The U.S. and Russia have boundaries of military mobility and power projection in the Middle East shaped by decades of wars and alliances. However, the ongoing conflicts throughout the region have opened the door for players to rearrange the game board.
The U.S. has traditionally held a network of military bases and forward operating capabilities spanning much of the Middle East, and has increased its military presence in response to the threat of ISIS. Close partnerships with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and many others have allowed the U.S. to extend its military reach far beyond its borders and actively shape the environment. U.S. military forces can rapidly respond to nearly any event anywhere in the Middle East, either through established U.S. military bases, weapon system installations, naval presence, or permission to use of a host country’s military facilities. This capability has been a hallmark of U.S. power projection since the end of World War II and has helped the US shape the outcomes of regional conflicts.
In contrast, Russia’s activity in the Middle East has historically been limited since its ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Many close Russian partnerships are with its immediate neighbors, setting geographic restraints on Russian power projection potential. However, Russia is taking advantage of shifting alliances in the wake of the Syrian conflict to expand its military access, and it remains to be seen whether President Trump will open that door further by reducing US pushback.
The Syrian conflict has created a ripple effect, throwing the status quo of regional alliances and operations into jeopardy. As ISIS gained momentum and put a wider radius of countries at risk, those countries became increasingly willing to work with anyone who could intervene on their behalf and protect their interests. Furthermore, those countries have become prime access routes for a variety of actors conducting operations in Syria, adding further intensity to the scramble for partnerships. Large swaths of the environment remain firmly in the sphere of the U.S., but Russia is quickly moving in. Earlier this year, Iran temporarily granted Russia access to Hamadan Air Base, setting a precedent for future potential agreements. Yemen expressed its willingness to open its military facilities to Russia earlier this year in response to its own political turmoil, also creating a new option for Russian power projection. The Saudi intervention in Yemen, with ongoing US military backing, contributes additional stress as U.S. and Russian military operations increasingly overlap.
While Iran and Yemen are opening their doors and bases to Russia, those two instances individually do not represent a major shift in the regional military balance of power and may be temporary—Iran has expressed its displeasure with Russia’s handling of the agreement, and Yemen provides an unattractive military basing option, given its current instability. However, there is another state actor in play that could dramatically alter military balance in the region: Turkey.
Between East and West
Turkey represents a geographic pivot point, sitting on the edge of Europe and Asia and controlling the flow of traffic between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It has traditionally been an ally to the West since its accession into NATO in the 1950s, a partnership that was largely driven by its ability to serve as a barricade against Russia and the spread of communism. In addition, Turkey now represents a critical access point into Syria and Iraq, with multiple military facilities to leverage throughout the country, and Western nations have relied on Turkish support in the fight against ISIS.
However, Turkey’s friendship with the West has been steadily deteriorating in recent years under the weight of four key stress factors. First, the EU has been reluctant to bring Turkey into its ranks, citing reasons ranging from flagging economic growth to human rights violations and historical transgressions. Turkey first applied for EU membership in 1987, and the application’s slow progress is perceived as a political snub in addition to lost potential benefits of membership. Second, Western support of Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIS has been a thorn in Ankara’s side, given the friction between Turkey and its Kurdish population. Third, President Erdogan has voiced his displeasure at the West’s response to the recent coup attempt—while Western countries ultimately did voice their disapproval of a military-led change of power, their initial hesitance and US reluctance to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the accused mastermind of the coup, has not improved Turkish-Western relations. Finally, Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian policies have raised red flags with democratic countries that view his limitations on free speech and other restrictions to be incompatible with their own values.
While Turkey and Russia have had their differences (the shooting down of a Russian Su-24 last year ended in economic sanctions and high political tension), both nations have been working to improve their relationship in the last year. Russia values Turkey not only as a strategically positioned basing option, but also as a point of leverage to disrupt NATO. Putin was quick to show support for Erdogan following the coup attempt, and announced that the two leaders would meet in person the following month. Shortly afterwards, the Turkish Prime Minister publicly stated that Russia could use Incirlik Air Base for operations in Syria “if necessary.”
Ultimately, it is unlikely that Turkey will break from NATO and move entirely to Russia’s side of the game board. But it is not unreasonable to think that Turkey will allow some degree of Russian operations out of Turkish airbases, and that the relationship will sustain itself beyond the Syrian conflict, providing one more military access point Russia previously did not have. While Russia mishandled its recent use of the Iran’s Hamadan Air Base, it set a precedent of operations that can be repeated in the future, and while Yemen is currently an unstable basing option, it serves as yet another alternative for Moscow. These events suggest a gravitational shift of military presence in the region.
The Slow Creep
In the short term, Russia’s repositioning will increase pressure on ISIS, but it will also provide firmer backing of the Syrian government forces. Russia now has a better chance of influencing the future of Syria, either by keeping Assad in power or choosing an equally Russia-friendly leader to replace him. Meanwhile, the West is rapidly losing leverage. This shift may also prompt other countries to open their arms to Russia, regardless of attachments to the West. In addition, both nations continue to operate at a high tempo in the region, increasing the risk of miscalculation leading to conflict between Russia and the U.S. While President Trump may move to ease tensions between the two nations, it is equally possible that Russia will take the opportunity to seize more ground in the face of decreased opposition.
In the long term, increased and sustained Russian military presence would have several effects. Broadly, it will upset the balance in the Middle East that has traditionally been swayed towards the West, limiting operational capability and opening the door for new, non-Western alliances. A closer military partnership between Iran and Russia would boost Iran’s power in the region, increasing tension with Saudi Arabia in the process, as well as between Russia and the U.S., Saudi Arabia’s foremost military partner. A Turkish-Russian détente may open a fissure in NATO, making it more difficult for the alliance to provide a united front in the event of Russian aggression. This in turn may encourage Russia to act more boldly in regions such as the Baltic, causing further strain on NATO. Russia is positioned to set a new standard for balance of power in the Middle East, shaking up partnerships and traditional operational standards to create a more Russia-centric status quo.
The West is increasingly being pushed into a corner of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” While Western nations would ideally limit Russian influence in the Middle East, they are also increasingly dependent on Russian military action to push back ISIS and reestablish stability in the region. They must ultimately recognize that this conflict opens the door for rearranged power projection and alliances, and that left unchecked, Russia will continue to swing the balance of military power in its direction.
Schuyler Moore is currently an analyst at an aerospace & defense consulting firm based in Arlington, VA. She previously studied international relations at Harvard University, and has published work on subjects regarding the Levant, Middle East and Central Asia in The National Interest and The Diplomat. Prior to her current position, she worked with the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the policy or position of any official organization.
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Header Image: Russia, Vladimir Putin, and the curse of geography. (Reuters)