Russia’s support of Syria, together with its expanding relationship with Iran, could spoil Moscow’s improving relations with Sunni governments of the region.

A pair of Russian bombers being readied for action at Hemeimeem air base in Syria. Photo: AP

Russia’s current siding with Shia governments across the Middle East may precipitate an anti-Sunni image and induce a backlash akin to the Yom Kippur War that united Arab nations against Israel. Moscow is in a delicate position with regard to the struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia for regional dominance, as the geopolitical rivalry also catalyzes the Sunni-Shia struggle. The military campaign in Syria and support of Bashar al-Assad are likewise largely viewed in the region as backing of the Alawite-led government against Sunnis.

The Kremlin’s coordination with Iran on geopolitical issues from Yemen and Syria to the recent nuclear deal has led to major Sunni-led states treating Moscow’s relationship with Tehran as an alliance. Russia is now perceived as an external power supporting the Islamic Republic in major regional clashes that confront the geopolitical positions of Saudi Arabia and its coalition. A full-fledged military conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is an unlikely scenario, as it would ruin the economies of both; however, waging wars by proxy will continue to inflame sectarian struggles.

The recent execution of the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia just added fuel to the fire. The Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for revenge for al-Nimr’s death and Riyadh cut off diplomatic and trade ties in a response to the ransacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. The Sunni monarchies, as well as predominantly Sunni Sudan, also imposed diplomatic and economic sanctions in solidarity with the Saudis.

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Regional proxy wars carry clear sectarian overtones and siding with Iran is a shot in the foot for the Kremlin’s regional strategy where 90 percent are Sunnis.

Russia was hoping to reach political settlements in Yemen and compromises over Syria, just as Iran was emerging from its isolation; however, growing volatility across the region put an end to such plans. The Kremlin’s previous strategy perpetuated an image of neutrality and included mediation with key regional players. The cautious approach successfully avoided any affiliations with the potential to damage its regional standing and long-standing impartiality in working relationships with both the Saudis and Iranians.

Moscow tried to secure its relationship with Riyadh even on the threshold of the Syrian military operation. For instance, Vladimir Putin called Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud two weeks before the aerial military campaign kicked off. Russia is still keen on maintaining its relationship with the Kingdom, and, based on data from the Kremlin’s website, Vladimir Putin has called the Saudi king at least three times after the campaign was launched.

However, it is impossible to uphold impartiality any longer. Major Middle Eastern nations perceive Russia as a key influencer of the Arab deaths in Syria. The latest Zogby Research Services survey on the current crisis in the Middle East indicates that the majority of people residing in predominantly Sunni countries believe that Russian support for Assad is a significant factor in causing the Syrian conflict. In Egypt, the Kremlin’s regional and predominantly Sunni ally, 90 percent of participants believe in Russia’s responsibility for the civil war. In contrast, 68 percent of Iranian respondents do not agree about Russia’s responsibility.

Russia is ensnared on the Shia side. The Alawite-led government of Bashar Assad is also held responsible across the Sunni nations for the conflict’s escalation, according to the same poll. Moscow’s silent consent on the involvement of Lebanon's Hezbollah, Afghan and Iraqi Shia volunteers, as well as Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces, likewise adds to the perception of a pro-Shia stance.

The growing pro-Shia perception may demote Russia’s image into that of a public enemy as sectarian divisions are deeply ingrained across Arab societies. Meanwhile, the Kremlin continues to maintain working relationships with a number of Sunni-led governments based on Soviet legacies and strives to balance the influence of the United States. In short, the public perception of Russia is highly turbulent. The calls to wage “holy war” against Russians may grow more appealing over times, which will pose serious implications for the Kremlin’s strategy in the Middle East, as well as domestic security concerns in the Northern Caucasus.

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The political settlement in Syria might be a step in the right direction, as Russia is keen on replacing Assad. The arrangements between Moscow and Doha during Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani’s first official visit to Russia may ease the way for a political transition; however, it is evident that the process will be aggravated by ingrained sectarianism, as well as persistent Saudi-Iranian rivalry behind the curtains.

Russia will find itself on the pro-Shia side once again during upcoming political talks in Geneva. The recent Riyadh meeting for the first time hosted representatives of armed groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, two groups that Moscow labels as terrorists. The radical Sunni groups’ participation pinpoints the growing sectarian allegiance of many Sunni Syrians, as well as Saudi efforts to limit Iranian and Shia influence in Syria.

It is unclear how Moscow could reverse its growing anti-Sunni posture. Russia’s involvement in Yemen is equal to zero, but it still could not project an image of neutrality there. The Kremlin has avoided siding with any of the conflicting sides in Yemen, and called on both the Saudi-led coalition and the Shia Houthi rebels to stop fighting and use the negotiating table. However, for the Saudi-led coalition, it has only signaled Moscow’s unwillingness to enter another conflict in the Middle East, as well as silently supporting the Houthi rebels and the Iranian side.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.