Russian interests in Syrian Civil WarRussia’s military involvement in the Syrian arena has fueled debate among analysts, politicians and pundits etc. about the motives and strategic objectives of Russia that led the country to initiate military actions in Syrian Civil War. By its military intervention in Syria, Russia is focused on accomplishing a series of domestic and foreign policy interests. In the international arena, the country is looking for opportunities to break the diplomatic isolation surrounding it, and gain strategically valuable ally in the Middle East while showing its military might. Even though Russia claims that its goal in Syria was to support weakened regime of Bashar al-Assad and fight the Islamic State (IS), actions of the country so far illustrate that Russia is hardly in a position to pursue these goals. Politically speaking, a lot of assumptions have been made about Russian military engagement in Syria, but none of them draws exact conclusion about it. This paper focuses on the analyses and identification of Russian interests in Syria and its rationale for intervention, and whether the country could achieve its desired objectives.

After the takeover of the Crimea and starting the war in Donbas, and the shooting down of the Malaysian plane, Russia started 2015 in almost complete international isolation. Bearing in mind these facts, military involvement in the Middle East has created chance for Russia to break out of its diplomatic isolation.

Early signs of Russian intervention were first observed in July of 2015, when Russian ships that were carrying military tanks arrived in Syrian ports1. These ships carried the necessary equipment and materials required to build and supply a large Russian base built near the Latakia district. On September 2015, the Russian military started a series of operations in the Syrian arena that had been planned from the beginning of September with the installation of a base southeast of the city of Latakia and the deployment of its military forces2. Russia claims that its purpose of intervening in Syria is to defend its national interests and protect the country against the threat of the return of fighters who went to Syria and Iraq in search of jihad. Therefore, Russia has never hidden its willingness to support its ally Bashar al-Assad against the opposition forces who are trying to weaken the Damascus regime. Actually, Putin and Bashar al-Assad define all militarily active opposition forces as terrorists that must be defeated. And yet the Russian government avoided joining the US-led anti-ISIS coalition of 60 states and international organisations that was set up to oppose Islamic State3. However, according to the official reports, actions of Russia so far illustrate that its major goal is supporting the Damascus regime, and that its fights against the IS positions have been quite minimal.

Just as Russia’s decision to militarily engage in Syria, Putin’s announcements on March 14 that Russia is pulling back its military forces out of Syria came as a big surprise in the West4. Putin highlighted that he had achieved his goals in the Syrian arena - majority of his goals had nothing to do with supporting Bashar al-Assad and fighting terrorist groups. Yet, practices of Russia arise questions about the real military-political objectives of Russia, as well as the ostensible reasons and motives for its military engagement in Syria. This paper tries to discuss the real objectives behind the Russian intervention in Syria, and draw the conclusion whether Russia is conducting successful foreign policy regarding Syrian Civil War.

Just as Russia’s decision to militarily engage in Syria, Putin’s announcements on March 14 that Russia is pulling back its military forces out of Syria came as a big surprize in the West4. Putin highlighted that he had achieved his goals in the Syrian arena - majority of his goals had nothing to do with supporting Bashar al-Assad and fighting terrorist groups. Yet, practices of Russia arise questions about the real military-political objectives of Russia, as well as the ostensible reasons and motives for its military engagement in Syria. This paper tries to discuss the real objectives behind the Russian intervention in Syria, and draw the conclusion whether Russia is conducting successful foreign policy regarding Syrian Civil War.

 

Russian-Syrian Military Cooperation

In an effort to understand the rationale for Russian military intervention in Syria one must look at the historical roots of Russia-Syria relations before the beginning of Syrian Civil war. History of Russian-Syrian relations illustrates that military relations have always been at the center of mutual relations of Russia and Syria.

Russian military intervention in the Syrian arena dates back to the 1950s. In the mid-20th century, the Soviet Union embraced Syrian rulers as a key to counterbalance to U.S. regional partners. The USSR, later Russia has used its military base in Tartus as a logistical hub to conduct military operations. Tartus has been deployed since the 1970s and called Material-Technical Support Point. Eventually Syria became the major recipient of Russian military equipment in the Middle East. In the 1970-80s, Syria imported more than 90% of all imported arms from the Soviet Union5. After the dissolution of the Union, the economic support and arm supply to Syria decreased because of the deterioration in Russian economy. However, Syria has always been strategically significant for Russia in the region. Therefore, in order not to lose its power in the Middle East, Russian president Vladimir Putin tried to strengthen relations between Russia and Syria, especially when the U.S. enlarged its power over the Middle East in the early 21st century.

