What Is Russia’s Syria Intervention Really About?

While most reporters agree that the intervention of Russia in Syria is important and dramatic, there is less commentary about the broader game plan of a participating Russia. Syria has been a warzone for over three years now, with the reported death toll at 250,000 and climbing. Initially, all eyes turned to the US, the EU, the UN, and the Arab League to see what they would do, but the limited and lukewarm responses taken by all these players showed how little concerned they were about Syria. Russia, on the other hand, has been vocal in the cause of Assad’s regime from the very start, so the dramatic intervention of Russia is no surprise. Even Australia’s Foreign Minister has told the Sydney Morning Herald that the Russian intervention was “not entirely unexpected.”

It should be noted that, for Russia, Syria is a much more important place than for practically any other nation. Military analysts almost unanimously agree that Russia’s primary force projection goal is a warm water port. What this means is they do not lose access in winter. The close Russia/Syria alliance provides exactly that – the port facility of Tartus, Russia’s only Mediterranean repair and resupply dock. If Tartus did not exist, Russian warships would need to travel the long way, via the Black Sea. This would, it is agreed by most analysts, seriously hamper efforts to protect the regional interests of Russia. Syria and Russia have a history of deep co-operation throughout the Cold War, the Russia/Syria nexus becoming more entrenched and involved after Tartus and Russia, in return, forgave $13.4 billion of Syria’s debt and became the nation’s principal supplier of arms.

Russia Syria The acknowledged holy grail of Russian naval strategy is a warm water port [Getty Images]In the unipolar, post-Cold War world, the Russia/Syria relationship faded into the background somewhat, especially in the period of re-orientation immediately following the cessation of the Cold War for Russia. Syria remained, however, a close partner, especially in the areas of arms and energy, with Syria’s location providing convenient access for Russia. Syria is also important to Russia as a strategic lever in the region. Russia can use its leverage with Syria to exploit tensions between the US and countries like Iran, another close Syrian ally, for its own ends. This Russian entrenchment in a key Middle Eastern nation has been the product of decades of patient diplomacy and fiscal generosity, and if Assad were to fall, the Russia/Syria relationship would end.

Russia Syria Russia is Syria’s biggest arms supplier
[Getty Images/Mark Wilson]
So what, if anything, is the endgame for Russia? Syria President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime faces multiple threats. Some analysts believe that the biggest threat is not, in fact, ISIS – which sells oil to the Assad government and uses its borderland as safe refuge. The principal threat is seen as being the two major anti-government coalitions: Jaish al-Fateh (Army of Conquest) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). It is telling that Russian airstrikes have so far been mapped as occurring primarily in Jaish al-Fateh and FSA territories. Clearly, Russia’s main objective is to prevent Assad’s downfall.

Russia/Syria Russian bombing has largely hit rebel areas, according to ISW
[Graphic courtesy of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW)]
As for broader, longer term strategy, opinion is divided as to what’s in it for Russia. Syria as a warm water port location is clearly key, but many Western commentators are predicting that Russia is entering into the first phase of a long and drawn out disaster, rather like the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Nikolai Khozanov, writing for BBC, says the Russia/Syria pact is largely defensive, and that Russia is simply seeking to defend hard-won interests. On the other hand, analysts like Mark Galeotti from NYU are convinced that an ancillary goal is to force the West to re-engage with Russia following sanctions and isolation arising from Russia’s Ukrainian adventures. But Eugene Rumer, writing for Politico believes the current Russia/Syria interaction is the product of nothing more than President Putin’s hubris and unreflective nature.

Whatever the reasoning, everyone but Russia agrees that Russia’s primary goal in Syria has little or nothing to do with ISIS.

[Picture via Getty Images/Spencer Platt]