Russia Gaining Leverage in Middle East, Says Foreign Policy Expert
25 June, 2017

Russia expressed its interests in Middle Eastern geopolitics with its lethal military intervention in Syria in September 2015. According to Amin Tarzi, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East, and the director of Middle East Studies at Marine Corps University (MCU) in the US, this is a change in Russian policy in the region as it moves towards actively courting Middle Eastern countries and establishing its voice in the region’s affairs.

2014 saw the beginning of international actors in the Syrian Civil War and Iraqi Civil War participating in kinetic military intervention in response to the rapid territorial advances of ISIL. These conflicts includes many local actors. In Syria alone there was Bashar al-Assad's government forces, ISIL, the al-Nusra Front and the Free Syria Army. In September 2015, Russian forces began bomb attacks in Syria to support Bashar al-Assad's government whose family has had a close relationship with Russia. However, this also meant that Russian Forces were actively attacking US-backed non-governmental forces and their bombings raised humanitarian issues, such as in Aleppo.

As Syrian and Iraqi forces close in on ISIL in Raqqa and Mosul, the Islamic State will not disappear in the near future, according to Tarzi, because it is an ideology. Attention is already turning to lone wolf and small group attacks which are posing security threat globally. Russia is also turning their attention to the ISKP (Islamic State Khorasan Province in Afghanistan), which is classified as an international terrorist organization. ISKP does not have much local appeal in Afghanistan where locals are more sympathetic towards the Taliban. However, the ISKP is in Russia’s geopolitical backyard in Central Asia, and is actively recruiting from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

In its counter-terrorist measures Russian is supporting the Taliban, a more nationalistic violent extremist organization, to fight the ISKP. However, by supporting the Taliban, Russia is undermining the Afghan government and coming head-to-head with NATO.

Hromadske sat down with Amin Tarzi to discuss Russian involvement in Afghanistan and the future of NATO.

You have been following closely the counter-terrorism, in particular in Central Asia, in Afghanistan, in the Middle East, in all that part of the world. You raise the question that there is less popular, less known topic about the Russian involvement in Afghanistan, in particular, what is that? What do we need to know about that?

In Afghanistan, according to the US, we have some of the most important terrorist organizations and some organizations we refer to as the violent extremist organizations. And there is a differentiation between the two of them. For example, there is a branch of the Islamist State, ISIS, in Afghanistan that is called ISKP, Islamic State Khorasan Province which is a terrorist organization according to the US. Also there is the Taliban, the Taliban is not considered a terrorist organization. They are considered a violent extremist organization. What is happening today in Afghanistan is that the Afghan government is fighting both of these groups and some other smaller groups. However, the Russians are now coming in and trying to reconcile with the Taliban. And the Russian rationale is that ISKP is a threat to Russia and Central Asian states such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Whereas the Taliban is not a threat to Russia, which is a fact. The Taliban is more of a nationalistic organization, meaning what? They do acts of terror, but they do it within the context of Afghan state. They do not go beyond Afghan state. Whereas ISKP is an international terrorist organization.

The Taliban are fighting these groups. So what Russia is looking at is supporting the Taliban diplomatically and also perhaps sending some arms to keep a diplomatic relationship, if you want. So on one hand they are correct saying the Taliban are fighting ISIS, and therefore, in the advantage of Russia. The problem arises that the Taliban are also fighting the Afghan state. So supporting the Taliban destabilizes the Afghan state and the US policy is to set up an Afghan government that is strong enough to hold the security of Afghanistan. The US is not against negotiations with the Taliban, but it is against supporting the Taliban, specifically monetarily, or even politically outside this process that is going on.

