Russia’s Game in Syria
Security, geopolitics, and a balance of powers
On Wednesday September 30, the Russian Federation started a bombing campaign in Syria with one objective in mind: the stabilization of the country and the survival of Assad’s regime. This action is very relevant for many reasons, but among them is the fact that it is historical. This presents Russia’s first military action on a foreign country, a majority of whose population is Muslim, since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Also, and more importantly, the Syrian Civil War has been transformed into the first international conflict since World War II in which all major military powers, except China in the case of Syria, are directly involved in fighting instead of being engaged in a proxy war where outside powers are only arming and training the different domestic actors.
Many have criticized (and rightly so) Vladimir Putin’s intervention and have denounced his actions as a power play intended to reinforce and maintain his regime in Russia. In recent articles, Anne Applebaum Sikorska reproduces this idea. She, and many others like her, considers Putin has only one goal in mind: staying in power in Russia. As such, every domestic or foreign action by Moscow is a de facto reflection of Putin’s ideology vis-à-vis his own regime’s survival. This is not just wrong, but it is also a very naive conception of how modern states and governments work. Sikorska seems to think that Putin has an unwritten Mein Kampf somewhere in his mind and that he is the absolute puppeteer of the Russian Federation. Regrettably, or fortunately, modern states and societies are more complex than this, and as with Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, a leader has only so much power and influence. Putin’s government is also the government of the energy and media conglomerates controlled by post-Soviet oligarchs, of the Orthodox Church, of the military, and of the Federal Secret Service (Russian’s internal security and counterintelligence bureau). Additionally, Russia’s current regime is a product of the United Russia Party, which, even if it tends to give Putin a carte blanche, controls the support he needs from the different heads of republics. Although one might be right to call Russia Putin’s kleptocracy, one should keep in mind that being the author does not assure control of said author’s own creation.
I agree that the Second Chechen War functioned to consolidate and legitimate Putin’s regime and that the Georgian War of 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and Russia’s ongoing involvement in Ukraine are driven in part by domestic electoral concerns. However, I do not think the Syrian conflict follows the same logic. In fact, even the Chechen, Georgian, and Ukrainian wars have been driven by a Russian foreign policy maxim that has existed since Peter the Great’s Russian-Turkish War of 1686-1700: the near-abroad doctrine.
Briefly, “near abroad” refers to adjacent regions of the Baltic states, Central Asia, and the Caucasus that were incorporated by Czarist Russia between 1689 and 1894 after the Eternal Treaty of Peace, which recognized and secured Russia’s possession of Left-Bank Ukraine and was signed with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1686. Russia’s subsequent conquests followed both ideological and security motivations: the defense of Christianity from the Ottoman and Iranian empires and access to yearlong open seaports at the expense of Sweden, Poland, and the Ottomans.
The near-abroad doctrine did not change logics after the fall of the Soviet Union. Following the enlargement of NATO into the ex-Warsaw Pact members, the Russian Federation has pursued an offensive (or defensive from their perspective) policy that has, once again, ideological and security objectives: the maintenance of free access to the Baltic and Black seas, plus containing NATO’s air and missile defense beyond the Oder-Neisse border and guaranteeing the safety of “ethnic” Russian minorities.
The Syrian intervention does not follow the same doctrine. Moscow’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War has to be decoupled from purely domestic reasons and near-abroad-like expansionist policies. Instead, it has to be seen through a neorealist prism that prioritizes balance of power between nations and considers any non-inevitable loss of spheres of influence as a direct attack on national interests. Following this theoretical approach, in my opinion, three main reasons have pushed Russia to support Assad’s regime: 1. counterbalancing US hegemony; 2. preventing the emergence of stateless destabilizing zones near Russia; and 3. protecting an ally that is part of Russia’s sphere of influence. All these concerns are interconnected.
Many international relations theorists who consider themselves neorealists agree that among the main sources of instability in the international system are bids for global hegemony and unipolarity (see Bull 2012, Gilpin 1983, Mearsheimer 2001, Walt 2005, Waltz 2010). Each of these bids could produce systemic wars either by confronting all great powers in direct conflict or by creating multiple quagmires wherever the unipolar hegemon has entangled itself, which end up eventually prompting major state actors to challenge the unbalance of power to reinstitute order. Though I do not completely agree with their worldview, which I think is simplistic and insufficient, I find their way of analyzing international relations quite useful when trying to avoid personalistic and domestic explanations to foreign policy.
