Despite President Vladimir Putin’s statements to the contrary, Russia’s airstrikes in Syria have more to do with shoring up Bashar al-Assad – and undermining the United States – than fighting the Islamic State.
With the crisis in Ukraine still unresolved, Russia has once again upended Western strategic planning, intervening in the conflict in Syria in ways that complicate European and American efforts to achieve stability in the country. Though Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that the goal of Russian airstrikes is the degradation of the Islamic States’ (IS) capabilities, the strengthening of client Bashar al-Assad seems to be equally, if not more, important – and in doing so, Putin seems intent on both limiting the United States’ options, and furthering Russia’s own model of state sovereignty.
Russian leadership wants to be recognized by the US president as a key player in international relations, one with whom Washington has to interact when attempting to solve global conflicts. Thus Russia’s Syria campaign has two main goals: First, Putin wants to use Syria to show the US – and the world – that it has returned to the stage. Washington can no longer isolate Russia as it did during the Ukraine crisis. Putin is using America’s absence in Syria to force Barack Obama to speak with him; while the US president hesitates, Putin is reshaping the battlefield. Now the US military has to coordinate with Russian leadership if it wants to fly airstrikes in Syria.
The second main goal is connected to the Russian conception of foreign policy and the role of states in international relations. Russian leadership wants to fill the gap the US has left – not only militarily, but ideologically as well. In his Collective Security Treaty Organization speech in mid-September and again at the UN General Assembly two weeks later, Putin promoted a different approach than that of the US to fighting international terrorism. From Russia’s perspective, the US policy of democracy promotion has not only destabilized Ukraine, but also Iraq, Syria, and northern Africa.
When Putin supports Assad, he sends a clear message: from his perspective, only legitimate (authoritarian) regimes can create order and security in the world. Groups that undermine these regimes and the sovereignty of states are terrorists, including all the opposition groups in Syria fighting against the “legitimate” government. Assad is not only Russia’s most important ally in the region, he also stands for the rationale of the Putin regime, which sees its own main challenges as coming from externally inspired social movements (blaming the US in particular).
Stabilizing Assad means stabilizing authoritarian rule in other regions of the world, and the current Russian regime itself, promoting an alternative model for crisis management and international relations than that supported by the US. This is consistent with Russian foreign and security policy, which opposes color revolutions and regime change inside and outside the post-Soviet region and stands for the sovereignty of states and against the concept of responsibility to protect (with the exception of the Russians outside Russia).
A Risky War
So what are the implications of Russia’s actions? For the first time in post-Soviet history, Russia is fighting outside the post-Soviet region in a risky war. Russian leadership is willing to take high risks to gain recognition from the US as an important player and promote its own model of “conflict solution”. Even if Russian is unlikely to deploy ground forces, air strikes have already begun. All this takes place despite the opposition of a majority of Russians, who are against military action in Syria and retain a deep memory of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. According to a recent poll from the Levada Center, only 14 percent of Russians agree with providing Assad with direct military support, while 69 percent are against it. Only 16 percent are in favor of technical military support for Assad. All this makes the Russian action vulnerable should Russia suffer casualties. Russian propaganda may affect this position over the short term, but only until Russian soldiers are killed.
It is indeed impressive that the Russian army is able to prepare and implement airstrikes in Syria, coordinating an entire supply chain. That means that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the Russian military reform started in 2008 after the Russian-Georgian war was successful. The Russian army is not only able to organize a hybrid war in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, but to act in a very difficult environment far away from Russia after a short period of preparation. Russian cruise missile strikes from the Caspian Flotilla were not militarily necessary – the same attacks would have been possible much more cheaply with airstrikes. But they demonstrated the ability of the Russian army to carry out long distance attacks and challenge the US-led NATO missile defense system in Europe. This has consequences for NATO, and was a clear message to the US.
Assad is an important ally in the Middle East, and the Russian military base in the Syrian city of Tartus is important for Russian prestige. Showing that the Russian military is able to carry out a military airstrike in other regions of the world improves Russian global standing, and Putin’s bargaining position with regard to other crises – including Ukraine. Russia promotes itself as a player that cannot be ignored by the US.
At the same time, Moscow will not support Assad at any cost – there are clear domestic limits to its capacity. It is a rationale cost-benefit calculation: if the costs to support Assad become too high, Russian leadership will accept the fall of the regime.
For the Russian leadership, fighters from the Caucasus and Central Asia who have joined IS and other terrorist groups in the Middle East pose a problem. According to various sources, the total number of militants from Russia fighting in Syria might be as high as 5000 fighters. There is a growing threat posed by fighters who return to Russia and other post-Soviet countries, particularly in Central Asia – they might commit acts of terrorism, destabilizing a region with many weak states. One argument being made by the Russian general staff is that Russia needs to kill as many of its own citizens who are fighting in the Middle East as possible before they return home.
Russia has become an unpredictable player, not only in the post-Soviet region, but also in other regions of the world. It is not willing to coordinate or communicate in an adequate way with the West if communication does not suit its own foreign policy goals. If the US and its allies are not willing or able to take responsibility for conflict resolution in a way that Russia finds acceptable, Russia seems to be increasingly willing to fill the gap itself, and not only in the post-Soviet region. This is a clear message to authoritarian leaders in the Middle East, but also in post-Soviet countries: we are willing to support you, and we offer an alternative to the US.
Russian leaders are promoting their own model of the role of state sovereignty and stability in other regions of the world in direct competition with that of the US. The coordination of its actions in Iraq, Syria, and Iran are meant to create an alternative to the Western coalition in the region, one that directly contradicts US foreign policy, but will primarily serve to create more instability and more victims.
Russian propaganda and hybrid methods are also on display in Syria, and form an important part of Russian strategy. From the beginning of its military campaign, Russian leadership provided limited information about its activities. Putin used his speech at the UN General Assembly to offer a coalition against IS, but then only acted to stabilize Assad. All this shows once again that Russian leadership uses tactics to improve its bargaining position, but that it has no serious interest in cooperation with the West. It is an illusion that Russia is part of the solution in Syria. All who argue the opposite only serve to emphasize the West’s lack of ideas to handle instability in the region.
The West has few good options for responding to Russia’s actions. The main problem of Western policy is that it is focused first and foremost on crisis management and short-term solutions, while lacking a strategic perspective. What is needed at the moment is more communication with Moscow – also on topics other than the Middle East –, without compromises made in advance. The Ukrainization of general relations with Russia was a mistake; it is necessary to rebuild channels for regular communication with Russia, especially for emergencies. Stabilizing Syria must not mean accepting the Russian requirement that Assad be involved. At the same time, the US and its allies need to learn that they cannot leave countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya alone after a change in regime. Russian leadership is willing to fill these gaps to promote its own concept of conflict solution, but it is not a serious partner interested in solving problems. It lacks concepts and resources. Putin has its own agenda, which stands increasingly in conflict with the West’s regionally and globally.