Russian Influence in the Middle East

Max Kuhns, Lynx Fellow

Russia has been one of the world’s top exporters of arms, holding second only to the United States since 1999. Clients in the Middle East historically included Syria, Egypt, and Iran, but have also begun to include Libya, Turkey, Algeria and Morocco in modern transactions. Most have viewed the post Cold War international system as unipolar, in which the United States has dominated the international stage. 

Efforts by Russia in the last decade could point towards an attempt at countering the hegemony the United States has gained. The civil conflict in Syria is primed to be the catalyst in which Russia can break the hegemonic hold the United States has held for so long in the Middle East/North Africa region (MENA). 

Obama administration officials proposed a security resolution after another usage of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against the Syrian populace, just to be vetoed by the Russian delegation at the UN. An explanation for this vote included the lessons drawn from operations against Libya, in which authorization for humanitarian protection evolved into a license to pursue regime change. Furthermore, the Russian government was able to negotiate a surrender of the chemical weapons arsenal under international supervision, providing a boost to its ability to project soft-power regionally.

Russian intervention into the Syrian conflict began in September 2015 with an opening salvo of “Kalibr” cruise missiles fired from its Caspian Sea flotilla. Following this opening salvo, aerospace forces, ground troops, and naval forces were all deployed to the conflict to back the Assad regime.

Deployment of Russian aircraft was likely done for two reasons, to provide the Assad regime with a capable Air Force (Syrian aircraft were likely exhausted due to number of missions already flown). Secondly, this deployment would allow the Russian Aerospace Forces to gain combat experience while testing out airframes in a conflict situation.

Aircraft deployed included Su-24’s, Su-25’s, Su-30’s, Su-35’s, as well as the bomber class Tu-22, Tu-95, and Tu-160’s. While most of these airframes are not new to the Russian forces some are, as well as some of the ordinance utilized in combat by missions flown by the Aerospace forces. Russian involvement probably peaked in the 2015 – 2016 timeframe when Russian aircraft flew over 6300 missions to combat advances by opposition forces. Other airframes deployed to the conflict include the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) known as the Forpost (indigenously engineered Israeli Searcher UAV) and helicopter frames known by Mi-24, Mi-35, and Mi-28.

Ground troops were essential in the daily operations carried out from the naval and air base located at Tartous, reports of exact numbers of troops ranged from 1,700 to 4,000. Russian ground armaments deployed to support regime ground operations included the TOS-1A multiple rocket launcher (MRL) which possesses thermobaric warheads; in addition to the T90 tank, BTR-82 armored personnel carriers (APC), as well as the Iskander (SS-26 STONE). In order to protect those assets deployed to the Syrian conflict Russia deployed multiple personnel defense systems. These systems include the Bastion (SSC-5) coastal defense missile system, the S-400 (SA-21 GROWLER), and the Pantsir (SA-22) system. 

Lessons learned in this conflict by Russian forces will allow it to modernize its military to rival the United States in ability to project it regionally. Gifting the Syrian regime the S-300 SAM system represents a significant threat to Israeli strike capabilities, as well as the S-300 deal with Iran which could threaten US air supremacy in the region. Lastly, the head of US Special Operations Command has dubbed the conflict in Syria as the most aggressive electronic warfare environment on Earth. This comment comes after multiple reports of interference with US assets in Syria, likely stemming from the Krasukha-4 jamming system deployed from Russia.

Works Cited

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Kofman, Michael. 2015. War on the Rocks. October 18. Accessed March 03, 2019.

Lynch, Marc. 2016. The New Arab Wars. New York: PublicAffairs.

Nikolskaya, Polina, and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber. 2018. Reuters. September 24. Accessed March 03, 2019.

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