Following a state-centered logic, Russia is challenging the American unipolar system both to reinstate equilibrium and to undermine centrifugal anti-state forces, which Moscow sees as the main product of US hegemony. Between 2001 and 2003, Russia perceived the “War on Terror” as a positive American-type foreign policy. In fact, Russia assisted Washington, DC in Afghanistan and even allowed American planes the use of old Soviet bases in Central Asia. Moscow also legitimized the post-Second Chechen War security policies under the umbrella of the War on Terror. Cooperation was so ambitious that the NATO + Russia council was created in 2002. However, the mires of the war in Afghanistan and the Iraq War in 2003 produced an abrupt change. Moscow, alongside France, China, and Germany, fervently opposed the fall of the Baath regime in Baghdad because it was a clear push for American hegemony in the Middle East and because, taking into account Afghanistan, Washington seemed to be an igniter of instability and failed states.
Moscow saw the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as two simultaneous civil wars, sparked by American destabilizing interventions, which were spilling over into neighboring countries and which were being used by Jihadi militants to foment attacks against the enemies of Islam around the world. With an anti-Islamic history, a recent exhausting internal conflict that reached the streets of Moscow (and continues to do so today), and a significant Muslim population in its most volatile areas, Russia would see another US military intrusion in the Middle East as jeopardizing its national security. It took the Russian State almost a decade of economic reemergence and declining US hegemony to engage in its first foreign intervention since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The 2008 Georgian War was part of the near-abroad doctrine, but it also has to be understood as a Russian bid to adjust a balance of power and curtail stateless zones in their own spheres of influence. From Moscow’s point of view, the incorporations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia can be considered as military operations aimed at the “pacification” of stateless regions alongside the recently “pacified” (almost ethnically cleansed) stateless zones of Dagestan and Chechnya. The difference was that the former engagements were part of the sovereign territory of a foreign country that, after a “democratic revolution” in 2003 and realignment with the United States, was unable to contain centrifugal violent forces within its borders.
Besides being part of the near-abroad doctrine, Russia’s interventions in both Georgia and Ukraine signaled both the end of the unipolar era heralded by Washington and the bid for a return to a bipolar or multipolar system. Moscow would have never attacked two aspiring NATO members without an evident decline of American power. In fact, Russia followed a coercive diplomatic strategy after the 2003 Rose and 2004 Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, respectively. That period marked the apex of US hegemony. Conversely, in 2008 and 2014, Washington’s absolute supremacy could be disputed (though it also helps to orchestrate military actions during lame-duck American presidencies). The same can be said about Syria. Moscow perceives its military involvement as a counterbalancing action against a declining US primacy and legitimizes its interference by pointing to the destabilizing forces that have been unleashed after each American intervention in the Middle East.
Neorealism considers nation-states as the only relevant actors in an anarchic international system without a central authority; balance between major powers is the only legitimate force that brings stability. Non-state actors either are not recognized as legitimate sources of power or are viewed as sources of instability in the system. All US War-on-Terror military actions have resulted in power vacuums in an already volatile region that borders Russia’s near-abroad. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have been transformed into stateless zones of anarchic violence that have already spilled over into neighboring countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Syria. For Russia, these failed states are a direct consequence of American hegemonic foreign policy. Daesh’s takeover of northwestern Iraq and northeastern Syria is a serious destabilizing factor in the region.
Russia’s objective in Syria is quite clear: to support Assad’s regime by bombing both Daesh and rebel forces, but with a clear focus on the latter. For Russia, the Syrian Baath State represents a stabilizing force against non-state actors and a balancing power against US allies in the region — echoing the Iraqi Baath State before 2003 and the Libyan Arab Socialist Union State before 2011. For Moscow, the current instability in Turkish Kurdistan and President Erdoğan’s “pacification” campaign there are linked to the rise of Daesh and the Syrian Civil War. They also represent a fearsome prospect, one to be avoided next to and within Russian territory. The flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and now Europe are also viewed by Russia as a critical security matter that could, potentially, further destabilize the Mediterranean basin.
