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Damascus to Donetsk: How Russia's withdrawal from Syria has reshaped security in the Middle East

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Deputy Editor

Credit: Presidential Executive Office of Russia, Wikimedia Commons

This article has been written as part of a larger Global Weekly-Al Fusaic collaboration to focus on the effects of the War in Ukraine over the Middle East and North Africa.

The advent of the Russo-Ukraine war has been examined in depth by academics from all fields. However, particularly in Western mainstream media, the wider international implications of the war have been ignored in favour of a focus on Europe’s post-Russia energy crisis. Indeed, there are few places more impacted, or at least more involved in the war’s wider impacts, than the Middle East.

Russia’s withdrawal from Syria has brought with it the return of Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria, to the international community, with the country seemingly succeeding in its battle to put down opposition forces. With this return has come the inevitable push for regional allies and power from the region’s most influential groups, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as the risk for a re-collapse of the state to its various non-state enemies, such as al-Qaeda and Daesh.

Russia’s withdrawal from the region has brought with it opportunities for security and instability in equal measure, but it is up to the region itself to capitalise on the opportunity presented to it, indirectly, by Russia's War in Ukraine.

An overview of the conflict

The Syrian Civil War began in 2011 as a byproduct of the ‘Arab Spring’, a surge of pro-democracy protests against the autocratic leaders of many Middle Eastern states that toppled the Presidents of Tunisia and Egypt. Following the imprisonment and torture of fifteen boys arrested for graffiti, pro-democracy protestors took to the streets in March 2011 only to be met with government violence, with hundreds being killed or imprisoned by the regime. Military defectors, that July, formed the Free Syria Army, and the conflict has since been exacerbated by the introduction of ethnic tensions between the Islamic sects in the country – the people are majority-Sunni population, but the security establishment, including al-Assad, are part of the minority Alawi sect. The introduction of terrorist cells, such as ISIL, has only complicated matters.

Russia has been involved in the conflict politically and financially on the side of al-Assad since 2011, and militarily since 2015 – the first foreign conflict the country has been formally involved in in the post-Soviet era. It should be noted, however, that Russia-backed mercenaries had been involved in the conflict unofficially – whilst not part of the armed forces technically, Zverev and Tsvetkova suggest that the distinction is muddy. When entering the country, ‘they fly to Syria on board Russian military aircraft which land at Russian bases. When they are injured, they are treated in hospitals reserved for the Russian military and get state medals’ along with around USD$100,000 equivalent as a payout to the families of slain fighters. One notable combatant, going by the Nomme de Guerre ‘Vagner’, was Dmitry Utkin, the recently deceased co-founder of the Russia-funded Wagner Group.

After partial withdrawals of troops from the region throughout the 2010s, the Moscow Times reported in September 2022 that the final Russian troops in Syria were being re-deployed to Ukraine. Although the air force continued to airstrike the nation almost 4,000 times in 2022, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), this withdrawal was monumental in demonstrating to the Middle East that Russia was pulling out, thus opening up a power vacuum in need of filling.

The candidates for control

Of sovereign states, the two vying most strongly for influence in Syria are two with vastly different recent political histories with the country – Iran and Saudi Arabia. Syria is generally seen by the international community as a victim of the ongoing proxy-war campaign between the two regional powers, with Iran having supported the al-Assad regime throughout the conflict and Saudi Arabia giving temporary support to rebels.

Iran is a Shi’ite-majority Islamic Republic that has been allied with al-Assad since the beginning of the conflict. The state has been sending operatives and military commanders to the country in such numbers as to singlehandedly prevent the ‘collapse’ of the Syrian regime, according to an analyst interviewed by the Telegraph. Syria has served as Iran’s only consistent ally since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, and it is known affectionately by Iranian leaders as the ‘35th province’ of the country. A resurgence of Syria on the international stage could be seen as a diplomatic victory for the Khamenei regime, allowing it to regain international relevance and standing in the wake of American withdrawal from former President Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran Nuclear Deal) under former President Trump.

With the loss of Russia from the region, Iran exists as Syria’s only major ally in its dwindling conflict, and this is likely to be reliant on Iran in the coming years and decades as infrastructure and business are rebuilt and refugees are repatriated. It is, therefore, a logical step to see Iran re-emerge as a power broker in the region on a scale not seen since before the Islamic Revolution when the Shah of Iran was backed directly by the United States. Russia’s War with Ukraine has thusly strengthened the regional power of Iran and granted them the potential to re-emerge as a regional influence disruptive to the current geopolitical order.

In the long term, an Iran-aligned international Syria could have serious implications for some Middle Eastern regimes. Bahrain, for example, is Shia-majority but ruled by a Sunni absolute monarchy which in the years since the Arab Spring of 2011 has, amongst other actions, moved to demolish Shia mosques - ‘deliberately [done] to fan Sunni-Shia tensions’ according to Abdo writing in Al Jazeera. Given Iran’s support for the Shia minority Houthi rebels of Yemen, it is not implausible that such support may be extended to the Shia majority of Bahrain should relations continue to be sour.

Saudi Arabia has had a far different relationship with Syria, especially since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was the first Arab leader to formally condemn the Assad regime for its actions against protestors in August 2011, and the country expelled the Syrian Ambassador in February 2012. From 2013, Saudi Arabia became the primary supplier of funds and arms to rebel groups in the country and the two states remained hostile until 2018. At this point, the country began to push for peace negotiations along with Russia, and as of Spring 2023 are discussing the restoration of Saudi-Syrian diplomatic relations and the resumption of trade between the two nations.

