The increasing influence of Russia in the Middle East region

In the last decade, the Middle East region is many reasons. the potential outcomes, if not taken under a common regional and international control, will throw the region into a social and civilization chaos. If during the Cold War the region was ‘somehow coordinated’ by proxy wars, after the fall of the soviet union, the United States the leader alongside with regional territorial powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt or Israel. Russia stranded by without significant involvement for nearly two decades limiting its access to the region to relations of ‘friendship’ by offering political support and providing some countries with military equipment’s. however, all these countries weren’t forced to be in good relations with the United States.[1] 

The consequences of the war in Iraq, the Arab Spring events and the stumble strategy of Obama administration towards this region (if there one) allowed Russia to find a breakthrough window in the region, in the person of president Bashar al-Assad. Russia had manifested attempts to access the region, almost a decade ago, when in talks with the Iranian government to provide Tehran with anti-air defence systems S-300. However, under international pressure – and especially under Israel pressure a reliable dialogue partner in the region for Russia, Moscow did not offer to provide these systems to Iran, even though relations with Tehran have remained good. Russian government wanted to offer these systems to Iran because it convinced that the regional influence is not only sustainable via the political or the economic factors (for example, in 2015), but also via strategic military factor. once the us and working group for Iranian nuclear program reached a consensus regarding Tehran intentions, Russia delivered these missiles in late 2015 with the start of Russian military campaign in Syria.[2]

Officially, the Syrian government asked for help from the Russian Government so its aero-space troops to support Syrian governmental ground forces infighting against Daesh the opposition supported by the United States and its allies, as well as against al-Qaeda and other groups. For Russia, this was favourable their political and military presence in the Middle East. Although Russia has a military base in Latakia, its fate was uncertain in case the Syrian government falls. Since this is the only Russian naval base in South Seas, its loss would have multiple effects for the Russian navy.

Thus, September 2015, General Military Command in Moscow has deployed in Latakia, military equipment not only for defence operations, but for offensive ones as well.

Based on satellite images, in the first stage, it was identified twelve bombers Su-24M and Su-25SM attack aircrafts, six Su-34 bombers, four SU-30CM and helicopters Mi-24 and Mi-8. On November 17, 2015, the involvement of 25 long-range bomber sandan, additional eight Su-34 bombers and four Su-24CM bombers into the operations in Syria was announced.[3]

To protect the air base in Syria, special forces from navy (from the black sea fleet) and special forces of the 7th air assault (mountain) airborne division were dislocated. According to Stratford, a minimum of seven t-90 tanks, artillery and armored personnel carriers btr-80 were also present.

The Russian involvement in Syria has created a very efficient joint air defense system between Russian and Syrian troops, which has been providing protection to all civilian and military strategic facilities, including Latakia airport. By elements, this air defense system includes several Russian Pantsir-S1 systems (SA-22 greyhound, NATO reporting name) and the electronic warfare system “Krasukha”. The second level of the air-defense is assured by the three systems Buk (SA -11 Gadfly, NATO reporting name) as well as by some Syrian air defense upgraded systems which were bought from Russia, such as 9K33 Osa (SA-8 Geck, NATO reporting name) and medium range Sam systems S-125 (SA-3 Goa, NATO reporting name), air defense missiles S-200 (SA-5 Gammon, NATO reporting name) and other systems. On November 24, 2015, the Russian defense ministry announced that to enhance the defense in the region, missile cruiser “Moskva” equipped with air defense system SA-N-6 Grumble was sent to the coastal area of Latakia. on november 25, 2015, it was announced that it would have been dislocated the last piece of anti-air defense, the S-400 complex, on the russian air base “Hmeymim” in Latakia. It was operational 24 hours later.[4]

On october 7, 2015, four ships of the Caspian fleet of the Russian Navy were involved in the military operations: missile ship “Dagestan” (project 11661, Gepard), small missile ships “Uglich,” “Velikyi Ustug” and “Grad Svyazhesk” (project 2163- Buyan-M). on November 2015, Vishnya-class intelligence ship “Vasily Tatishev” arrived in Syria.

Thus, on november 20, 2015, Russian military is engaged in the military operations with a group of 69 aircrafts, 10 vessels, and 6 ships.[5]

On January 3, 2016, the missile cruiser “Varyag” entered into the Mediterranean sea to change grkr “Moscow” on the coast of Syria. The task force also includes patrol boats, “ladnyi,” “Pytlivyi,” “Smetlivyi,” Tarantul-class corvettes, large landing ship “Saratov” and a number of auxiliary ships and vessels.

Military technical components mentioned above bring out a new organization of the Russian army. If in the past, we analysed an unwieldy Russian army which during regional or local conflicts focused more on the defense, or tactical strategic arsenal (as it happen during the Chechnyan or even in the Georgian campaigns), here we see a symbiosis of cooperation almost ‘state-of-art’ at all levels. Military leadership is able to use all means available for a modern and sophisticated army: armored personnel carrier, tanks, helicopters, anti-aircraft systems on the short, medium and long distance; short and long range, attack bombers, with tactical and strategic standing; also, the army uses navigational systems, satellites and spy drones “made in Russia.”

However, with all these, the Russian troops were not exempt from human losses. The most publicized was shooting down the Russian attack bomber Su-24 (allegedly) by the Turkish air force, at the Syrian-Turkish border. This incident and its outcomes should be considered (as of the day of writing this article), as the most important episode of the Russian military campaign in Syria, military and tactical strategies.[6]

First of all, media coverage of this incident was large and debated, as it was by a total mystery that left some questions unanswered. Why did Turkey shoot down the bomber as long as political and economic relations between both countries to be ‘excellent’ weeks before the incident? Why didn’t Russia and Turkey establish a mechanism for coordination and information exchange of air missions conducted directly at the border between Syria and Turkey just as it was established between Russia and Israel? (to be mentioned that Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, accompanied by Chief of Staff of the IDF, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and confirmed the agreed mechanism between two nations to avoid such incidents).