The United States’ clear lack of strategy and previous engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya make Moscow doubtful of trusting the state-building effectiveness of American-approved anti-Assad “democratic forces” such as the Free Syrian Army. If Assad’s regime totally collapses, multiple rebel forces will start fighting each other and will not be able to take hold of the territory, paving a way for Daesh to take over the country. Between a chaotic (and, therefore, eventually Daesh-controlled) Syria and one still under the Baath party, the latter is Russia’s preferred choice. The intensification of US raids, the recent involvement of France (with possible engagement by Great Britain and Canada), plus the weakening of Assad’s forces against the Islamic militias Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra all prompted the surprising Russian campaign.
In addition, Assad’s Syria is currently the last Russian ally and military partner in the Mediterranean. A Syria run by the Free Syrian Army or under Daesh control would entail a loss of Moscow’s sphere of influence. Since the late-nineteenth century, Russia has been trying to gain direct access to the Mediterranean. During World War I, Great Britain and France even promised Saint Petersburg control over the Dardanelles in exchange for their participation in the war against the German Reich.
During the Cold War, the Soviet 5th Eskadra operated from seaports in Libya, Egypt, and Syria. However, Sadat’s and Gadhafi’s pro-American realignments, in 1977 and 2003, respectively, left Russia with only the naval facility of Tartus in Syria. Tartus has been leased to the Russian Federation ad perpetuity, can accommodate nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers, and is the only Mediterranean repair and replenishment spot saving Russian vessels a trip back to Black Sea ports through the Turkish straits. Tartus is a strategic outpost that Russia cannot afford to lose. Finally, Russia has a weapon exporter monopoly in Syria, which is the fifth largest Russian arms importer. Russia has its own national and strategic interests in Syria and is ready to defend them, precisely as the United States would be ready to defend the authoritarian repressive Saudi regime in case of a Daesh-like uprising in the Kingdom.
In sum, it should be evident that Russia’s intervention in Syria is not a scheme by Putin for domestic electoral motives, nor is it directly linked to Moscow’s recent near-abroad expansion, particularly in Ukraine. Moscow’s neorealist and geopolitical perspectives are also showcased by how the start of their bombing campaign was communicated to the US Air Force and coordinated with Iraq, Iran, and even Israel. Furthermore, the notion that Europe or the United States should oppose Putin in both Syria and Ukraine is mistaken. The United States, Germany, and France are more than able to reach a compromise with Russia in Syria, while also maintaining hard-line diplomacy on Ukraine. Also, trying to accommodate Russian interests in Syria does not mean totally backing Assad. Washington, Berlin, and Paris are capable of offering Moscow a solution that should include a couple guarantees: first, establishing a coalition government between the Syrian Free Army and the Baath Party; second, allowing Assad and his family to leave the country and take residence in Park Avenue, South Kensington, or Avenue Foch (not unlike what was allowed for Jean-Bédel Bokassa, the Shah of Iran, Valentine Strasser, Ferdinand Marcos, and Jean-Claude Duvalier) without worrying about indictments by the International Criminal Court; and third, assuring Russia’s exclusive use of Tartus.
An international agreement on Syria’s future should also include Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s involvements and ensure that Sunni and Alawites share power. Although I would be inclined to have the Syrian people decide their own future and would follow the Rojava model, regrettably the current situation requires a more pragmatic and realistic approach, at least for the time being. If a rapprochement between Washington and Moscow were not achieved in the next few weeks, a rapidly escalating scenario involving more states would not be inconceivable. It is not difficult to imagine Russian jet fighters intercepting or obstructing French or American aircrafts; nor a Hezbollah and Iranian ground offensive (which seems to be in the initial stages) that could trigger an Israeli meddling, which would deteriorate the already fragile situation in the Occupied Territories, Lebanon, and Jordan and could also exacerbate the Saudi-Iranian not-so proxy war in Yemen and extend it to the Persian Gulf states such as Kuwait and Qatar. Multiple other scenarios are possible, none of which should be allowed to occur. Although I am not foreseeing an apocalyptic future that includes mushroom clouds over Tallinn and Warsaw, as Sikorska imagines, one where low- to high-intensity civil wars become the perpetual norm from Tripoli to Riyadh and from Aleppo to Aden is certainly more than possible and needs to be avoided.
Bull, Hedley. 2012. The Anarchical Society: A Study of World Order Politics. New York: Columbia University Press.
Gilpin, Robert. 1983. War and Change in World Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Mearsheimer, John. 2001. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: Norton.
Walt, Stephen. 2005. Taming American Power: The Global Response to US Primacy. New York: Norton.
Waltz, Kenneth. 2010. The Theory of International Politics. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.