Andrej Kreutz raised a poignant question in his book from 2007, "Russia in the Middle East: Friend or Foe," well before the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011. Even though Russia has been an important player in the Middle East since the Cold War era, its influence in the region has burgeoned since Syrian President Bashar Assad invited Moscow into the Syrian civil war in 2015.
Compared with its natural borders in the north, Russian conventional foreign policy has considered its southern border with Georgia, and by extension Turkey, as an Achilles heel of sorts, as the region was divided between pro-Soviet countries and NATO allies throughout the Cold War. Syria itself has been in Russia's sphere of influence since the Soviet era when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to strengthen the USSR's relations with the third world and Arab countries in the early 1960s.
The United States' decision following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to return to the Middle East with boots on the ground was a source of panic for Russia at the time.
Moscow did not welcome the U.S. military's presence in Iraq after the invasion in 2003, as the possibility of an emerging, stable, prosperous, U.S.-controlled Iraq neighboring Syria, infringing on its sphere of influence, would not be a positive development for Russia.
Thanks to the U.S.' unwillingness to finish the war it started and its lack of understanding of Middle Eastern politics, then-U.S. President Barack Obama promised a policy pivot away from the Middle East, which is now in the hands of U.S. President Donald Trump. The U.S. has become an increasingly less active player in the Middle East since 2009. It has been unwilling to solve the region's problems, change its position or act in its role as a superpower. Meanwhile, Russia has gleefully filled the power vacuum left by America over the past decade.