The question at the heart of Russia’s ramped up involvement in Syria is simple: why? What does Russian President Vladimir Putin have to gain from throwing more weight behind
Syrian dictator Mayor of Damascus Bashar al-Assad at a time when Assad’s position has never been more tenuous? Why not accept that Assad can’t come out of this war with anything approaching his former power and cut the guy loose? Hell, why get (more) involved at all?
The answer to the “why” question is important, because it would offer some idea as to what kind of outcome Putin will be able to accept and whether Russia can be part of a comprehensive solution to the Syrian disaster or simply another complication, another stakeholder pulling in its own direction, unable to make common cause with any of the other stakeholders who are doing exactly the same thing. It’s also impossible to determine for sure, since there are so many reasons why Russia is doing this, and since the one thing you can say about Putin, whether you think he’s a super-genius or kind of a short-sighted dolt, whether you see him as a paragon of Judeo-Christian values, as a petty tyrant with a massive inferiority complex, or as the embodiment of pure evil, he’s not easy to read.
So here are the possible reasons, as far as I can tell, why Russia is digging in deeper in Syria, in no particular order (though now that I look at how I’ve listed them, they sort of run from “most noble” to “least noble”). Enjoy?
- Genuine concern over ISIS/Islamic extremism
Russia has serious reasons to be concerned about Islamic extremism, and especially ISIS. For one thing, this is a genuine national security question for Russia, which is home to around 16.5 million Muslims (more than any European country aside from Turkey). Obviously, it would be offensive and wrong to suggest that all 16.5 million of those people are security threats because Muslim, but consider that the Russian government has fought two wars against separatist elements in majority-Muslim Chechnya (which were admittedly driven by nationalist, more than religious, motives), and that people have been warning of the rise of Islamic extremism there for several years now. Then consider that there are a lot of Chechen fighters in Syria, many of whom are fighting for ISIS. Speaking of ISIS, the leaders of the Caucasus Emirate, an umbrella organization for Islamist groups in Chechnya, pledged allegiance to ISIS in June and now have their own Caucasus Province (Wilayat Kavkaz) that is an ISIS franchise like Wilayat Sinai in Egypt. Earlier this month, ISIS fighters in the north Caucasus (where Chechnya is located) claimed responsibility for an attack on a Russian military base in neighboring Dagestan.
So when Russia says it’s got a problem with ISIS, it ain’t lying. On the other hand, Russia also appears to be exaggerating the number of Chechens fighting for ISIS in Syria by counting all Chechens in Syria as ISIS fighters. This is troubling on two levels: first, because it suggests that Russia isn’t really all that concerned about the Chechens in Syria so much as it sees them as a convenient excuse to get involved there directly, and second, because it hints at Russian policy that regards all groups fighting Assad as effectively equivalent to ISIS, a policy that could really cause problems with the U.S. and with the rebels’ patrons (mostly the Saudis and Turkey) if Russia starts targeting all of Assad’s enemies indiscriminately rather than focusing on ISIS specifically.
If Russia sees the Syrian conflict as a binary choice between Assad and the extremists, then it’s easy to understand why it’s backing Assad so forcefully even as Assad’s fortunes are circling the drain. That view kind of ignores the evidence that Assad has been aiding (or at least strategically ignoring) ISIS for most of this war, but it’s at least plausible that Putin sees things that way. Interestingly, ever since Russia has started ratcheting up its support for Assad, the Syrian air force has started striking ISIS at a rate that I don’t think we’ve seen at any other point in this over four year long war. Maybe Putin’s additional aid came with some strings attached.
- Religious concerns
After decades fighting the Soviet Union’s Godless Commies in the Cold War, and knowing that Putin is an old KGB hand, it’s understandably easy for Americans to overlook the role that religion has played in Putin’s government. But the fact is that Putin has based his persona in considerable measure on his religious faith, and he’s benefited from the strong support of the Russian Orthodox Church. When you’ve got Bryan Fischer praising you for your government’s anti-gay laws, you may be running a freaking theocracy for all I know.
This matters because the Russian Orthodox Church has been stridently opposed to Assad’s removal from power, for fear that Syria’s Christian population (many/most of whom are Orthodox) will suffer dearly if an Islamist government takes over. Which, you know, is probably a pretty reasonable fear. Anyway, the Church cares about this, and Putin depends, in part, on the support of the Church, so he cares about it too.
- Supporting an ally (or: looking out for Russian interests)
Unquestionably, Assad’s Syria is a major Russian ally. The relationship goes back 60 years plus, to the time when Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, was running Syria and the guy in Putin’s position was running the Soviet Union, not Russia. Alliances that last that long take on lives of their own to some degree, as institutions in both countries accept the relationship as a fact of life and build around it. Russia may be reflexively coming to Assad’s aid simply because That’s the Way It Is, even though Assad’s weakness makes him a pretty lousy ally for Moscow these days. Russia would frankly be better served cultivating ties among the rebels in the hopes that it can steer the inevitable succession toward forces that favor Moscow. And, well, they’re actually doing that, to some extent. But Assad is still Their Man in Damascus, with all that entails.
