BACKGROUND: On September 30, 2015, Russia for the first time used direct military force in Syria; Russia’s Air Force attacked targets manned by forces opposed to the Assad regime. Prior to this attack, Russia had escalated its military presence in Syria by troop movements as well as communication showing Moscow’s intent to send volunteers to support the Assad regime in stabilizing the crisis it had been facing since 2011. Syria has long been under the Russian umbrella, and Russia has supported the regimes of both current President Bashar Al-Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad.
As part of this cooperation, Russia has established a military presence in the port of Tartus, which has become Russia’s only naval base on the Mediterranean Sea. When civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Russia stood behind the Assad regime despite calls from the U.S. and Europe for its removal, a standpoint supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, among others. These countries did not refrain from supporting the opposition.
The turning point in Russia’s role was Assad’s use of chemical weapons in August 2013, which President Obama had termed a “red line” beyond which the U.S. would deploy military force against the Syrian regime. This did not come to pass, however, as President Putin took it upon himself to disarm the regime of these weapons, and thus strengthened Russia’s position on the international scene.
The Arab upheavals, which neither fulfilled the expectations and euphoria they initially raised in the West, nor resulted in the replacement of authoritarian regimes with more democratic leadership, resulted in a bloody civil war in Syria, the rise of ISIS, the collapse of the century-old Sykes-Picot Agreement, and a humanitarian crisis. Approximately four million Syrians have fled the war to other countries and another six to seven million have become internally displaced persons. Russia’s latest moves, the massive transport and deployment of troops to Syria, as well as their direct involvement in the conflict, are a statement of intent on President Putin’s part, signaling the Kremlin’s determination to take serious steps, including direct military involvement. They aim to ensure the survival of Assad’s Alawite regime in Syria, and to ensure Russian interests in both Syria and the greater ME.
IMPLICATIONS: The Russian move to reinforce its position in Syria and to use military force in the crisis, in order to support the Assad regime, constitutes yet another move in the Kremlin’s strategy for re-establishing its geostrategic position in a very critical area, starting with the 2008 war with Georgia in the Caucasus (the gate to the Caspian Basin and Central Asia), followed by operations in Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula (the Black Sea region) and now in the Eastern Mediterranean. This move is part of Putin’s long-term strategy aiming to correct the reality created in the wake of the break-up of the Soviet Union, which in Putin’s words constituted the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century.
Syria’s destabilization during the Arab upheavals and the fall of the political order in the region threaten the survival of the Assad family’s Alawite-led regime and the critical Russian foothold on the Mediterranean, as well as the opportunity for improving Russia’s strategic status in the region. Russia is a semi-landlocked country and the Assad regime allowed Russia a critical naval base on the Mediterranean Sea. Russia’s interest in maintaining its assets in Syria parallels Russia’s achievement in deepening its presence in the Black Sea area following the Ukrainian crisis and the annexation of Crimea as bases for access to the open sea. It should be understood that the Kremlin’s ongoing, determined and growing support for the Assad regime in Syria is part of Russia’s effort to realize its gains from the Ukrainian crisis, as well as vis-a-vis the Mediterranean region.
Russia’s strengthened presence in Syria at this time is the result of a Kremlin policy that sees the crisis as a window of opportunity for changing the strategic status quo, which President Putin cannot afford to miss. The collapse of political order in the region has allowed Putin to initiate a game-changing move and deepen Russia’s involvement in developments following the Arab upheavals. Through its reinforcement of the Syrian regime, Russia has attained the status of a dominant player in shaping the future of the ME.
Similar to prior moves by the Kremlin in the Caucasus and Ukraine, Putin has stationed himself on the side of the Assad regime with a determination aided by U.S. policy, which backs the local and international players working to overthrow the regime but adheres to the policy of “leading from behind” put forward by President Obama. The U.S. has refrained from assertive containment vis-à-vis Russia’s use of military force, although the U.S. views President Putin’s policy as nineteenth century behavior, unacceptable in the twenty-first century, as Secretary of State John Kerry argued with reference to the Ukrainian crisis.
Moreover, the U.S. has refrained from addressing the asymmetry in U.S. and Russian levels of engagement and has taken no active initiative to prevent Putin from using military force to further promote Russia’s strategic aims, as he defines them. The U.S. policy in Syria is following the same asymmetrical pattern as in the Caucasus and Ukraine.
CONCLUSIONS: A common thread runs between the current Russian move, deepening its role and using military force in Syria, and the crises in Ukraine since 2013 and Georgia in 2008. In those cases, Russia also used confined military force to pursue broader strategic aims. Russia’s activity in Syria thus has significance far beyond the Middle East and is closely connected with its quest for supremacy in both the Caspian Basin and the Black Sea area. This was recently illustrated by Russia’s attacks on Syrian targets using cruise missiles from vessels in the Caspian Sea. Putin’s current move in Syria is another link in the chain of Russia’s strategy, aimed at changing the geostrategic balance in this region. The Kremlin is using Syria as a foothold for substantiating its position in the broader Middle East.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Avinoam Idan is a political geographer and a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, based in Washington DC. Prior to his academic career, he served in the Israeli Embassy in Moscow during the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Image Attribution: www.bloomberg.com, accessed on Oct 22, 2015