The future of Syria looks dim not just because of its internal problems but also because the entire system of international relations is experiencing a crisis.

Syrian troops and pro-government gunmen marching walk inside the destroyed Grand Umayyad mosque in the old city of Aleppo, Syria, Dec. 13. Photo: AP

The Middle East remains among the most turbulent and volatile regions in the world. Since the winter of 2010-2011, when the so-called Arab Spring hit the region, it has continued to fragment, moving towards more chaos and instability. Ongoing conflicts in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, combined with the rise of Islamic extremism, sectarianism and the refugee crisis, have led to a great degree of uncertainty about how to solve the major problems the Middle East currently faces.

Thus, solving any issue in the region is a very complicated riddle that is extremely hard to crack – not just for Russia, but also for the U.S. and other regional powers – Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – each of them pursuing their own interests. When Russia decided to deploy its military to Syria in the fall of 2015, it became involved in a conflict outside of its borders for the first time in its modern history. It also put additional responsibility on Russia for the conflict and its settlement as well as the restoration of the country after the devastating war.

With that in mind, the Russian International Studies Association organized a round table event at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University) on Dec. 8-9 that was devoted to the Middle East, its problems and Russia's policy in the region. It featured top Russian experts, who tried to assess the current situation in the region and analyze possible scenarios for the future.

Syrian riddle

Despite the recent news about the liberation of Aleppo, the largest city in the country, Grigory Kosach, professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities, does not share a positive view on the prospects for the conflict’s settlement. He argues that, despite any military successes, the positions of all parties to the conflict are almost impossible to reconcile as each of them pursues separate interests in Syria.

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There are at least three levels of the participants in the conflict: local actors represented by pro-government forces and militias, numerous opposition and terrorist groups; regional actors that have their own agenda in Syria – Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia; and global actors – Russia and the U.S.

“Regional powers pursue their own interests in Syria and conduct their own, independent course of action, which makes their activity a driving force of the conflict, not that of Russia and the U.S., which ultimately won’t be successful,” explains Kosach.

Marina Sapronova, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University), argues that one of the biggest issues of the conflict in Syria is that global powers do not possess effective mechanisms to influence regional actors. This is why any political agreement struck by the U.S. and Russia has little chance to come to fruition, as the regional powers might have no interest in implementing it.

The same applies to the opposition groups that also appear to be mixed in with the terrorists. Deep fragmentation of the Syrian opposition and its affiliation with terrorist groups is another factor that precludes the U.S., Saudi Arabia or Turkey from influencing them. As a result, it makes any political process very doubtful.

Regional complexities

Many experts argue that Syria is a battleground for the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. This is why reconciliation, or at least compromise between the two, is crucially important for the Syrian crisis to be settled.

“The most important question now is whether Iran and Saudi Arabia can reach a compromise in their positions. Currently, it is simply impossible due to a whole set of reasons,” notes Kosach.

Iran has a deep-seated interest in Syria. For decades, Tehran and Damascus have represented the “Axis of Resistance” and Iran has already invested too much in Syria to give it up or to sacrifice its interests there. Senior researcher and Iran expert at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences Irina Fedorova highlights that “Tehran pours about $4 billion into Syria annually.”

If those estimates are correct, it helps to understand why Iran wants to keep its assets and secure its interests in Syria. The only way it can do it so far is by supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad. “Iran can agree to change Assad only if he is replaced by a figure that is going to consider and protect its interests in Syria. Only after that, Iran might compromise,” explains Sapronova.

At the current moment, such a personality is absent and the prospects for such change are quite dim.

Middle East and its place in the global power struggle

Looking at the Syrian crisis from a broader perspective, it’s possible to see other factors impacting the situation. Sapronova argues that it reflects the crisis of the existing international system, which is experiencing a transformation. When such change is underway, it naturally affects the regional balances of power as well. There are several trends that prove such a transformation.

First, there is quite clear shift of global powers’ attention to Asia, in particular, by the U.S. It means less American involvement in the Middle East, which leads to a more active role of the regional actors and other global powers such as Russia and China.

Secondly, the composition of the leading Arab powers has changed significantly in the Middle East. Historically there were three Arab powers that defined key regional trends – Syria, Iraq and Egypt. Since 2003 and then since 2011, all these powers experienced a decline: Syria and Iraq are on the verge of collapse while Egypt lost its role due to economic and political decline. Instead, the new core of the Arab politics emerged around Saudi Arabia in the form of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Such change naturally increased activity of non-Arab powers in the region, Iran and Turkey, which came into the forefront of defining regional dynamics.

All these changes added more complexity and uncertainty to the region, accompanied by the gradual decline of U.S. involvement in the region.

Against this backdrop, many experts argue that Russia came back to the Middle East as an influential actor and tried to fill the power vacuum that appeared with the gradual U.S. withdrawal from the region. Especially such voices became louder since the fall of 2015, when Moscow decided to deploy its military to Syria and established an air base near Latakia.

However, all those arguments appear to be an overstatement. The Middle East has never been among the priorities for Russia and its foreign policy. Even a quick look through all Russia’s foreign policy concepts since 1990s will confirm that. Moscow does not prioritize the Middle East and, therefore, it is not ready to invest huge resources in it either.

Russia’s new Foreign Policy Concept, which was released in December, continues the same tradition. The Middle East is still behind the post-Soviet space, Europe, the U.S. and Asia-Pacific on the regional priorities list, so no one should expect Russia to invest in it more than it does with regard to the Asia-Pacific or the U.S.

Elena Melkumyan, professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities and a specialist on the Persian Gulf region, notes that the U.S. will remain the main guarantor of security in the region. “Russia cannot compete with the West in providing security to the Middle East. It has neither capacities for that, nor the desire,” explains Melkumyan.

Thus, while the Middle East is experiencing a turbulent period of transformation at the same time as the entire system of international relations is changing, Russia has no intention or desire to become a power that will take on responsibility to deal with the complicated situation in the Middle East. It seems that Moscow chose to act in a limited capacity, just to make sure that its interests are secured and no one questions its place in the future of the region.

But the real issue is that no actor can be sure what is going to take place in the Middle East after the end of all this turbulence.