With Ukraine Unfinished, What Has Driven Putin to Intervene in Syria?

BY MICHAEL MORAN

One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s main objectives during his time in power has been to reestablish Russia as a major player in world affairs.  Feeling disrespected since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has wanted a seat at the table and to be treated as an equal alongside the United States, Germany, France, China, and others.  This goal was front and center in New York City in September, where Putin spoke at the United Nations General Assembly for the first time in a decade.  After the last eighteen months, a period that has seen Russia particularly isolated as a result of their aggression in eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, Putin may see an opportunity in Syria to bring the Western states back to the bargaining table – whether they want to or not.

However, trying to make his country relevant again only partially explains Putin’s recent decision to begin airstrikes in Syria.  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has proven to be more resilient than anticipated during the civil war that has turned his country upside down over the last four years.  At the same time, the United States has been embarrassed on a number of fronts in Syria, such as failed efforts to support the opposition and drive Assad from power, and failed attempts to stop the spread and influence of the Islamic State (Daesh).  The outlook for the latter has gotten so bad that there was a mini uprising of sorts at CENTCOM, where a group of more than fifty analysts filed a formal complaint against the senior members who did not like the not-so-rosy assessment of the situation.  The analysts were reportedly “urged to state that killing particular ISIS leaders and key officials would diminish the group and lead to its collapse,” which they did not agree with.1

Over the years, Putin has been outspoken against the West and its alleged policy of fomenting regime change and trying to put into place democratic leadership throughout the world — what was referred to as an “export of revolutions” in his recent speech to the UN.  During the strongly worded address, Putin also indirectly criticized the United States for its  role in some of the recent wars and revolutions, saying, “Rather than bringing about reforms, an aggressive foreign interference has resulted in a flagrant destruction of national institutions and the lifestyle itself.  Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress we got violence, poverty and social disaster.2

This has been another factor that has driven Putin to intervene in Syria.  He wants to support and maintain a key ally in the region, but more importantly he wants stability.  The Syrian conflict is worrisome for Putin because of the risk of a spillover into the already volatile Northern Caucasus, where Russia has long struggled with extremism.  Additionally, with Russia claiming that thousands of its own citizens are fighting alongside ISIS, there is concern about what these war-tested extremists could do upon returning home.  ISIS may want to show off their reach by launching attacks within Russia and for this reason, Putin is wise to try to keep the fighting abroad and away from the homeland, particularly now that the bombs have been dropped and the terrorists have a rallying cry.

Putin would also like to strike a blow to regime changes supported or instigated by the U.S. and try to preserve the sovereignty of other countries nearby, regardless of how brutal they may be.  In essence, Putin wouldn’t mind sticking it to President Obama and the United States if given the opportunity.  Perhaps one could argue that Putin’s own insecurities and paranoia are also on display, given the way he has crushed any attempt by the opposition in his own country over the years.

However, while Russia initially claimed it would be targeting ISIS strongholds, it has also launched a number of attacks on rebel-controlled regions such as Hama.3  Specifically, the CIA-backed Tajamu al-Ezzeh rebel group has reportedly been hit nearly 20 times by Russian airstrikes.4  It seems that Russia is unwilling to differentiate between the ‘good’ rebels, like those that are supported by the United States, and the ‘bad’ rebels like Jabhat al-Nusra, which is an al-Qaeda affiliate.5  While talking to reporters at the UN, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov solidified this point by saying that Russian airstrikes will not “go beyond ISIS, al Nusra or other terrorist groups recognized by the United Nations Security Council or Russian law.”  Lavrov failed to elaborate on these “other terrorist groups” and instead said, “If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist, right?6  Russia’s broad definition will likely be stretched as far as possible and include anyone fighting against Assad.

Additionally, a key sticking point in talks between Russia and the West has been demands for a ‘transition of power’ in Syria, which Russia is against because it views the Assad regime as legitimate.  It is also fair to ask, who is the alternative to Assad?  Will they be any different and will the country be better off?  Converting Middle Eastern countries into democratic ones has proven to be easier said than done time and time again in the recent history of the United States, as Russia likes to point out.

Implications at Home

Up until now Russia’s role in Syria has been limited to airstrikes and it does not seem that Russians at home are opposed to this.  Specifically, according to a recent Levada poll, 40% support the government’s policy regarding Syria, 11% are against it, and 33% don’t care.7  However, the tide could quickly shift should the Russian government expand their role and begin sending ground troops into the country.