Whilst seemingly a less likely candidate for influence than Iran, Saudi Arabia can offer Syria one considerable boon – money. The Saudi economy, as of 2022, stands at around USD$1.1 trillion in size, whilst the Iranian economy is around USD$350 billion, which is less than one-third of the size. On top of this, Iran is currently an international pariah under considerable US sanctions, whilst Saudi Arabia has been benefiting from rising oil prices as a result of Europe’s disentanglement with Russian energy supplies.

This means that Saudi money could be instrumental in financing the rebuilding of the Syrian economy, both in terms of attracting business to the country and in the rebuilding of infrastructure devastated by over a decade of airstrikes and war. It is then, perhaps, more pragmatic for Syria to espouse this new relationship rather than remain in the corner of Iran - their long-term ally and Saudi Arabia’s long-term geopolitical rival.

This new position of Saudi Arabia has only been made possible thanks to the withdrawal of Russia from the conflict, which in turn is the result of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Without Russian funding, Syria has no need to turn to them for help in reconstructing the country and will have no desire to turn to the Western governments that condemned the regime. Through a Saudi-Syria alliance, the Middle East’s primary power broker has the potential to further isolate its main geopolitical rival and create a pseudo-client state in a Syria dependent on Saudi aid to rebuild.

In terms of non-state actors, there are likewise two groups to consider – BRICS and Daesh. BRICS is an economic and political alliance between five states that comprises around 1/3 of world GDP – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. In August 2023, it was announced that six additional countries would be invited to join the group, including both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Such an inclusion would restore the spectre of Russian influence in the Middle East, and thereby Syria, which was lost as a result of Russian troop withdrawals to Ukraine.

It could be argued, therefore, that the inclusion of these states seeks to build a united Iranian-Saudi front to promote some semblance of balance and security in the Middle East that was lost with the Russian withdrawal. It also leaves the region open and attractive to investment, allowing it to industrialise and fulfil the region’s economic potential. This potential has also been seen by China, which in 2022 invited Syria to join its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which would put the country in an advantageous position within global land trade networks.

When considering the ‘predatory’ reputation of BRI projects in areas such as Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, China appears likely to also emerge as a player in the Middle East thanks to the Russo-Ukrainian War. The country may be able to take advantage of the Syrian need for funding to establish regional influence, placing itself at odds with the US influence in the region and emerging as a regional power broker. Given the prospective BRICS expansion in the region, such a move by China could also squeeze the United States and the West out of their own regional influence, raising tensions and solidifying the bipolarity of the modern world.

Also worth noting are Daesh, otherwise known as ISIS, ISIL, or Islamic State, amongst others. Outside of rebel Syrian forces, this group is the most disruptive collective within Syria and has proven difficult to deal with. The withdrawal of Russian forces has likely been a boon to the group, as the SOHR reports that more than 100 members of the group were killed by Russian airstrikes alone.

Daesh are likely to be a significant obstacle to the rebuilding of Syria, rather than in the ending of the civil conflict as they are currently acting more so as a third belligerent instead of acting with another combatant group. In terms of Middle Eastern Security, they are currently of low relative concern.

Will there actually be significant change?

Potentially not. Whilst examining Russian withdrawal from Syria certainly helps to push the narrative of major security adjustments within the region, we must also consider that it is not the only unstable nation in the region.

For example, Yemen is another victim of a proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Iran-backed Houthi rebels fighting against as Saudi-backed Yemeni government. A unifying of the two states under BRICS seems an unlikely event in light of such conflicts, and one must ask whether Syria is so crucial to the dynamic of the Middle East as to be the lynchpin of regional security.

Further, Syria’s civil war is still going on with no end in sight. With the withdrawal of Russian forces, another potential outcome is the continuation of internal hostilities, thus numbing any chance of regional influence because the country is not in a position to be influenced.

A look to the future

The Russo-Ukrainian War has had an impact on the world often overlooked by Western media, but it would do all people well to remain knowledgeable on the situation in the Middle East. If Syria continues to win its Civil War and attempts to rejoin the international community, diplomatic disputes between hopeful powers will emerge. Syria will have to decide what path it wants to follow in its rebuilding, and its choice in allies will affect the power balance in the Middle East.

If Syria chooses to ally with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival will continue to grow in strength. An alliance with Saudi Arabia will lead an already unstable Iranian regime into more dangerous geopolitical territory, furthering its pariahdom and perhaps encouraging it to adopt a destabilising foreign policy. An alliance with China would inflame US-China tensions as well as regional ones, with Iran and Saudi Arabia unlikely to be keen on the country encroaching on the Middle East. Whichever way Syria leans, the Middle East will need to adapt to a new geopolitical reality – an inherently unstable process.

What is clear, however, is that the withdrawal of Russia from Syria has enabled all of these outcomes to become possible where they were highly unlikely before. Whilst Putin did announce partial withdrawals before the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, it is unlikely that troops would have been pulled out of the country so rapidly had the invasion never occurred. The Middle East will become a staging ground for a geopolitical war of diplomacy, and Syria will be Ground Zero.


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