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Russian Military Intervention in Syria

October 15, 2015
Russia, a longtime military ally of Syria, recently amplified its role in the Syrian Civil War by sending additional military units to the region and mounting a bombing campaign in support of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It is a conflict with little hope of a clean or imminent resolution.

Escalation in Syria

According to a report by the Carter Center, there are over 7,000 rebel groups active in Syria.[1] Since 2011, over 220,000 people have died in the conflict, while over 11 million people — half the prewar population —have been displaced. As the conflict has intensified, the number of foreign nations with military operations in Syria has also increased, with Russia, Iran, and the Hezbollah militia supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad, while the United States is leading a coalition of Western nations that is conducting airstrikes against ISIS, the strongest rebel group, as well as supporting moderate rebel groups.

Russia on the World Stage

Rumors about a potential deployment of additional Russian units to Syria have circulated for months, but Russia’s military intervention in Syria is surprising because “it’s incredibly stupid,” according Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution.[2]  Russia’s close alliance with Syria goes back over 40 years to 1971, when the Soviet Union established a naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus. Syria has always been a major recipient of Russian weapons, although military cooperation has been reinforced since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, as Russia is now the Syrian regime’s primary military partner.

Russia’s decision to double down on its support of Assad’s government is a move that illustrates the desperate state of the Syrian regime, as well as the seeming absence of any long-term Russian military strategy in Syria. The war is not winnable for Syria, given the current strength and number of rebel forces. Rather, the deployment of additional forces to Syria appears to be a tool designed “to ensure that Moscow will have a major voice in any decisions” regarding a regime change in Syria, says Nikolay Kozhanov of the Carnegie Moscow Center.[3]

Russian Airstrike Locations in Syria

Russian Airstrike Locations in Syria (Source: IHS Conflict Monitor)

A Bulwark Against U.S. Hegemony

The escalation of Russian involvement in Syria also provides a stage for Russia to compete head-to-head against the United States. In annexing Crimea, Russia demonstrated that the West was unwilling to seriously oppose a more belligerent Russian foreign policy. Now in Syria, Putin and other Russian leaders have an opportunity to prove that they can succeed where American efforts have failed; a recent $500 million CIA effort to train moderate rebels has produced “four or five” fighters currently on the ground in Syria.[4] Although current Russian public opinion polls show widespread opposition to the deployment of Russian troops to Syria, the Russian domestic news media is beginning to launch a campaign to stir up popular support for an expanded Russian presence in Syria, largely through stories that demean the American role in the conflict.[5]

Through involvement in the Syrian conflict, Russia is also sending the message that it will support official governments and Russian allies, even ones as brutal as the Assad regime; alternatively, the United States will probably not stand behind authoritarian regimes, even those of allies such as Egypt, but rather rebel groups, as is the case in Syria. Thus, Russia can claim to be the heroic defender of law and order and the status quo, as well as a nation that is valiantly fighting against radical jihadists. Albeit Russia is perhaps not defending the interests of ordinary citizens, a quick glance at Putin’s tenure as Russian leader will demonstrate that this is not a particularly pressing issue for the Russian government. Actions such as the launch of 11 missiles from a Russian battleship 1000 miles from Syria serve as propaganda that showcases Russian military might, rather than a strategic military purpose.

It is tempting to draw parallels between Syria and Russia’s two most recent military jaunts abroad, in Georgia and Ukraine. However, both of these interventions were in former Soviet states in support of pro-Russian nationalist separatist movements, and served very different purposes from the intervention in Syria. In Syria, Moscow is intervening on behalf of a long-term ally in the Middle East, while also ensuring that it retains its port at Tartus, the only Russian military base outside of the former Soviet Union. Also, the previous two wars were fodder for an increasingly nationalistic citizenry eager for a return to the military dominance present during the Soviet era, whereas the Russian public feels little connection to the civil war in Syria.

Russian Aggression: A Blast from the Past?

