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April 6, 2016 No.
6375

Director General Of Russian Government-Funded Think Tank, Andrey Kortunov, Analyzes Russia's Middle East Strategy After Withdrawal From Syria

On March 29, 2016, the Russian government-funded think tank Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) published an interview with its Director General Andrey Kortunov. In the interview, Kortunov asserts that Russia opposes moves to partition Syria. He suggests that a potential solution to the Syria crisis might be an "asymmetrical federation" that will respect the principle of the country's territorial integrity but will at the same time guarantee "sufficient autonomy" for ethnic, religious, regional and political groups in Syria. Kortunov states further that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is neither a client of Russia's nor a personal friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin's. Rather, Russia considers Assad and his regime as a mere instrument to prevent chaos in Syria, since an authoritarian state is better than a "failed" one. Kortunov says that Russia does not want Syria to become another Libya, considering its geographical proximity to the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

As for the American role in the Middle East, Kortunov stresses that Russia has no interest in pushing the U.S. out of the region. Russia wants to be a global player, but at the same time it has "no resources for and no interest" in replacing the United States as the "next hegemonic power" in the Middle East. Indeed, Kortunov stresses that Russia needs the U.S. in the region, because if Washington withdraws from the Arab world, it is likely to leave behind a vacuum that will be filled by radical fundamentalist forces hostile to the West and to Russia. Lastly, Kortunov contends that the role of Iran will be one of the decisive factors shaping the future of the Middle East. Speaking of Russian-Iranian relations, Kortunov admits that while there has always been "a temptation" to build these relations on an anti-Western basis, this cannot be a "stable and reliable foundation," and Russia and Iran should rather increase their cooperation on regional matters - including the Caspian Sea issues, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.

The interview with Kortunov was previously published in Farsi on the website of the Iranian research institute Iran Eurasia Research Institute (IRAS).[1] The following are excerpts from the English version of the interview with Kortunov, published on the RIAC website on March 29 (the text has been lightly edited for clarity).[2]


Andrey Kortunov (Source: Russiancouncil.ru)

"Authoritarian States In The Middle East Are Better Than Failed States"

Question: "Russian military presence in Syria makes Russia a pivotal player in the Middle East. How does Russia define its role in the Middle East?"

Andrey Kortunov: "Russia tries to avoid taking sides in the Sunni-Shia disputes, supporting those in the region who back religious tolerance and respect for minority rights. The Arab Spring of 2011-2012 changed many fundamentals in the region If in the West the Arab Spring was initially received by many with high hopes and even enthusiasm, in Russia, from the outset, the political mainstream expressed deep skepticism and concern about the likely outcomes of the ongoing regional transformation. Furthermore, the Arab Spring was often presented by Moscow as a long-planned Western (predominantly U.S.) conspiracy aimed at acquiring more control over the Arab world by pursuing a strategy of 'controlled chaos' The failed transition in Libya was an important learning experience for Moscow. It consolidated the conservative faction in the Russian political establishment and nearly silenced the liberal opposition. After Libya, Russian officials formulated their new approach to the Middle East, which can be summarized in the following way: First, authoritarian states in the Middle East are preferable to failed states that replace the former following public uprisings (which are often planned, funded, and instigated from abroad). Second, the intentions and commitments of the West should not be trusted; the West can easily 'sell out' its longtime allies and friends in the region (e.g. Mubarak in Egypt) Third, if Russia remains an idle bystander, observing the Arab Spring from the sidelines, the chaos, instability, and terrorism generated in the Arab world will ultimately spill over Russia's borders, not to mention lead to the demise of Russian influence in the region. The practical application of this new approach was, of course, Moscow's engagement in the civil war in Syria. In this bloody and protracted conflict Moscow demonstrated much more than its readiness to oppose what was perceived as the consolidated position of the West. For the first time since the invasion of Afghanistan back in 1979, the Kremlin used military force outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. For the first time a Russian military aircraft was downed by a NATO member country [Turkey]. For the first time Russia became a central player in a large-scale war right in the heart of the Arab world."

Question: "How do you assess Saudi objectives in the Middle East, and to what extent are these goals 'for or against' Russian interests in the region? Could Russia and Saudi Arabia reach an agreement on the future of the Middle East?"

