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12 September 2015

Russia’s Syria campaign

Why Putin has decided to move into Syria

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Russia remained a steadfast supporter of the Assad regime. Politically, the Russians have provided consistent support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad at the United Nations and other international forums, while on the military front the Russians remain a key arms conduit for the Syrian regime.

Now reports have emerged of what could only be described as a dramatic escalation of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian morass. Information from both American Government sources as well as various media outlets indicate a Russian expeditionary force has already arrived in Syria. Thousands more Russian troops appear set to follow.    

Russia’s actions raise an obvious question – why is President Vladimir Putin so keen to expend Russian treasure and political prestige to defend the murderous Assad regime, especially when Moscow remains bogged down in Ukraine without an obvious end-game in sight? While Putin’s exact motivations for supporting Assad can only be surmised, below are several factors that fit with what is known about Russian interests in Syria as well as Putin’s broader view of the world.

Economic Interests

While Russian trade with Syria is certainly not on par with Moscow’s trade with China or the European Union, it is not insubstantial. Since 2007 Russia has sold approximately $5 billion in arms to Syria, and after losing $4 billion in arms contracts to Libya after the overthrown of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, Moscow is keen to avoid a repeat in Syria. With Iran expected to regain access to $150 billion in sanctions relief due to its nuclear deal with the P5+1, it is not unreasonable for Moscow to expect Iranian cash to subsidize further Russian arms sales to Assad.

Beyond arms sales, since 2009 Russian firms such as Aeroflot, Stroitransgaz, Tatneft, TMK, ITERA, Sovintervod and RAO have invested $20 billion in Syria, and these contracts would likely be terminated if Assad were overthrown. One interesting Russian investment in Syria is the $100 million exploration deal with the Syrian regime Russian state-owned oil and gas firm Soyuzneftegaz signed  with the regime.  While small by oil and gas standards, the massive gas finds in the Levant shelf provide tantalizing hints of a windfall for Gazprom.

Military

Russia also recently announced plans for a massive expansion of its Black Sea fleet, procuring more than 80 new ships by 2020, as well as building a second naval base for this fleet at its Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.  Russia maintains a naval base in the coastal Syrian city of Tartus—Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union and a crucial sea link given that access to and from the Black Sea is controlled by Turkey, a NATO-member country. 

While the Tartus base is relatively small, Russian naval vessels in the Mediterranean have made repeated port calls for repair and replenishment over the years. Tartus is also a secure facility for Russian arms deliveries to Assad – a critical necessity if Russian plans to double down on its support for the Syrian regime – and the port could also serve as a departure point for Russian non-combatants in Syria in extremis. As a result, Russian military officials – as well as Putin himself – have stated that Russia’s ability to use Tartus is critical to Moscow’s security interests.

Political

While Russia’s economic and military interests in Syria are very real, politics are an even more critical component of Russia’s support for Assad. The Russian relationship with Syria dates back to the 1950’s when the country was ruled by Bashar’s father Hafez al-Assad, and Syria was long Moscow’s closest ally in the Middle East.

Putin still feels betrayed by the West’s overthrow of Gaddafi after Moscow tacitly endorsed a United Nations humanitarian resolution on Libya in 2011, and Putin increasingly sees global politics through the lens of an anti-American oriented zero-sum game. As a result he is loath to allow another close ally to be overthrown by American proxies such as Turkey and the Gulf whom he perceives as acting at the behest of the United States in supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition. 

“The Middle East is always a place where the Russians played a role as a great power equal to the US, and they want to recreate this status now. Moscow is keen to be part of an Iran, Russia, Syria, Iraq Shiite alliance, as a way to leverage their power in the Middle East” said Stephen Blank, an expert on Russian foreign policy at the American Foreign Policy Council. Blank argues that to ensure Moscow’s continued influence in Syria, the Russians are determined to create a ‘frozen conflict’, where the Assad regime at a minimum retains control of the Alawite heartland in the provinces or Latakia and Tartus along the coast. Assuming Blank is correct, this explains why Russian troops are already engaged in combat in Latakia.

