Vladimir Putin entered Syria in an attempt to bolster his domestic popularity and demonstrate Russia’s military adequacy- while also containing its rivals in the Middle East.
The Russian military operation in Syria launched at the end of September 2015 has so far raised a variety of opinions regarding the true reasons behind it, as well as what consequences it may bear for Russia. Since the Ukrainian crisis, Russia has become substantially alienated from the West while triggering economic sanctions that have already exerted a grave impact on the energy-dependent Russian economy. This article aims to address the increasingly unpredictable regime in Russia and the barely clear conundrum of forces and interests in Syria.
Few observers believe the Kremlin’s official line that Russian military intervention stemmed solely from a desire to destroy ISIS, which had become the ultimate security threat to both Russia and the West due to the latter’s anemic response to the Islamic State`s territorial and ideological expansion. Russia has not been more successful than others in destroying the militants. In fact, the map of bombardments by the Russian air force draws a picture of more or less indiscriminate targeting of almost all Sunni-based opposition groups, be they radical, moderately Islamic or even declaring adherence to the secular ideology (as the Free Syrian Army does) – as long as they fight President Assad who has steadfastly claimed to remain “Syria’s legitimate president”. The tactical use of combating ISIS — a group whose barbaric atrocities made it universally despised around the world — is a cover for more complex and cynical goals.
Vladimir Putin undoubtedly pursued both domestic and external factors when entering Syria. Among the factors addressed domestically in Russia was the failure to gain considerable success in the proxy war in eastern Ukraine. The rebels were held back and in the end had to acquiesce to the conditions of the Minsk Accords, which though unable to reintegrate the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics into the Ukrainian state de-facto, marginalized them despite Russia-nurtured plans to spread the ideology of “Novorossiya” and undermine the very idea of Ukrainian statehood.
Thus the regime that is increasingly relying on controlling the minds of the “silent majority” of Russians through the personal appeal of Vladimir Putin for its longevity badly needed to bolster the public morale by engaging in yet another military campaign abroad. Syria, where the prospects for the end of the conflict look increasingly vague, is the ideal ground for such a move — an opportunity for Russia to punch above its weight at little cost. It is vital to understand the Moebius ribbon-like structure of Putin’s policies — both domestic and foreign dimensions thereof stem from the ultimate goal of preserving and consolidating unchallenged power over the biggest country on Earth.
That’s why the Kremlin’s ideological machine has tried, though with a less zeal compared to the Ukrainian hybrid war, to sell the campaign as driven by “the duty to protect the land vital for Orthodox Christianity”. Moscow-based Patriarch Kirill even claimed Syria to be a part of the “Russkiy mir” (Russian world).
Some Russian historians went even further by drawing historical parallels: Russians were among those who saved the Byzantine Emperor Roman III from Arab captivity at Aleppo in 1030. Alawites (to which the Assad family belongs to) of Latakia and Tartus attempted to swear allegiance to Russian Empress Catherine II in 1770. Czar Nicholas I waged the Crimean War in the 1850s under the pretext of protecting Christians in Holy Land, then part of the Ottoman Empire.
Indeed, Putin’s approval rating enjoyed record levels following the annexation of Crimea and during the ongoing intervention in Ukraine’s domestic affairs to protect Russians and Russian-speaking. And it has not suffered much because of the Syrian campaign.The “Collector of Russian lands” has become an icon, whom the Russians consider the sole power to resist American expansionism all over the world.
Besides these internal reasons, Putin’s major goal was undoubtedly to demonstrate to Western powers its revived might and to raise Russia as a superpower in global affairs again. As no Western powers have thus far deployed any ground forces there, Russia is also likely to restrict its operation to aerial strikes. The latest developments have shown that this strategy is tactically rather effective, as the rhetoric used by the US State Secretary John Kerry during his latest visit to Moscow suggests. He stated “a considerable improvement” in the mutual understanding between Russia and the West on the matter of Syria and acknowledged the vital role Moscow is to play in the conflict resolution process. It should also be noted that Putin was definitely keen to demonstrate Russia’s military prowess in the face of harsh critique of its technical deficiencies against its great power claims. His rather cynical remark that likened Syria to a training ground for Russian pilots1 makes it quite obvious.