Some commentators have also compared Russia’s actions in Syria to the Soviet war in Afghanistan during the 1980s. However, Syria is very unlikely to become another Afghanistan for Russia, despite a few superficial similarities between the two conflicts. The Soviet Union’s decade-long war in Afghanistan cost 15,000 Soviet lives and required a peak deployment of 115,000 troops, an investment that Moscow will be unwilling to make in Syria,[6] regardless of the Russian media’s ability to sway public opinion. The Marxist government of Afghanistan was also supported solely by the Soviet Union and faced mujahideen that were heavily funded by the CIA, whereas the Assad government faces Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and ISIS, two organizations that, while well-funded, do not receive significant military aid from any nations. The Syrian regime is also currently receiving operational support from Iran and Hezbollah.

Obama & Putin at the UN General Assembly

President Obama & President Putin at the UN General Assembly

(Source: Reuters)

Russia & the West’s Common Cause

Finally, and most importantly, Russia and the West are both united in the fight against ISIS and JN, the two most powerful, and dangerous, Islamist groups in Syria today. Thus, Russia and the West are largely fighting for the same cause in Syria. This common ground is the key to Russia’s strategy in Syria. Over the past few months, both Moscow and Washington have indicated a greater willingness to compromise on the issue of a regime change in Syria, as Russian officials have raised the possibility of Assad sharing power with some rebel groups in a future government, while American diplomats have indicated that the removal of Assad from power is no longer a prerequisite for negotiations. The Assad regime previously faced a minuscule chance of survival in the long run, but considering the Russian intervention, it appears that if there is a change in the Syrian government, it will be due to international negotiations, rather than through a violent overthrow of the Assad regime. This is a major victory for Russian diplomats, as they will certainly have a seat at the negotiating table as a result of Russia’s newfound leadership role in the conflict.

What is Putin’s end game?

There is no denying that Russia’s newly expanded presence in Syria is primarily motivated by Russian foreign policy goals, rather than humanitarian reasons or even merely the desire to see the long-term survival of the Assad regime. By becoming involved in the conflict, Russia has asserted itself on the world stage, while also, at least to some extent, proving that it can be an ally for Western nations in the fight against terrorism. Vladimir Putin may end up having bitten off more than he can chew if the war drags on, but Russia is achieving its short-term goal of inserting itself into yet another conflict and frustrating the West. 


  [1] “Syria Countrywide Conflict Report #5.” The Carter Center. The Carter Center, 28 Feb. 2015. Web. 12 Oct. 2015. https://www.cartercenter.org/resources/pdfs/peace/conflict_resolution/syria-conflict/NationwideUpdate-Feb-28-2015.pdf

  [2] Taub, Amanda. “”The Russians Have Made a Serious Mistake”: How Putin’s Syria Gambit Will Backfire.” Vox World. Vox Media, 1 Oct. 2015. Web. 12 Oct. 2015. http://www.vox.com/2015/10/1/9434365/putin-syria-russia-mistake.

  [3] Kozhanov, Nikolay. “Vladimir Putin’s Secret Weapon for a Syrian End Game? Diplomacy.” Carnegie Moscow Center. Reuters, 5 Oct. 2015. Web. 9 Oct. 2015. http://carnegie.ru/2015/10/05/vladimir-putin-s-secret-weapon-for-syrian-end-game-diplomacy/iik5.

  [4] Schmitt, Eric, Helene Cooper, and Michael Shear. “Obama Administration Ends Effort to Train Syrians to Combat ISIS.” The New York Times, 9 Oct. 2015. Web. 11 Oct. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/10/world/middleeast/pentagon-program-islamic-state-syria.html.

  [5] “An Odd Way to Make Friends.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper Ltd., 8 Oct. 2015. Web. 12 Oct. 2015. http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21672295-intervention-syria-was-supposed-rebuild-relations-west-unsurprisingly-it-not.

  [6] Williams of Baglan, Lord Michael. “Putin’s Gamble in Syria.” Chatham House, 6 Oct. 2015. Web. 11 Oct. 2015. https://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/putin-s-gamble-syria.

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