The Russian Intervention – Why Syria, Why Now

Not surprisingly, after the initial fervent dissent cooled down, the West started to cooperate with President Vladimir Putin in the military intervention in Syria. With an agreement with the US on military coordination in the air zone, which was a tacit acknowledgement of Russia’s presence in Syria, Mr. Putin has assured Russia’s influence, if not firm grip, on the future development of the Syrian civil war by bulwarking the Assad regime and functioning as a broker between Western powers and Damascus. On October 23, President Vladimir Putin attempted to drive the West toward cooperation on Syria in his speech in Sochi. By suggesting the East-West relations are as critical as they were at the end of the Cold War, Mr. Putin was sending off “the most hopeful words” on US-Russian relations in years, according to Clifford Kupchan, the chairman of the Eurasia Group, who was present at the speech. Diplomatically speaking, Mr. Putin seemed to signal his wishes to transform Russia’s international image by the latest intervention in Syria.

However, the intervention is of much greater importance than simply establishing a new diplomatic image. Although there are multitudes who condemn Mr. Putin’s recent intervention in the Syrian civil war as bravado and dismiss it as another  display of military power, as a country whose foreign policy has always been driven by geopolitics, it was to be expected that Russia would step into the game sooner or later. Therefore, instead of simple condemnations, questions should be asked.

First of all, why Syria?

During the Cold War, Syria had been Russia’s best ally in the Middle East, especially under the regime of Hafez Al-Assad, father of Mr. Bashar Al-Assad. As soon as he was brought into power, Hafez Al-Assad decided to forge a close relation with the Soviet Union and allowed the USSR to establish a naval base within Syria in the city of Tartus, which is still in function and carries great strategic importance for Russia even now.

However, the Soviet Union and Syria were less than friendly at the end of the Cold War, when Gorbachev tried to ditch the old policies of the former rulers—including the compact with Syria. Hence, although the USSR witnessed, if not assisted, the rise of Ba’ath Party and the Assad regime, current relations between Moscow and Damascus do not resemble those of the good old days. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Damascus started to court the favors of the West and US rather than seek support from its old comrade to the north. Although Russia and Syria have been sharing a steady compact of weaponry trading, the economic importance of Syria to Russia has been somewhat over-exaggerated. Even until the beginning of the civil war, according to Mr. Putin, Mr. Assad had spent more time “courting leaders in European capitals than he ever had in Moscow.”

However, the slight friction does not affect Russia’s unchanging attitude towards Syria, which is that Syria is the only solid foothold for Russia in the Middle East. This was clear when Mr. Putin decided to re-establish the naval base in Tartus in 2012, a coastal city north of Damascus where the only repair and replenishment spot for Russian Navy on the Mediterranean is located. It should not be forgotten that since the beginning of the civil war, Russia has been trying every way to prevent international intervention in Syria, especially by wielding its right to veto resolutions as one of the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council. Despite its clear supportive attitude towards the Assad regime, Russia has never brandished its military power in the way it is right now.

Therefore, we must ask a second question: why now? The shift in Russia’s strategy could be explained in light of several reasons.

The first immediate reason is more about Mr. Assad than about Mr. Putin. With the continuous attacks from rebels supported by Western powers like the US, Mr. Assad has begun to lose his control over the situation on the ground. The fact that Russian forces are gathering in the city of Latakia instead of their traditional military base in Tartus indicates the military intervention of Russia is not simply a puppet show operated by Mr. Putin, but rather the result of a bilateral agreement. Latakia is a city on the northern coast of Syria, and the entrance to the coast along the Mediterranean. The city is of significant strategic importance for both the insurgent forces and Mr. Assad. Moreover, for the rebels, Latakia has a symbolic meaning—the beginning of a march for justice towards Damascus along the coast. Demographically, Latakia used to be  predominantly Alawite, the religious group who follows the school of Shia, thanks to President Hafez Al-Assad’s policy of “Alawitization.” However, as the war rages on, Alawites are no longer the majority of the city- instead, there is a rising proportion of Sunni population that could ultimately lead to a Sunni insurrection within the city since a lot of Alawites and Shia believers fled. As map of Syria’s demographics shows, the strategic significance of Latakia as both the frontier of the ethnic clash and the entrance to the coastline is obvious. Therefore, Latakia has become Mr. Assad’s “Achilles’ Heel,” according to Mr. Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon 2. Although it remains questionable whether inviting Russians to guard the coastal frontier is a wise decision, for Mr. Assad, who keeps being pushed back by the rebels, this is probably the only way.

1Syria_Ethno-religious_composition.

This map is republished under Creative Commons license. The original image can be found here.

The second reason is less obvious—the armed conflict between Russia and militants associated with ISIS as well as the Caucasus Emirate, a militant Jihadist group in southwestern Russia. Although the secessionist group has been pestering the Kremlin for decades, the Caucasus Emirate officially formed an alliance with the Islamic State at the end of 2014 and now functions as a franchise of the ISIS, threatening the borders of Russia.

A close look at the map below reveals the key factor in analyzing Russia’s foreign policy–geopolitics. With its enormous territory, conflicting ethnic groups, and even more complex relations with the neighboring countries, Russia’s desire for a buffer area around its borders is a key national security concern. Additionally, access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean region has been central to Russia’s grand strategy since the reign of Catherine the Great. As early as the Crimea conflict from 2013 to 2014, Russia has signaled the continuity of the aforementioned desire by launching a more hardline foreign policy–one  which emphasizes border protection and geopolitics. As a result, with the firm control over the access to the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea lost to the Islamic extremists, it is not at all surprising that Russia has decided to strengthen its presence in the Middle East and form an international alliance to clear its borders.

2 800px-Caucasus_Emirate

The map features the location of Caucasus Emirate and was created by Arnold Platon. The original map can be found here

It should be noted, however, that the presence of ISIS is both a blessing and a curse for Russia. Without the Islamic State messing the whole sand table, the Assad regime would have fallen long ago under attack from anti-government rebel groups. In that scenario, Russia would have lost its only foothold in the Mediterranean, adding more pressure to the already heated region south of Russian borders.

Russia is not in a rush to wipe the Islamic State off the map, suggested by the bombardment on the rebels instead of the ISIS camps. By calling for an international alliance against ISIS and escalating its military involvement in the region, Mr. Putin has guaranteed Russian influence on future development in Syria. Moreover, he has succeeded in shifting the international focus away from Crimea and even changed Russia’s international role by offering laurel branches to the US. Neither the elimination of ISIS nor long-lasting prosperity for the Assad regime is on the list of priority of Russia. The war will continue, and ISIS will keep carrying out its atrocities.

The image featured in this article was taken by www.kremlin.ru. The original image can be found here.

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