The related consideration here is that Russia has legitimate military assets in Syria that it wants to protect. The Tartus naval base (Russia says it’s really more of a supply depot and repair yard, but whatever) is the Russian navy’s only Mediterranean Sea port, so it’s pretty freaking important to them. Likewise, if they’re really building a new Russian airbase outside of Latakia, that could be an important facility for them as well. All this military buildup may be as much about staking Russia’s claim on its assets in a post-Assad Syria as it is about preserving the status quo.
- Showing off for other allies (or would-be allies)
Part of the reason you might stand by an ally, even when it’s not entirely advantageous to do so, is that you’re making a statement to your other allies, and would-be allies, that they can rely on you. Putin has this project he’s put together called the Eurasian Economic Union, which also includes Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Belarus, and is apparently thinking about expanding into Scandinavia (!). It’s a tenuous little enterprise at the moment, so Putin would undoubtedly like to show Russia’s four
vassal partner states that they can depend on him no matter what, which is also a message he’d like to deliver to any would-be future members of the EEU, whether we’re talking about Norway (!) or the other former Soviet Central Asian republics. Plus there are other countries that Russia wants to be in business with, even if they’d be unlikely to join the EEU, like China and India, and Putin wants them to know how reliable he is as well. Standing by Assad gets this point across.
- Influence in the Middle East
Russia hasn’t exactly been at the top of anybody’s “must ally” list for a while now, you know? Outside of Assad’s Syria, does Russia have another ally in the Middle East? Maybe Iran, now that the nuclear deal is going through, but Russian-Iranian relations have been extraordinarily fraught over the past several centuries, so that pairing is very much in a feeling out period. Meanwhile, Putin wants to reassert Russia’s great power status right now, and great powers need satellite allies all around the world or else they’re not really major powers. Until another regional option opens up for Moscow, Assad is Russia’s only option for projecting itself into the Middle East.
- Influence around the world
Speaking of Russia’s great power status, they don’t really have that at the moment. But Putin figures that he can restore it by alternately standing up to the U.S. and forcing the U.S. to come to Russia to solve problems (or, in other words, to treat Russia as an equal, the way it mostly does with China). Intervening to support Assad directly challenges U.S. interests (which are anti-Assad in word if not very much in deed), so it gets him the former, and it potentially forces the U.S. to go through Russia (diplomatically, of course) to negotiate Assad’s eventual removal from office, which gets him the latter.
- Something to deflect attention from Ukraine
We haven’t talked about it here in a while because the conflict has been kind of locked in stasis, but that whole Ukraine business is still very much a thing. The Donbas rebels are planning on holding local elections, which Kiev obviously doesn’t want, and Russia is still backing the rebels. The potential for the fighting to reignite is high. Oh, and Crimea might be on the brink of more violence, too. Russia continues to pay a hefty price for its actions in Ukraine, as well, with US and EU sanctions continuing to take a bite out of the weak Russian economy (though it’s hard to say how much of Russia’s economic weakness is due to those sanctions as opposed to low oil prices).
If Putin makes Russia the indispensable gateway to Assad, and even more if he’s able to position Russia at the head of a renewed international effort to take down ISIS, he’s better positioned to talk the rest of the world down from punishing him for Ukraine. This is already probably going to bear fruit when Putin speaks to the UN General Assembly next week, since he’ll be able to ignore Ukraine altogether (focusing instead on his grand plan to fight ISIS) and the people listening to him won’t be laughing him out of the building while he does it.
- Domestic politics
Vladimir Putin is extremely popular in Russia right now. But it wasn’t always that way; remember how Putin ran for president again in 2012, and won reelection, and then a whole bunch of Russians took to the streets to protest what they said was a rigged election? Putin didn’t seem so popular then. But it turns out that this jingoistic national security/war stuff really buys you a lot of public goodwill. Who knew? Involvement in Syria lets Putin do some more chest-puffing war stuff, which is good for him domestically, or at least it will be unless and until Russian bodies start dropping.
Also, see “religious concerns” above.
So what’s Putin really thinking here? This recent Russian buildup started only a month after many observers were starting to say that Russia was pulling away from Assad, so everybody’s really kind of flying blind trying to guess Russia’s next move. In my deeply analytical view, ¯\_(シ)_/¯. There’s a deep desire among many of the usual neocon suspects here in the states to assume that Putin is playing games when he claims to be concerned about ISIS, but I don’t think you can just dismiss those concerns out of hand or assume he’s lying to cover for some more nefarious purposes. Frankly, all of these factors are probably in play on some level or another. Can Putin be convinced to eventually toss Assad overboard? Probably, as long as it’s done in a way that enhances, rather than diminishes, Russia’s stature, and that protects Russia’s interests, both in terms of its facilities in Syria and its concerns over Islamic extremism.