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Russia’s Syrian Gambit

Putin maneuvered Russia into the chaos of the Middle East, calculating that small moves can provide large dividends for Russia and headaches for the United States.

For the second time since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Russia has stepped in decisively to change the course of events. The first time, after the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unleashed a chemical weapons attack on the civilian population in 2013, Russia inserted itself at the last minute to broker a deal that led to the partial elimination of Assad’s chemical weapon stockpile and kept the Obama administration from pushing forward with a plan to strike the Assad regime. Now, Russian President Vladimir Putin has moved additional military assets to a Syrian base and is conducting strikes against various elements of the Syrian opposition, including CIA assets, in support of the Assad regime. Despite U.S. President Barack Obama’s warning that Russia risks embroiling itself in a quagmire by intervening, Russia has thus far managed to use its political and military assets to shift events in its favor, and to destabilize U.S. global policy. 

Russia’s current Middle East strategy has two primary objectives. The first is to counter the West in the region and to be a bulwark against what it perceives as Washington’s expansionism and intervention in world affairs. In its most recent military doctrine on “Main External Military Dangers,” Russia points to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which it regards as a bastion for US power, and its “global functions” as the very first threat. The second objective is to support regional political stability, for Russia abhors the idea of regime changes. After NATO in the aforementioned external threats assessment, Russia ranked the undermining of stability in individual states as the next key external danger. This is a significant fear among Russian officials for two reasons: first, Russia believes that the collapse of regimes will lead to power vacuums that will likely fill with terrorist elements; and second—and perhaps more importantly—Russia fears that any uprising (or external intervention) that forces a regime change may set a precedent for interference or uprising at home. 

Putin’s move to forestall U.S. action in Syria after the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons came to light was opportunistic: the situation played perfectly into Russian hands. On August 21, 2013, Assad used chemical weapons, crossing Obama’s ill-advised “red-line” that promised the United States would intervene in Syria if evidence arose that the Syrian government was using chemical weapons against civilians. Forced to follow through on its red-line, the Obama administration looked to Congress for authorization to conduct a military strike against the Assad regime. But, as a congressional vote to authorize U.S. force in Syria approached, it was unclear whether it would succeed. Recognizing this unique opportunity to be international arbiter, Putin stepped in at the beginning of September 2013, and offered a proposal to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile through negotiation rather than force. This was a victory for Western interests in terms of eliminating dangerous weapons, but it made Washington appear unwilling to back up its own rhetoric.

This move provided Russia with three major victories: it made Putin, a ruler who came to power partially through his brutal tactics against Chechnya, appear the peacemaker; it embarrassed the Obama administration, which had to step back from its “red-line” grand-standing; and it protected the Assad regime, a Russian ally, from a U.S. military strike.

In September of this year, Putin ramped up Russian military assets and active operations in Syria. This move again fits with Russia’s long-term strategy in the region. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Russia has held the position that, should Assad fall, a power vacuum will arise in the country that will inevitably fill with Islamist groups anathema to both Russia and the West. Putin points to the rise of the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria as evidence that the only alternative to Assad is a terrorist haven. And, using Libya as a key example of chaos following a power vacuum spurred by Western overreach, Russia is adamant that Assad must play a role in any transition. 

The timing of this move, though in line with Russia’s long-term vision and likely planned some time in advance, is also opportunistic. It coincided with the very notable and public failures of the Obama administration’s overt program to train Syrian rebels to fight IS, allowing Putin to appear at the Unite Nations to propose a coalition to fight terrorism, and to position himself as picking up the pieces from the United States’ failed policy.

But, despite a shared goal of defeating radical elements, Russia’s moves in Syria are explicitly counter to Western interests. While the West is concentrating on defeating the Islamic State, the vast majority of Russian airstrikes are not targeted against that group. Indeed, reports indicate that Russian strikes specifically targeted rebels supported by the CIA’s covert training program. And, Russian jets and helicopters are now supporting a Syrian offensive against the rebel coalition, going directly against the West’s policy that “Assad must go.

Ultimately, Russia’s intervention is shifting the strategic balance in the Middle East towards Russia, exactly as Putin hoped. Egypt announced that it supports the Russian intervention, balancing against Saudi Arabia’s support for the U.S. “Assad must go” policy. Dividing Egypt and Saudi Arabia on this issue, the two most important members of the Sunni-bloc that have traditionally worked with the United States, is a worrisome development for U.S. policymakers. Furthermore, the pulling apart of the Sunni-bloc strengthens the position of Shia-majority Iran, a country whose actions often fall in line with Russia’s goal to create problems for the West. Russia, Iraq, Iran, and Syria also recently announced an intelligence sharing partnership, and Iraq stated that it sees a bigger role for Russia in its internal affairs—a direct challenge to the predominance of the United States in Iraq.

For a minimal investment of force, Russia has used the Syrian crisis to increase its relative power in the region. Russia has been able to improve its image by facilitating the deal to remove Assad’s chemical weapons while simultaneously making U.S. policy appear feckless and weak. Moreover, it bolstered its own allies and influence in the region, while creating tension among the more U.S.-leaning Sunni countries and reducing U.S. influence overall. Although its actions seem unlikely to contribute to peace in the region, Russia has certainly used the chaos to its advantage.

Michael Dworman works in the Washington, DC area and graduated with an MA in Security Studies from Georgetown University and a BA in Political Science from the University of Washington. He can be connected with via Twitter @mikedworman.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Michael Dworman

Michael is an international affairs/national security professional working in Washington, D.C. He focuses on international conflict, terrorism, and crime, along with a regional focus on Russian affairs, where he has spent time living and working. Michael graduated with an MA in Security Studies from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a BA in Political Science from the University of Washington. You can connect with him on Twitter @mikedworman.
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1 Comment

  1. Abbas Osman on November 8, 2015 at 2:03 am

    On the other side, one can see what’s presumed to be positive winning policy changes in favor of Russia, can tell its real weakness in dealing with a conflict as dangerously important as in Syria.
    A big power can not just react to some actions of its adversaries or their allies, or it will drown in the quagmire of the unknown, and that’s the case here.
    As you mentioned before the Russians only stepped into saving Assad’s regime from what was going to be a potential back breaking strike coming from the U.S. the wise is the American who really see an opportunity to save Syria from its chemical stockpiles pf which they could only hurt Syrian oppoaition groups, and thus not jumping into the unpredictable.
    Also what appears to be splitting factor among Sunnis Egypt and Saudis, is not of major validity because most Egyptians hate the Syrian Regime.
    Iran also has no real interest to see Russia’ Putin being displayed as the hero saviour of Assad. It sees itself as such and it actually splinters from Russia on many areas like viewing religion and its role.
    Probably the use of the Russian Orthodox church to grant legitimacy, in interfering could fulfill the need to appease Islamic republic.

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