 

Russia's Interests in Syrian Civil War

Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil war in 2011, Russia has been supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime against its opponents. Especially, Russian military assistance has increased significantly since late September 2015. According to The New York Times, Ministry Defence of Russia deployed 50 aircrafts and 2000 marines in October 2015. Russian aircraft started attacking active anti-Assad opposition groups. It must be highlighted that neither ISIS nor any other military forces possess aircraft. Many observers claim that Russia`s purpose in deploying aircraft (namely Su-30) to Syria is to prevent the U.S.-led coalition air forces from creating a no-fly zone or from operating near areas where Russian aircraft are operating6. Russia has been criticised by international community because of continuous arm supply to Assad regime. However, the country claims that all arm deliveries have been made “under existing contract” that was signed before the Syrian Civil war. By selling arms to Syria, Russia also wants to demonstrate its loyalty to mutual relations, even though such military assistance can deteriorate relations with other regional partners (Turkey) of Russia.

Russia not only supports its ally Bashar al-Assad by obviously providing arms, but also by vetoing three UN Security resolutions against Damascus regime. Viewed collectively, Russia`s practices raise several question: Why is Russia so willing to support Assad regime? And what are the real objectives behind Russian military intervention in Syria? The analysis of Russian engagement in the Middle East in general and Syria in particular will help to identify rationale for its military intervention.

To begin with, Russia is not necessarily interested in supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but in preserving the Syrian state-as a strategically significant foothold in the Middle East. Russia`s aim is to keep its military bases in Tartus and Hmeimim and proceed to make selective airstrikes from these bases. Russia has a fear of losing Assad, which may be its last ally in the Middle East7. Therefore, Russia has a primary goal to safeguard the Bashar al-Assad regime, to maintain Russian naval access to Syria and thus, to challenge the U.S. policy in the Middle East8.

Is Russian military intervention in Syria in accordance with International Law? According to the International Law, The UN Charter article 2(4): "All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations."9 However, Russia has been operating in Syria on the request of President Bashar al-Assad, which means that the legal basis for Russia’s use of military force is intervention by invitation. As invitation for intervention comes from the government itself, Russian military engagement in Syrian Civil War is in accordance with international law10.

According to the Russian officials, another important objective of intervening in Syria and defeating the ISIS is to react preventively against the threat of jihadist fighters from North Caucasus, who may create huge problems when they return to Russia11. Russia has acknowledged the ISIS as a serious threat to its domestic security, and therefore announced a war against it. Russia claims that its purpose is to follow counterterrorism objectives, which the United States and coalition members pursue. But does Russia actually fight against the ISIS? Initially, Russia announced a “holy war” against the ISIS and claimed that it will fight against terrorism in the Syrian arena. However, official reports indicate that majority of Russian military attacks have targeted less extreme opposition groups fighting against al-Assad regime, some of them being backed by the U.S.

 

Analysis

Does Russia conduct successful foreign policy on Syria? Before finding an answer to the question, we should first define the term “success”. According to “Success and Failure in Foreign Policy” by David A. Baldwin, defining success and failure of foreign policy is very tricky because the concept of success is slippery and has various dimensions. Moreover, there are few evident victories in international relations. Foreign policy makers usually set multiple goals concerning multiple targets12.

As noted above, at the end of September 2015 Russia announced a war against the ISIL and therefore intervened to the Syrian civil war, claiming that its primary intention is to pursue counterterrorism objectives. In addition, Russia shows its support to Assad regime by vetoing the UN Security Council resolutions against it. However, the majority of Russian activities illustrate that combating the Islamic State is only a secondary motive, as it in most cases fights the less extreme opposition groups, which are trying to weaken the Assad regime. The Russian operation in Syria is not concentrated on achieving stability; instead its military intervention fuels the Syrian civil war. These facts indicate that there are other “hidden objectives” behind Russian engagement in Syria13.

Even though foreign policy goals and targets tend to be multiple, success and failure of foreign policy is identified in terms of achieving primary goals and targets14. If to take into account that Russia`s primary goal – as it claims – is to fight against the ISIL, then one can claim Russia could not achieve its goals, the as ISIL still exists in Syria. However, there is no regime change in Syria, which was also among Russian objectives.