Russia may also be keen to demonstrate to other countries in the Middle East that it’s a more reliable ally than the fickle Americans. After Washington froze weapons deliveries to Egypt after its military overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammed Morsi, Moscow stepped into the breach with a multi-billion dollar weapons sale to Cairo, with Putin and Egyptian leader Abdul Fattah al-Sisi developing an increasingly warm “relationship of authoritarians.” Given Moscow’s long-standing ties to Damascus, by standing with Assad Putin’s message to states like Egypt is that “you can count on us.”

Finally, Putin views the Syrian civil war through the lens of international terrorism – although not necessarily for all the reasons we might suppose. While Assad’s preservation is important to Russia, right now the Kremlin’s overwhelming concern is to convince the West to moderate its tough line on Ukraine. In this regard, the Kremlin hopes to use the fight against ISIS to form an anti-Jihadist coalition with Washington as a strategy for resetting the American-Russian relationship to a status more favorable to Moscow. In this regard, Putin is instrumentalizing the issue of terrorism to mitigate the damage from its adventure in Ukraine.

Another advantage Putin derives from doubling down in Syria is the implicit threat that it could make an already terrible humanitarian situation even worse. As demonstrated by Russia’s conduct during its wars in Chechnya in the 1990s, the Russian military is rather less squeamish about civilian casualties then the West, and a significant Russian military commitment in Syria could further exacerbate the refugee crisis which threatens to overwhelm Europe. To simplify, by placing Russian boots on the ground in Syria, Moscow conveys the following message to the West: You can cooperate with us on finding a solution to this problem, but if not, we are prepared to escalate our support for Assad and support his regime to the end.

To be clear, Russia’s instrumentalization of the ISIS threat does not mean terrorism is not an issue for Moscow. Russia has engaged in own decades long fight against radical Islam, first in Afghanistan and now in the Caucasus, and Putin sees Assad’s struggle  as a continuation of Russia’s own. Moreover, with thousands of Russian citizens now fighting with ISIS in Syria, Russia worries that the war could spread northwards, to the post-Soviet Caucasian and Central Asian states and ultimately into Russia itself.  Indeed, in 2014 ISIS released a video threatening Putin himself, warning "this is a message to you, oh Vladimir Putin....we will liberate Chechnya and the entire Caucasus, God willing.” As if on cue, shortly after, a suicide bomber struck the Chechen capital of Grozny, killing or wounding 17 people. In this context, the prospect of hundreds of radicalized and battle-hardened fighters from Chechnya and the North Caucasus returning from Syria concerns Putin as well – but the immediate objective is to convince the West that a shared fear of ISIS should motivate the West to relax its position on Ukraine. 

Given Russia’s varied interests in Syria, from the Kremlin’s perspective, the decision to raise the ante by putting boots on the ground makes sense. This does not, however, mean that Putin would never consider an alternative to the Assad regime, nor that Russian-American cooperation in Syria is impossible. For one thing, Putin already stepped in to broker a deal with the United States to ensure the removal of Assad’s chemical weapons from Syria. At that time the United States actually outsourced its Syrian policy to Russia, allowing President Obama to save face by not having to enforce Washington’s so-called ‘red line’ on the use of chemical weapons.

Furthermore, Washington shares Moscow’s fear of ISIS, and while the United States continues to pay lip service to overthrowing Assad, its main priority – to which American military forces have been committed as well – is to “defeat and degrade” ISIS. However, even if Assad could be eased out of power, Russia would almost certainly require that his replacement be an authoritarian “strong man” or military government capable of continuing the fight against ISIS. Furthermore, Russia would also likely insist that Assad’s departure be voluntary, as Putin would likely not want to be seen as throwing a close ally like under the bus. Finally, the Russians’ would likely demand that any post-Assad arrangement take account of Russia’s economic and military interests in Syria.

For now, however, the introduction of Russian troops to the Levant adds yet another wildcard to the tragic and unending Syrian conflict.

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