According to Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, head of the Armed Forces Committee in the Russian Duma (Parliament), “volunteer” fighters could begin to emerge in Syria.8  Of course, these “volunteer” fighters also appeared in eastern Ukraine and have played a key (or perhaps, leading) role in the emergence and sustainment of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.  While Russia may deny that their armed forces are involved in the war taking place in the Donbass, there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  Namely, the presence of weapons that are only available in Russia; ‘selfies’ taken by Russian troops in Ukraine and uploaded to social media; and perhaps most compelling, the bodies that have been returned to Russia and which the government has tried desperately to keep under wraps.9  Through an amended decree in May 2015, Putin declared that all military deaths, during both times of peace and times of war, are to be classified as state secrets.10  This was a move undoubtedly done in an effort to intimidate those who had been reporting on the dead soldiers returning home from eastern Ukraine.

Should Russia decide to send in ground troops to Syria, whether outright or through their proxies, the Kremlin will find that those at home are not nearly as supportive.  According to the same Levada poll, 69% are against direct military support (troops) to Syria.  Additionally, Russian troops themselves have been trying to avoid deployments and it appears that in some cases they are not even aware of where they are going.  “We thought that we were going to the Donbass, but it turned out to be Syria,” said one serviceman named Alexei.11We don’t want to go to Syria, we don’t want to get killed there.”

Support for Putin may begin to fall and the voices at home may get increasingly louder if the number of military funerals throughout Russia continue to rise.  One soldier’s mother was particularly outspoken when interviewed by the Russian media about the involvement of Russian troops in Syria.  “Why are they sending people out there like cattle to the slaughter?,” she asked.  She also brought up the threats made against military parents regarding disclosing information about their children, which has also been seen in cases of soldiers killed in Ukraine.  “They say that if we do not sign a non-disclosure agreement, then we will be deprived of compensation in the event of our sons’ deaths.  What can we do?  All of this seems similar to how they send the ‘vacationers’ to the Donbass, but my son’s life is more valuable than their compensation or benefits such as a military mortgage.11

Implications Abroad

Russia’s involvement in Syria could become more than just a power move and a way to stick it to the United States; it could also have ramifications for the war in Ukraine.  If the West decides that it is better off working alongside the Russians in an effort to stabilize the region, and it’s a very big “if”, Putin will likely try to use this to his advantage.  Acting as the peacemaker and ‘restabilizer’, he could ask the West to ease the pressure on his country – namely, sanctions.  However, this is unlikely to happen given that the two sides are not even in agreement on who to attack, which one would think is the most important issue.  The United States is not going to join a Russia-led coalition that is destroying rebel groups that they just spent hundreds of millions of dollars on to train and support.

From a different perspective, Russia could also use this as a distraction.  As the world focuses on Syria, the Middle East, ISIS, and the refugee crisis, less attention is being paid to Ukraine.  While the Minsk II agreement seems to be holding up for now, it is unclear if the fighting is done for good.  It would be reckless to assume so and take the focus off Ukraine or the pressure off Russia.

Conclusion

Vladimir Putin’s decision to involve his country in the Syrian crisis greatly complicates the situation on the ground, as you now have an array of ideologies among the nations fighting for what they believe is the right thing to do to solve this conflict.  The Russian involvement in Syria is motivated by a number of factors, namely (in no particular order):

  1. Russia wants to establish itself as a major player in world affairs and have a say in the decisions that need to be made abroad.
  2. Russia wants the focus off of Ukraine, perhaps in an effort to reduce the economic costs that it has been paying at home for their involvement.
  3. Russia wants to bring stability and support one its few allies in the region.
  4. Russia has grown tired of the U.S. policy of promoting democracy and color revolutions throughout the world.

Vladimir Putin has been, and will continue to be, a thorn in the side of the West.  The decisions he will make in the coming weeks and months will have ramifications not only for Syria, but also for his own country.  It is unclear if he has a long-term strategy for Syria or if he will make things up as he goes along as he seemingly did in eastern Ukraine.  If it is the latter, he will fail once again.

Notes

1 http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/09/20/exclusive-this-is-the-isis-intel-the-u-s-military-dumbed-down.html

2 http://gadebate.un.org/sites/default/files/gastatements/70/70_RU_EN.pdf

3 http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/09/30/world/middleeast/syria-control-map-isis-rebels-airstrikes.html#compare-strikes

4http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/06/situation-report-new-afghan-plans-kunduz-continues-to-roil-syrian-mission-creep-for-moscow-new-fp-podcast-ready-russia-targeting-cia-trained-rebels-iraq-would-welcome-russian-planes-and-lots-mo/

5 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/01/russia-launches-fresh-airstrikes-on-syria-targets

6 http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/01/middleeast/russia-syria/

7 http://www.levada.ru/29-09-2015/rossiyane-vystupayut-protiv-vvoda-voisk-v-siriyu

8 http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/06/world/europe/nato-russia-warplane-turkey.html

9 http://www.interpretermag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/IMR_Invasion_By_Any_Other_Name.pdf

10 http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/28/vladimir-putin-declares-all-russian-military-deaths-state-secrets

11 http://www.interpretermag.com/putin-in-syria-the-russian-soldiers-who-dont-want-to-fight-for-assad/

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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