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September 21, 2015

What are Russia’s Interests in Syria?

Moscow’s support for Bashar al-Assad is clearly a case of weighing costs against benefits

Even as it constructs a military base in Syria, Russia remains opaque on the subject of its objectives and the scope of its activities there. Stefan Meister explains that Moscow hopes to use its role in Syria to end the international isolation brought on by its annexation of Crimea. Can it bolster its own standing with the West and reduce the US’s role in the Middle East? To what extent will the West go along with Russia’s goal of including Assad in its proposed solution to the Syria crisis?

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What does Russia aim to achieve with its increased intervention in Syria?

The US represents the focal point of Russia’s foreign policy reasoning. On the one hand, Russia’s leadership is watching as the US loses influence in the Arab world and makes few gains in its struggle against the so-called Islamic State. Moscow is seeking to fill this gap – keeping its eye on the Gulf states, which have become increasingly skeptical of the US. On the other hand, through its increased involvement in Syria, Russia seeks to draw the attention of the US and raise its status in Washington, partly to improve its chances of securing a better deal in negotiations over Ukraine and abolishing the current sanctions. The new format for talks between US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland and Russian deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin indicates that a certain rapprochement between the US and Russia is underway.

Ukraine and Europe are of secondary importance to US foreign policy, while the Middle East and Syria – after China – are central. If Russia hopes to negotiate with the US at eye-level, it too will need to become involved within the region. Russia’s role in bringing about negotiations with Iran demonstrated to Washington that cooperation can take place on issues beyond just the post-Soviet states. Putin’s involvement in Syria is thus being used to help ease Russia out of the international isolation that began with the annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine. Moscow’s additional goals include supporting Assad, its important ally in the region, and to demonstrate through the delivery of modern weaponry to the region that it can offer similar support to other Arab states.

Is it likely that Russia will deploy ground troops and launch airstrikes?

There are reports on the development of infrastructure necessary for deploying a larger number of Russian soldiers to Syria. Presently however, Moscow is primarily bringing over training personnel and technical assistant in order to implement new military technology and train the Syrians in its use. I do not anticipate a large-scale Russian military intervention in the conflict, as such involvement would involve enormous costs – both financially and human – and could quickly become both unpredictable and unprofitable. It raises the question of whether or not Russia even possesses the military capacity for such a long-term military involvement. Memories of the Soviet-Afghan War run deep, and most Russians do not support such involvement. Though limited (and probably covert) measures alongside the Syrian army are conceivable, a direct military offensive using ground troops is not. Russia does not want to be pulled into the war against the Islamic State, yet it does hope to improve its standing with the US and incorporate Assad into its proposed solution to the conflict.

By withholding transparency about its objectives as well as the planned scope of its involvement, Moscow effectively draws the West’s attention to its activities. This improves Russia’s bargaining position while at the same time allowing Moscow to remain involved only to a limited extent.

How important is Assad for Moscow?

Russia’s leadership is pragmatic with regard to Assad. He is an important ally in the region, as Russia’s only naval base outside the post-Soviet region is located in Syria. Because of this, strong relations with Syria are crucial if Russia wishes to continue to have some importance in the Arab world and further underpin its own global ambitions. Furthermore, Russia always easier finds it easier to cooperate with authoritarian regimes. As in Ukraine, the danger for Moscow comes more from democratic movements than from autocratic leaders. And yet Russia’s willingness to support Assad does have its limits and is clearly driven by calculations of cost vs. benefit. By giving Moscow prestige, Assad is currently helping Putin strengthen his stance in the eyes of the US. But if Assad falls, Moscow will be ready to adjust its stance. Certainly, Moscow has no intention of putting the lives of Russian soldiers at risk on Assad’s behalf.

What options does the US have if Russia does become involved in military operations, for instance against the moderate Syrian opposition?

The US could exert diplomatic pressure, better coordinate its efforts, and exert more pressure in certain areas – for example, it could tighten the sanctions connected to Ukraine. Russia’s economy is in a downward spiral due to low oil and gas prices, among other factors. Bearing this in mind, the US could tighten the screws on the Russian energy sector by broadening sanctions, as was already done in August. I hardly believe that either side is interested in seeing an escalation of the situation. And yet, in light of the difficult situation that the war against the Islamic State currently represents, the question remains: to what extent is the West willing to go along with Russia and accept Assad, at least as an intermediate-term solution? This solution would significantly raise Russia’s status, but for the Syrian opposition and for important countries in the region, it would hardly be acceptable.

What are the chances of peace being achieved through a purported Russian-Iranian plan?

I am not familiar with this plan, but neither the Syrian opposition nor the US will accept a long-term solution involving Bashar al-Assad. Russia and Iran have chosen to side with Assad, and in doing so have taken a stance that remains unacceptable – both to large parts of the Syrian population and to other states in the region as well. Yet with the help of these two states, such a plan could help organize a needed transition. Many questions remain as to what form this transition should take. Is Assad actually ready to step down? How should elections be carried out? How can a broken country be stabilized and rebuilt? Yet it would be a start. We must not forget, however, that the Russian leadership’s primary interest in the region is to support authoritarian regimes and weaken the role of the US and democratic movements.

Bibliographic data

DGAP Five Questions, September 21, 2015

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