Kortunov: "...Relations between Moscow and Riyadh have always been complicated; Russia accuses Saudi Arabia of supporting militant radical Islamic groups in Syria, while the Saudis have consistently opposed Russia's support for the regime of Bashar Assad in Damascus. However, there are also overlapping interests: both Russia and Saudi Arabia oppose plans to partition Syria and both are concerned about the current crisis of statehood in the region. Another common interest is to prevent a further uncontrolled fall in energy prices. Recently, we have seen more active interaction between Russian and Saudi leaders, although major differences in approach to the Syrian situation remain unresolved. My personal guess is that a Russian-Saudi agreement on the future of the Middle East is more likely to be achieved in a multilateral format than in the framework of their bilateral relationship."

A Potential Solution To The Syrian Crisis Would Be An "Asymmetrical Federation" That Respects The Country's Territorial Integrity While Guaranteeing Sufficient Autonomy

Question: "With respect to recent events between Russia and Turkey impinging on cordial bilateral trade ties and economic cooperation, how do you predict the future of Russian-Turkish relations?"

Kortunov: "I would argue that the crisis between our two countries has been in the making for a long time, and the SU-24 downing was only the last straw that broke the camel's back. For many years, Russians and Turks tried to convince each other that they could 'agree to disagree' on many controversial and explosive political mattersÔǪ Over the years serious disagreements over Caucasus, the Middle East, Iran, Ukraine, NATO, BMD [Ballistic Missile Defense], gas pipelines, and other matters were swept under the rug. But this mutual hypocrisy could not last forever. In a way, the ongoing crisis was possible only because the notion of a strategic partnership between Russia and Turkey remained on paperÔǪWhat could either side do to restore the relationship? Before answering this question, we should ask ourselves something else: what can we not afford in the near future? First, we cannot restore mutual trust anytime soon - the trust between the two national leaders and between the political elites in Moscow and Ankara is completely broken. Second, we cannot realistically discuss any strategic reconciliation between the two countries or a Russian-Turkish "Grand Bargain."  In the absence of mutual trust and with the lack of the strategic depth the idea of a mutual remission of sins by Putin and Erdogan seems ridiculous. Third, we should be fully aware of the fact that the spiral of hostility and mutual animosity is spinning ever faster, and both sides would have to invest considerable time and energy in slowing this negative momentum, not to mention reversing itÔǪ

One should seek the solution where the problem is located. The most critical bone of contention between Russia and Turkey today - all other disagreements and disputes notwithstanding - is the future of Syria. Russia is committed to preserving the territorial integrity of Syria, while Turkey feels responsible for the future of the Syrian Turkmen and other Turkey-oriented groups opposed to Damascus. A number of external players including Iran and the Gulf states have their own interests and claims to protect among the Syrian factions. I do not like the term 'soft partition' because it emphasizes the noun 'partition' more than the adjective 'soft.' But a potential solution to the Syrian riddle might well be connected to the concept of an 'asymmetrical federation' that will not question the principle of the country's territorial integrity, but will at the same time guarantee sufficient autonomy for ethnic, religious, regional and political factions in Syria, including the preservation of their traditional links with neighboring countries. The concept of an 'asymmetrical federation' may become the platform for a compromise not only between Russia and Turkey, but between all the major players involved in the Syrian conflict. If we agree on the future of Syria, it would be much easier to move ahead on other burning issues."

Question: "Some say that Russia is employing hard power to deter threats and secure its interests in different parts of the world. How effective is such an approach?"

Kortunov: "Russia invested considerable resources into restoring and upgrading its hard power capabilities under President Putin. It now has robust military potential with significant power projection capacities and a reliable nuclear deterrent. Russia has successfully tested some of its newly-acquired capabilities in the Syrian conflict. Despite the current economic difficulties, the ongoing large-scale modernization of the Russian armed forces continues mostly as scheduled. Russia remains a major global exporter of arms, second only to the United States [However,] skillful diplomacy is no less important than hard power. Russia is still learning how it can use its soft power in the most efficient way.

Bashar Assad Has Never Been A Client Of Moscow's Nor A Friend Of Putin's

Question: "What is the Kremlin's plan for Syria's future? What kind of Syria is good for Russia and under what circumstances might Russia end its mission in Syria?"