Russia definitely aspires to preserve President Assad’s place in a would-be solution to the Syrian conflict. Putin, whose view of the global politics has been profoundly shaped by the realities of the Cold War era, sees Assad’s regime as the necessary guarantor of continuing Russian presence in the region — and all the more so after the relations with Turkey deteriorated badly and a Sunni alliance hostile to the Russian interests in the region, took shape.
In fact, Russia’s strategic long-term interests do not oblige it to stick to its traditional Shia-secular allies in the region, Iran and Syria. It had enjoyed, before the unfortunate accident with the Su-24 over the Turkish-Syrian border, years of unprecedentedly fruitful cooperation with Turkey; the recent softening of the Western stance towards Iran has urged the Saudis to question its allegiance to the strategic alliance with the US and to diversify Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical portfolio. Thus, Russia could be in a rather good position to challenge the regional status-quo had it not been so opposed to the aforementioned countries’ support of the Syrian rebels and their attempts to end Assad’s rule. Moreover, the undiplomatic and awkward measures taken after the plane incident made it almost impossible to restore the normal relationships for years ahead.
Many experts claim that the Syrian campaign was necessary for Russia to distract the world from the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Indeed, Ukraine gradually slid off Western radar for a while. Although Putin might be interested in having control of Mediterranean ports of Syria while preserving Assad in power, he wants the world’s eyes off of Ukraine, to put the focus on Syria, then normalize Donbas” as U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove notes2.
Despite Putin’s rhetoric on fighting ISIS in Syria as a pretext for invasion, the Russians apparently aim to weaken American influence in the region. Putin might have also hoped to get support from the Muslim masses given strong anti-American and anti-Western mood in Islamic countries. Russian politicians have been accusing the United States and its allies for intervening in the Middle East since 2003 Iraq campaign and causing chaos and instability in the region during and in the aftermath of Arab Spring. In this context, the Russians – both the regime and common people – sincerely believe they are the only power that can bring the long-desired order and stability to the region.
Their reasoning, however apparently stems from the utterly false assumption that the internal strife in the Middle Eastern countries is a product of direct Western interference and encouragement- and thus Russia is likely to grossly overestimate the appeal of narrowly understood status-quo and pre-Arab Spring order to ordinary Arabs, however keen the latter may be to see the end of the bloody mayhem.
Therefore, it is possible to conclude that while Syrian campaign may indeed fulfill its tactical functions, it cannot add to Russia’s geopolitical credentials in the long term. First of all, the unequivocal support of the Assad regime is likely to be met with disapproval by most regional and Western powers, as information about big civilian casualties inflicted by Russian strikes, will spread. It can also exacerbate Russia’s isolation in the Middle East.
Russia had already found itself ostracized from the elite club following the annexation of Crimea and support of the Donbass separatists, and which is worse, the country finds itself with no true allies – even the CSTO member-states do not fully support Russia, or do provide their support mainly in token form. Despite desperate attempts of Russian diplomats to set up an international alliance“ similar to the anti-Hitler coalition”, the Western countries avoided having any deal with Russia. Persuading François Hollande, who was seeking vengeance in the aftermath of Paris terror attacks, did not produce any results either.The only country that wholeheartedly endorses Russia’s policies, Iran, will soon start to export its oil to the West as the embargo is officially lifted3, likely contributing to the further downfall of oil prices and exacerbating Russian economic recession, and thus is not an obvious long-term partner. Yet it will be very difficult for Moscow to restore its relationships with the major Sunni countries, which now tend to demonstrate solidarity under the Saudi aegis against the pressing security challenges. Thus, for Putin the Syrian campaign may well be described with Lenin’s definition: “one step forward, two steps back”.