Another question that is relevant to this incident is related to the bomber’s mission. Su-24 is an attack tactical bomber that seeks to engage in ground combat by bombing or lunching rockets and by using machine gun (GSH-Gryazev-Shipunov 6-2). It does not engage in controlling air superiority, usually being escorted by ‘fighters’ such as Mig-29 and Su-30 which are guarding its missions. So, the logical question here is: why wasn’t escorted? A first answer be that this aircraft was in a reconnaissance mission; however, collecting information in that area is much more efficient and safe to be done by using drones or satellites.

Although Russia said its Su-24 exclusively in the Syrian airspace while Turkey said that it crossed its national boundaries, none of the governments has been able to prove the allegations with plausible arguments. As a result, Russian government has imposed economic sanctions on certain Turkish products. In order to increase its security, Russia went further and deployed the air defense systems S-400 Triumph (SA-21 Growler, NATO reporting name) in its base in Latakia, the system being the last important piece of joint Syrian-Russian anti-air defense organization.

S-400 Triumph is the most advanced anti-aircraft defense system operational in Russia and one of the most advanced in the world. It is an upgrade of Growler S-300, designed and developed by Almaz Antey bureau. S-400 provides air defense using long and medium range missiles, which can hit aerial targets at ranges of up to 400 kilometers. S-400 is capable of hitting tactical and strategic aircraft, ballistic and cruise missiles. The system includes a set of radars, missile launchers and command posts, and is operated by the Russian army only.[7]

This step is perhaps the most important element in terms of tactics and military strategy in this conflict. Although Russia has only one military base in the area, in Latakia, after deploying of S-400 is able to monitor every flight maneuver or vehicle within a radius of 600 kilometers, across the entire Syrian territory, plus those of neighboring states such as Lebanon, Israel and small portions of Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. As a result, Russian military command can monitor any flight in the region – including flights of the United States and its allies.

Another consequence of this incident was that the Turkish air force in the air strikes in Syria.

Another state which in fact is not involved in this conflict, but may have troubles related to arms trafficking and terrorists, is Israel. Because an agreement between Israel’s Prime Minister and President Putin regarding missions at the Israeli-Syrian border, Israel’s frontiers with Syria are  ‘frozen’ indirectly monitored by S-400; however, there is no evidence that the Russian military exchangeS or not intelligence with the government in Tel Aviv.[8] Anyway, what is interesting here is that Moscow, in this military-strategic position, has trust relationships with and Iran too. Concerning this, it is necessary to mention that the rescue operation of the second pilot, who remained alive after being ejected from the shooting down of the Su-24 was, rescued by a common operation of Russia, Syria and Iran, according to Israel Times. While the Russian armed forces began planning an operation to extract the pilot from the hostile territory, Iranian General Qasem Soleimani contacted them and proposed a special task force to be formed by special forces of Hezbollah and Syrians commandos who were trained by Iran and were familiar with the geography and fighting in the area. According to this, Syrian military should have been responsible for core operations to rescue the pilot, Russia should have provided the transport, logistical support, air coverage and satellite intelligence. The team of 26 Special Forces formed the commando and was overseen by General Soleimani; eight personnel belonged to Hezbollah and 18 belonged to Syrian Special Forces.[9]

If this piece of information is confirmed, then Russia acquires another ‘leverage’ in the region, Moscow to be involved and more influential in the process of solving the Palestinian conflict.

Today, Russia is far away from the financial, logistical and political capacities and capabilities of the United States. If Moscow wants to keep the increased current status quo in the region, it will not get involved in other regional conflicts in Middle East – at least not alone. It will need a Middle East ally/leader. There are territorial leaders such as Saudi Arabia or Iran which are totally on antagonistic positions. An alliance with one of them will transform Russia into a prey of total misunderstood conflicts for Moscow. Another consequence is that the Russian Government risks the relations with Israel, which have advanced quite well in the last years, notably because Netanyahu was ‘listened’ in Moscow than in Washington. Without regard to, in the coming years Russia will adopt a conservative policy towards this region, but definitely will be one of the ‘key principals.’

Gabriel Grosu

PhD – University of Bucharest


[1] Anna Borshchevskaya, “Russia’s growing Middle East influence,” CNN, January 8, 2014.

[2] “Russia Agrees To Deliver S-300 Missile Systems to Iran,” Defense News, November 9, 2015.

[3] “Генштаб РФ собрался привлечь к операции в Сирии еще 25 самолетов,” Interfax, November, 2015.

[4] Gheorghii Peremitin, “Аналитики Stratfor опубликовали новые фотографии российской базы в Сирии,” RBC, September 25, 2015.

[5] “Журналистам показали корабли ВМФ, которые дежурят в Средиземном море,” Life News, January 2016.

[6] “Генштаб: во время операции по спасению пилотов Су-24 погиб российский морпех,” BBC, November 2015.

[7] “Характеристики зенитной ракетной системы С-400 “Триумф”,” RIA, November 2010.

[8] Barak Ravid, “Netanyahu: Israeli and Russian Military Officials to Meet to ‘Prevent Accidents’ Over Syria,” Haaretz, November 2015.

[9] “Iran: Injured general oversaw daring rescue of downed Russian pilot,” Times of Israel, November 2015.

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