The main groups that are affiliated with the ISKP are Uzbeks, the two major Uzbek parties that I mentioned. Also some Chechens. IMU, the Islamic Movement in Uzbekistan, traditionally was based in Pakistan. But the Pakistanis were pushing them out from the frontier regions of Pakistan. So they came into Afghanistan, and they were fighting the Taliban. So now they are being pushed northwards, which is for Russia a threat, and it is also for countries such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. So the radicalization is not happening within Afghanistan. There are very few in Afghanistan being radicalized to the ISKP. The Taliban are radical enough, but they are gathering more of the Afghan support. So these foreigners , Uzbeks, Tajiks, Chechens, Chechens are not that many, but they are some. They are obviously attracted to the stability of Central Asia, of Afghanistan, and perhaps by extension, Russia; because, as I said, they are capable of carrying out attacks beyond the borders of Afghanistan.   

Former Taliban members surrender his weapons during a reconciliation ceremony in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, 22 June 2017. Photo: EPA/GHULAMULLAH HABIBI

The question again is, you are right that the United States is not directly in Central Asia as much, but Afghanistan is a domain where NATO is still involved, and an umbrella of what is called RS, resolute support. The US is involved, and idea is to strengthen the Afghan government, the Afghan national government, the Afghan national army, and supporting them to fight both the ISKP, but also the Taliban. And again I repeat, the US is not against bringing the Taliban into negotiations, but through the Afghan government. But not strengthening the Taliban which is what is happening with Russia and Iran. And that is creating a front that perhaps will be detrimental to the victory for Afghan state, which is weak to begin with. And also, to the US-NATO design there. So as I said, on one hand, Russia has rationale, but that rationale becomes very weak when you are supporting a group that is actually against the Afghan state.

You mentioned that it is following the security in the Middle East. Within the last two years, Russia has become more and more than it was in previous three-four-five years. We are talking about Syria in particular. These are all, to the Russian president, tactical, but now is becoming more strategical. So what do they mean by that?

What I mean by that, Syria was always traditionally when the Soviet Union was still intact, Syria was an ally. The Soviet Union had a base and Russia continued to keep those bases, both an air base and a naval base. But now it is beyond that, Russia for the first time is showing military power and action beyond the sphere of Russian influence. And the commitment in Syria, although they are not as successful as some claim, the commitment is a long-term strategic commitment to stay in the Middle East.

Specially in Syria, but also to influence things in Iraq, in Iran. We know that they have had landings in Iran. Whether if there’s a base or not, that’s questionable. But near Hamadan, in southern Iran, they actually landed an aircraft which is very very very rare for Iran. Iran traditionally does not allow a foreign country to use its territory for military activities. They initially denied it, but later on, they accepted it. So that shows Russia coming into Syria beyond the tradition of having its ties with the Assad father then Bashar al-Assad. As I said, the fact that they committed troops fighting on the side of Bashar al-Assad, and that shows a strategic commitment, perhaps to stay there for a longer term, have a footprint, not only militarily, but also politically.  And Syria, but extension in Lebanon and Iran, they are all attached to each other. That gives Russia its say in Middle Eastern affairs as a whole which we have never seen in a sense since the end of the Cold War. This is the first time they are coming in with a voice and now they are talking to the Egyptians. They are even talking about maneuvers. They are trying to sell weapons, even to the Saudis, to the Emiratis. So they are trying to come back to what the Soviet Union used to be. And that’s very new.

Aleppo, Syria. Photo: EPA/STR

So there are two types of sources about Russia, and its involvement, and the Kremlin itself. Some would say that we are underestimating them, we don’t look to how strong they are. Others would say, that no, we are actually creating the need, that Vladimir Putin likes, to be stronger than his, look at the Russian economy, look at the Russian military, uncomparable to NATO. They are uncomparable to any other country. They are not as good as they’d like to look, like recreating someone really big. So what would be your dimension?

Look, the fact that they are in Syria shows that they have the power to extend their force. But at the same time, the success in Syria, and again, it is how you look at success in Syria.  They have propped up the regime of Bashar al-Assad. They have taken some territory, but they are targeting neither ISIS, they are targeting the same groups that the United States, Turks support. They are also playing a very interesting game with Turkey, how they are reacting with, for example, with the Kurds. They are not hitting the Kurds, but they are trying to have a voice. The footprint, the military footprint is not very successful. And you are right, some people exaggerate it, but that is when you put a military unit on the ground, you take advantage of that, that’s nothing new. I don’t think they have the power to extend beyond what they have done, even like now.