Kortunov: "When Western experts and Kremlin watchers analyze Russian strategy in Syria, they usually single out three goals that Moscow allegedly pursues in this conflict. First, to rescue the Russian client in the region - Bashar Assad and his regime; second, to diminish U.S. influence in the Middle East to the extent that this is possible; third, to support Shias against Sunnis in the sectarian clash that is tearing apart the Islamic world. In my view, all three alleged goals can be questioned. First, Bashar Assad has never been a client of Moscow's and he is not a personal friend of Vladimir Putin's... Bashar Assad does not have powerful lobbyists in Moscow, as Saddam Hussein once had. Economically, Syria is much less important to Russia than, for instance, neighboring Turkey, or even Iraq. When Russian officials argue that their prime concern is the future of Syrian statehood, not the future of Bashar Assad personally, they are not necessarily trying to deceive the West. To have another Libyan situation in Syria, much closer to the South Caucasus, Central Asia, and Russia proper, is not an attractive option for decision makers in the Kremlin. In this respect, Bashar Assad and his regime are nothing but instruments to prevent chaos and anarchy in Syria. Are these instruments indispensable? Probably not. But so far all the efforts of the U.S. and its partners to present a consolidated Syrian opposition as a credible alternative to the regime in Damascus do not appear too convincing to Moscow.

Second, the idea that Moscow is desperately trying to push the United States out of the Middle East fits nicely into standard Cold War logic, but does not convincingly explain Russia's recent moves in the region. If Washington is the main competitor, why offer to work together with the U.S. on chemical weapons in Syria; or to collaborate with the Americans on the Iranian nuclear dossier? Decision makers in the Kremlin might be generally anti-Western and anti-U.S., but they are definitely not crazy. They understand that Russia has no resources for and no interest in replacing the United States in the Middle East as the next hegemonic power. And if Washington does withdraw from the Arab world, it is likely to leave behind a vacuum to be filled with radical fundamentalist forces equally hostile to the West and to Russia. Russia needs the U.S. in the region, despite its insistence that current American policies in the Middle East - starting with the Iraq war of 2003 - are ill-conceived, poorly implemented and, at the end of the day, mostly counterproductive.

Third, the Sunni-Shia explanation for Russian strategy is linear and schematic at best. To start with, the Damascus army does not include only Shias, as there are many Sunnis fighting on Assad's side as well. One of Russia's closest partners and friends in the Arab world is Egypt, which happens to be the largest Arab Sunni country. The majority of twenty million plus Russian Moslems are Sunni and it would be political suicide for any regime in Moscow to align with Shias against Sunnis abroad. However, since Moscow is committed to fighting against ISIS, pure military logic pushes it to build alliances with whoever has the best fighting capacity on the ground. For a variety of reasons, Sunni states in the Gulf and most other Arab Sunnis are not in a position to commit substantial ground forces to a joint anti-ISIS campaign."

Question: "Envisioning an end to the Syrian conflict, would Russia and Iran be eager to cement their strategic cooperation in the Middle East? What are your recommendations for improving bilateral political, economic, and military dialogue in the future? How could both countries cooperate on the energy market?"

Kortunov: "Russia managed to take the lead in the dramatic events currently taking place in and around Syria. Its positions cannot be ignored and no settlement is possible without Russia's participation. However, one should not overestimate the role of Russia - or of any other non-regional power - in the mid- and long-term evolution of the Middle East. The region has entered a historically unprecedented cycle of social, economic, and political transformation that is likely to last until at least the middle of this century. The future of the Arab world will depend mostly on the successes or failures of its own regional centers of gravity - such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia. As for external factors affecting the Arab world, the influence of overseas players is likely to become less significant, while the influence of neighboring non-Arab states (Iran, Turkey, Israel) is likely to grow. The role of Iran will definitely be one of the decisive factors shaping the future of the Middle East. And speaking of Russian-Iranian relations, we must define what 'strategic cooperation' really means for them in the current circumstances. There has always been a temptation - at least on the Russian side - to build these relations on an anti-Western basis. But this is not a stable and reliable foundation. I think that Russia and Iran have to upgrade their current collaboration on regional matters - including the Caspian Sea issues, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. We clearly underutilize the existing potential for economic partnership. Finally, we simply need to know each other much better than we do now, which involves more contacts in education and research, and more cultural and civil society exchanges."

 

Endnotes:

[1] Iras.ir, March 26, 2016.

[2] Russiancouncil.ru, March 29, 2016.