Russia Leaps into the Syrian Quagmire

I first wrote and published this article with a local Nigerian newspaper on October 9, 2015, just over a week after Russia's intervention in the Syrian civil war.

A Russian SU-30M fighter jet takes off from Hmeymim airbase. The airbase is the main hub of Russia’s operations in Syria (Photo: Russian Ministry of Defence)

Amid the chaos of the Syrian civil war, Putin has dramatically stepped up Russia’s military presence in the country. On September 30, 2015, Russian jets began bombing targets in Syria. 

Weeks before the intervention, a series of satellite images posted on line showing Moscow’s steady deployment of fighter jets, combat helicopters, tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, and anti-aircraft missile systems into the coastal cities of Tartus and Latakia had already hinted at this possibility.

Russia’s expansion of the port facilities in its naval base at Tartus, the upgrading of the airfield at Latakia into an airbase, and the deployment of prefabricated housing suggests a substantial number of Russian military personnel may eventually be stationed in Syria. 

A few days to the commencement of operations, Russian media reported that the number of “military specialists” deployed in Syria had grown to 1,700.

What explains Russia’s actions?

Defeating the Islamic State

Russia officially claims its forces are there to help beat back the Islamic State. Putin’s speech at the UN General Assembly on Monday 28 September reiterated this claim by calling on the US and its allies to join Russia, Iran, and the Syrian Government in a global anti-IS coalition

The insurgencies of the 1990s and early 2000s when Islamist militants in its North Caucasus Republics – Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria – nearly caused the disintegration of the Russian state remains a searing experience for the Kremlin’s security elites.

Russian officials, to push back against western scepticism that the Kremlin takes the fight against IS seriously, often state that more than 2,000 Russians – primarily from the North Caucasus – and some 3,000 nationals of the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia are fighting with the Islamic State. This for them is a source of immense concern as these fighters might eventually return home to reignite insurgencies in the North Caucasus or destabilize the fragile Central Asian states on Russia’s periphery.

After the recent agreement between Iraq, Russia, Syria, and Iran to share intelligence in the fight against terrorism, the Iraqi military spokesman was quoted as saying the initiative was the result of “increasing concern from Russia about thousands of Russian terrorists committing criminal acts within ISIS”.

Preserving the Syrian State

Another reason often cited by the Kremlin for Russia’s intervention is the desire to save the Syrian state from destruction.

Assad’s forces have taken a battering of late. Gone is the swaggering confidence of last year, when it seemed the Syrian civil war had irreversibly turned in his favour. The summer of this year saw government forces suffer shattering defeats and stunning reversals in the east and south of Syria – leaving roughly about 60% of the country in rebel hands.

In July a visibly deflated Assad finally acknowledged, in his first public speech for a year, that his troops were struggling to hold onto territory due to acute manpower shortages. 

In the speech he essentially admitted that the objective of reconquering all of Syria is an unrealistic dream for the foreseeable future; consolidating government strongholds in Damascus and the Alawite heartlands of Latakia and Tartus was now the strategic priority.With what seemed like the imminent collapse of the Assad regime, and with it the disintegration of the Syrian state, Putin felt compelled to act.

In his interview with CBS news correspondent Charlie Rose, which aired on September 27, Putin said his “deep belief” was that if governmental institutions are allowed to completely disintegrate, the last bulwark against Islamic extremists overrunning the whole of Syria will disappear. 

Therefore the only “solution to the Syrian crisis [is] strengthening the effective government structures and rendering them help in fighting terrorism”.

Restart the Syrian Peace Process

One reason often cited by analysts, especially Russian analysts, for this projection of Russian power into the unstable dynamic of the Syrian civil war is to revive the stagnating peace process. At first take this may seem counter-intuitive, but on deeper reflection the logic to this line of thinking becomes clearer. 

The assumption is that with the opposition buoyed by their string of recent military victories, they and their western and regional backers will likely become less amenable to a political resolution of the crisis.

By clearly demonstrating that the fall of Assad is a redline that he is prepared to enforce, Putin, the analysis goes, is signalling that decisive military victory against the Syrian government is not possible. Therefore, the armed opposition and their international partners must reckon with the fact that the Assad regime will be an integral part of any political process in resolving the civil war.

Through a series of calculated and bold, but risky, military moves, Putin hopes to force a diplomatic breakthrough.

One related reason often cited by analysts is how interaction and negotiation with the west over the fate of Syria could lead to a lessening of Russia’s estrangement from western powers over Russia’s actions in Ukraine. By being a constructive player in Syria, as it was during the Iran nuclear deal, the west’s unity over continued sanctions on Russia may weaken.

Russia as a Great Power

A major driver of Russia’s foreign policy under Putin has been the desire to restore Russia as a great power in international politics. There is no better signifier of great power status than the capacity for independent action far from one’s immediate region.  

With the collapse of the US’ “train and equip” programme for ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels, and with the Obama administration seemingly hesitant to do little other than insist ‘Assad must go’, an opportunity has opened up for Russia to emerge as a powerbroker in the Syrian civil war.

From this perspective, the decision to intervene reflects the Kremlin’s view that the dangers posed to Russian interests should the Assad state fall outweighs the risks of being sucked into the Syrian quagmire. As a great power, Russia has therefore decided to act independently to preserve its interests.

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