And for a few coming there, they would say that Russia’s bombing attempts were not very successful, but to show their weapons is almost a way to show, hey look, we have weapons that work and that it is a marketable commodity. So whether this was a successful or unsuccessful, the voice is there. And I think that in itself is a step forward, if you would, in this strategy to become a partner or a player in the Middle East. I would say player, they are partners with Syria, but Iran’s partnership is not as much as people think. I don’t think Iran trusts Russia as much. Right now it is a needs based acceptability of both sides. I don’t think there is a strategic relationship between Moscow and Tehran, even though they say there is. I don’t think Iranians trust Russians, but right now, they don’t have a lot of other friends in the region so that’s the only way to go to.

So the fact remains, how successful or not, they are there. And the fact they are there, they are affecting. And they are ‘winning’ at least in Syria in fact that Aleppo, some people don’t consider Aleppo as a winning, but Russians have taken credit for Aleppo, at least partially.  And the fact that right now Bashar al-Assad is walking the streets of Damascus, almost as a victor. You know, look here, there’s peace. That gives Russia enough leverage, and very interestingly, in the so-called the Arab Street, that means the Arab populace,  all the bombings, all of the killings you have seen in Aleppo, somehow Russia   dwas still liked. If another country would have done that, the United States or even another European country, you would have seen demonstrations against it. But somehow Russia’s system is still effective that even when they are attacking civilians, civilian convoys, they are not being reprimanded, at least on the popular arena.

And when and where does NATO come into this relationship with Russia strengthening itself with the current situation with Trump as the US president. As an Ukrainian, with what we have been seeing for the last three years, NATO got more united in some cases, it is still, of course, sticks to what they say, it is steady support to the sovereignty of Ukraine, for instance. You as somebody who may assess it from not only the political, but the military side, how do you see it?

I personally think NATO is very healthy. I mean we just expanded by one country. So if you look at it that way, that is a victory, that is an expansion of NATO. Article Five, I think, President Trump openly said that he said initially that he thinks NATO is a valuable asset and that there is a commitment to it.  And I think that domestic politics sometimes come in there, but I don’t think US commitment to NATO has diminished. And perhaps, one of the positive side-effects, if you would, there would be more participation by NATO members who were not going into that 2 percent agreement which NATO agreed. Perhaps, on the longer run, NATO may be more strengthen. 

What does it mean in practice, in particular, in Eastern Europe? Having Montenegro as a new NATO member, what does it mean in practice?

That’s a good question. I mean, Montenegro is a new member state. NATO is not just a military alliance, there is an issue of commitment to certain standards. The military standards, perhaps, some of the countries are not the same. This is why the 2 percent is even there. That yes we understand that there are states, we being collective, this organization. Participation in NATO is by volunteer basically. 

So what you have is, you have a collection of countries that when they got together initially, it was because of a Soviet threat. And that threat, when it went away, that rationale, the raison-d’etre  became weaker. That is why Afghanistan almost become a savior of NATO. I think Russia’s position, specifically after the takeover of Crimea and what is happening today in eastern Ukraine, may have actually strengthened NATO, even for those countries that thought it may not work. This realization don’t happen overnight, but I think what is happening with NATO, you know, the frontier countries, in Poland, in Romania, in Norway. There is much more attention to it.

Commitment to NATO has not diminished, where commitment has never been up, it depends on much you put on the table. It is not just forced integration, but also the issue what you put in there for this collective defense. I personally think NATO is becoming more valuable, not less. It may not be seen today, but in the next few years, with actions in countries like the one I’m sitting in right now, its actions have affected Europe, specifically Europe. In a way that they think, okay, we have to some kind of, not a single country can withstand even the potential of an eastern threat. I am saying that would happen, but even threat of some kind of aggression. At the end of the day, I think NATO may become more strong. Montenegro shows why countries want to become there, because they are looking for a collective rather than singular defense. But if there’s collective defense, there should be collective responsibility. That’s what is happening.

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk

/Written by Chen Ou Yang