What does Russia want in Syria?

Asle Toje · 6 October 2015

In late September Vladimir Putin visited the UN for the first time in a decade and upstaged everyone, including the US President. In his address, the Russian President warned against “playing games with terrorists” and insisted that the Islamists in Syria can only be met with by force of arms.

We have heard many explanations why Moscow has now sent an expeditionary force to Syria. The intellectually laziest explanation revolves around the Syrian port city of Tartus, Russia’s single remaining naval base in the Mediterranean. Tartus is less irreplaceable than some seem to think. Cyprus is a willing alternative.

This is about something bigger. Syria gives Moscow an opportunity for affirming great power status by exerting influence beyond Russia’s near abroad. The Russo-Arabian connection has a long pre-history. The Arab world was one of few arenas where Soviet successfully built long-term partnerships during the Cold War, and the Russian brand remains surprisingly popular in the region.

The intervention is probably also about something as pedestrian as advertising. Russia’s position as the world’s second largest arms exporter is under pressure. At the time of writing, Moscow has sent 28 Sukhoi fighters, a similar number of attack helicopters, as well as an unknown number of T-90 tanks. While the United States for a decade has been able to showcase its goods in the Middle East, Russia has had fewer opportunities exhibit their wares in situ.

Russian weapons contracts with Bashar al-Assad regime is worth an estimated $4 billion, much of it on credit. With the Assad regime teetering on the brink of collapse, this creates concerns over not getting paid, so was the case in Iraq, where Moscow had to write off $8 billion in debts to Saddam’s regime. Therefore, Russia has an interest in ensuring that not Assad himself, at least his representatives are present if and when peace negotiations commences.

Russia is also in the process of building barracks that could accommodate a brigade, probably marine infantry. So what is the goal of fighting troops? On that there are, broadly speaking three speculative “schools”:

The “predictable” hypothesis sees Russia reluctantly drawn into ever heavier fighting and, encouraged by the progress technological superiority will give, is drawn into an unwinnable asymmetrical war. Unthinkable, you say? The US occupied in Iraq, having experienced Vietnam and the Soviet Union went into Afghanistan with Vietnam in its rear-view mirror.

The “defensive” scenario believe that force is there to prevent Damascus from falling, conceivable at the hands of a Western campaign against IS where NATO, for understandable reasons, are unwilling to appear as Assad’s air force. Maybe that’s why Russia also sends fighter aircraft primarily designed for air-to-air combat. Among the parties in Syria only West and Russia have such capabilities.

The “offensive,” and hence most «Putinesque», scenario is that Russia is preparing a single offensive with a single goal: Raqqa, the Islamist capital of Syria. If Raqqa fall will get IS will lose its centre and rival militias will have a fighting chance to defeat them piecemeal. If the West chooses to support Russia through to cutting off the retreat with air power, this could reduce the Islamic state to an Islamic archipelago.

Russia has just as legitimate interests as the US when it comes to a desire for stability in Syria. Battle hardened jihadists pose a greater danger to the nearby Russia than the United States. Chaos in the Middle East impact Russia long before in affects the United States. Russia’s assessment is that there is a greater chance for stability under Assad than with an illusory moderate Syrian opposition.

For better or for worse Russia seems to have made themselves an indispensable actor in the efforts to find a solution to the Syria conflict. Through its increased presence, Russia has ‘bought’ a place at the negotiating table. And since Assad forces are now too depleted even to hold areas conquered by its patrons, the Russians will probably seek a negotiated solution.

The West is now in the unfamiliar position that a deal might be brokered without us at the head of the table. This alone may be enough to make the West decides to coordinate with Moscow. For this to happen, the West must to some extent normalize relations with Moscow. These have remained frozen since Russia annexed the Ukrainian province of Crimea.

Western sanctions have hit Russia harder than expected, largely because they have coincided with falling oil prices and the slow-down in the global economy. Putin cannot sustain permanent isolation, yet remains unwilling to stand down. The Ukrainian connection appears strengthened by reports that the show of force in in Syria has been accompanied by diminished support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

It is unsurprising that Russia is acting in this fashion. A militarily strong but economically and diplomatically weak international actor can be expected to play to its strengths when pressured by an actor(s) that is diplomatically and economically strong but militarily weak or unwilling. It speaks volumes about the West’s handling of the Syria crisis that many of the heads of state who convened at the 70th Anniversary of the United Nations seem to give Putin the benefit of the doubt and wish Russia good luck in Syria.