Why did Russia Intervene in the Syrian War?

Part 2 of an exchange.  See the piece by Rashin Khosravibavandpouri.

By Andrey Kortunov

The 2011 failed transition in Libya was an important learning experience for Moscow. It consolidated the conservative faction in the Russian political establishment and nearly silenced the liberal opposition. After Libya, Russian officials coined their new approach to the Middle East, which can be summarized as follows: first, authoritarian states in the Middle East are in any case better than failed states which come to replace the former after public uprisings; those failed states are often planned, funded and instigated from abroad. Second, the intentions and commitments of the West should not be trusted; the West can easily ‘sell out’ its longtime allies and friends in the region (e.g. Mubarak in Egypt); even a UN Security Council resolution can be violated or interpreted in a very liberal way. Third, if Russia remains an idle bystander watching the Middle East turmoil from the sideline, the chaos, instability, and terrorism generated in the Middle East will ultimately spill over Russia’s borders.

The practical application of this new approach was the Moscow engagement into the civil war in Syria. In this bloody and protracted conflict, Moscow demonstrated much more than its readiness to oppose what was perceived as the consolidated position of the West. For the first time since the invasion to Afghanistan back in 1979, the Kremlin used military force outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. For the first time, a Russian military aircraft was grounded by a NATO member country (Turkey). For the first time, Russia became a central player in a large-scale war right in the heart of the Middle East.

When Western experts and Kremlin watchers analyze the Russian strategy in Syria, they usually single out three goals that Moscow allegedly pursues in this conflict: to rescue the Russian client in the region namely Bashar al Assad and his regime, to diminish the US influence in the Middle East, and to support Shiites against Sunnis in the inter-confessional clash that tears apart the Muslim world. In my view, all the three alleged Russian goals can be questioned.

First, Bashar al Assad has never been a client of Moscow. He is not a personal friend of Vladimir Putin like former national leaders of Italy or Germany. Bashar al Assad does not have powerful lobbyists in Moscow as Saddam Hussein once had. Economically, Syria is much less important for Russia than, for instance, neighboring Turkey or even Iraq. Russian officials argue that their prime concern is the future of the Syrian not the future of al Assad personally. They are not necessarily trying to deceive the West. Having another Libya in Syria, much closer to the South Caucasus, Central Asia and Russian border is not a logical option for decision makers in the Kremlin. In this sense, Bashar al Assad is an instrument to avoid chaos and anarchy in Syria. Is he an indispensable instrument? Probably not, but so far all the efforts of the US and its partners to present a consolidated Syrian opposition as a credible alternative to the regime in Damascus do not look very convincing from Moscow’s viewpoint.

Second, the idea that Moscow is desperately trying to push the United States out of the Middle East fits nicely into the standard Cold War logic, but does not convincingly explain the recent Russia’s moves in the region. If Washington is the main competitor, why did Russian offer to work together with the US on chemical weapons in Syria, or to collaborate on the Iranian nuclear dossier? Decision makers in the Kremlin might be generally anti-Western and anti-US, but they are definitely not crazy. Russia has no resources and no interest in replacing the United States in the Middle East as the next hegemonic power. And if Washington does withdraw from the Region, it is likely to leave behind itself a vacuum to be filled with radical fundamentalist forces equally hostile to the West and to Russia. Russia needs the US in the region, though, it insists that the current American policies in the Middle East since the war of 2003 in Iraq are ill conceived, poorly implemented, and at the end of the day, mostly counterproductive.

Third, the Sunni – Shiite explanation of the Russian strategy looks linear and schematic at best. To start with, the Damascus army does not include only Shiites; there are many Sunnis fighting on Assad’s side as well. In the Arab world, one of Russia’s closest partners and friends is Egypt, which happens to be the largest Arab Sunni country. The majority of twenty million plus Russian Muslims are Sunni, and it would be politically suicidal for any regime in Moscow to align with Shiites against Sunnis abroad. However, since Moscow is committed to fighting against ISIS, the pure military logic pushes it to building alliances with whoever has the most fighting capacities on the ground. For a variety of reasons, Sunni states of the Gulf or most of other Arab Sunnis are not in a position to commit substantial ground forces to a joint anti-ISIS campaign.

Russia managed to take the lead in the dramatic events taking place recently in Syria and around Syria. Its positions cannot be ignored and no settlement is possible without a Russia’s participation. However, one should not overestimate the role of Russia – or the role of any other non-regional power – in mid-term and long-term evolution of the Middle East. The region has entered a historically unprecedented cycle of social, economic and political transformation that is likely to last until at least the middle of this century. The future of the Arab world will depend mostly on successes or failures of its own regional centers of gravity – like Egypt or Saudi Arabia. In the future of the Middle East, the influence of overseas players will most likely decrease while the influence of non-Arab states (Iran, Turkey, Israel) will most likely grow further. However, it remains to be seen if the change of gravity from global to regional actors will stabilize the region”. 

Andrey Kortunov is the director general of the Russian International Affairs Council, a well-known international think tank.