for him to remain leader of the country until 2036. Accordingly, Russian foreign policy will remain the writ of one man—Vladimir Putin. And if the past is prologue, Moscow will continue pursuing an aggressive approach to intervening in conflicts throughout the Middle East and North Africa. With no pushback from a divided West and a listless NATO, Russia expanding its influence throughout the Middle East and North Africa is an inevitability, and one which is likely to have profound ramifications for the future of the region.
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