Achieving goal is a significant factor in assessing effectiveness of foreign policy. There is also the probability of negative goal attainment. For instance, Russian attempt to tackle the ISIL might trigger terrorism not just in Syria but also in other parts of the world (e.g.: Paris attack on November 2015). Dahl recognized the probability of such “negative power” long time ago (1957)15. Moreover, the current strategy of Russia has weakened its relations with Turkey, which could be strategically important partner for the country. After repeatedly entering airspace of Turkey, a Russian warplane was shot down by Turkish air forces near Syria border. As a result, Vladimir Putin has called Turkey “accomplices of terrorists” and warned the country about “serious consequences”. Consequently, the tensions between Russia and Turkey have risen significantly. Russia set restrictions on imported goods and service and on Turkish citizens working for companies in Russia, banned the sale of charter holidays for Russians to Turkey and construction projects. However, at a joint press conference, President of France François Hollande and U.S. President Barack Obama said that this incident demonstrates the shortcomings of Russian operation in Syria: “The problem emerged because Russia’s focus has been on supporting Bashar al-Assad rather than fighting the ISIL”16.

On the other hand, Barack Obama in one of his talks mentioned that it “would be helpful” if Russia focused on fighting the ISIL. Russia can change its strategy in Syria and join U.S.-led “anti-ISIS” coalition. However cooperation seems unlikely in the near future since Russia sees US actions as an instigator to a proxy war between the two countries in the Middle East.

After conducting intense military operations in the Syrian arena, Vladimir Putin announced on 14 March 2016 that he is pulling Russian military forces out of Syria. After Russian airline was shot down over Sinai on October 31, the country did unexpectedly suffer civilian casualties (224 people lost their lives). Perhaps Russia was worried that Syria would become a second Afghanistan, with a long-term conflict and unexpected casualties ending in a shameful withdrawal.

Referring to the article of Baldwin (2000), in order to conduct successful foreign policy decision-makers must identify how effectively the country can achieve its goals and targets. Analysis of Russian activities illustrate that the country could not achieve remarkable victory in its foreign policy regarding the Syrian civil war, and assessing whether Russia achieved its military goals is a matter of guesswork. However, Russian president Vladimir Putin believes that his country has met most of its goals, the majority of which had nothing to do with Syria itself.

 

Conclusion

Analysis of Russian foreign policy indicates that Assad is a significant ally for Russia in the Middle East. As Syria plays an important role in strengthening Russian strategic stance in the region, Russia is not willing to lose its power over the territory. The Kremlin has never hidden its desire to have the power of saying the “last word” over Syria; therefore the country avoids joining the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition of 60 states and international organizations. Furthermore, Russian foreign policy regarding the Syrian war and its military assistance to Syria, particularly military operations in the nearest borders of Turkey enhanced tensions and damaged mutual trust between Russia and Turkey. Yet, all discussed facts clearly indicate that Russia is hardly in a position to defeat the Islamic State and achieve stability in Syria. Instead, Russia fuels the Syrian civil war and divides regional and international actors into two; pro-Assad (Russia, Iran, Hezbollah) and anti-Assad blocs (the U.S., Turkey, France)17.

When it comes to Russian withdrawal from Syria, it isn’t a complete pullout. It seems that Russia will do its best to maintain its military bases at Tartus and Hmeimim and continue to make selective airstrikes from these bases. So, the timing of withdrawal looks planned to protect Russia from unexpected dangers in the Syrian arena from Turkey, Saudi Arabia or other regional and international players.

 

 

References:

1. Russian deployment in Syria complicate US policy, CRS insight, 18 September 2015.

2. How the Russian intervention changed the course of Syrian Civil War, Levantine Group, 2 April 2016.

3. M. Kaim, O. Tamminga, Russia’s Military Intervention in Syria, November 2015.

4. A well-timed retreat: Russia pulls back from Syria, Carnegie, 15 March 2016.

5. Sharp, Jeremy M. (1 May 2008), "Syria: Background and U.S. Relations", CRS Report for Congress, Washington, DC.

6. M. N. Katz, Fairfax, Russian Intervention in the Syrian Civil War.

7. R.Slim, Putin’s Master Plan for Syria, Foreign Policy, 18 March 2016.

8. G. Casagrande, C. Kozak, J, Cafarella, Syria 90 day Forecast: The Assad Regime and Allies in Northern Syria, 24 February 2016.

9. UN Charter Article 2(4). Retrieved from: http://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/chapter-i/

10. L. Visser, Russia’s Intervention in Syria, 25 November 2015.

11. J. Prus, Russia’s Operation in Syria: The Kremlin’s Propaganda Game, 2 November 2015.

12. David A. Baldwin, “Success and Failure in Foreign Policy”, Annual Review of Political Science, 3, 167-182, 2000.

13. Russia kills US-backed Syrian rebels in second day of air strikes as Iran prepares for ground offensive, The Telegraph, 14 December 2015.

14. Baldwin 1985.

15. Simon 1976:177.

16. Putin condemns Turkey after Russian warplane downed near Syria border, The Guardian, October 2015.

17. Russia’s Military Intervention in Syria: Motives, Objectives and Implications, Arab Center for Research and Policy studies.

 

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