Adapted from Recalibrating U.S. Strategy toward Russia
Russia’s decision to significantly step up its military intervention in Syria in September 2015 came as a surprise to many, if not most, Western observers. Although Moscow had longstanding political and military ties to Syria dating back to the 1950s, had long supported Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his father before him (including with military advisers and facilities in the country), and had expressed frustration with U.S. backing of position forces, few expected direct Russian military action to prop up Assad’s government against the rebel forces fighting to overthrow him.
Understanding what led Russia to the decision to send in sizable forces, what it believed it could accomplish with its military involvement, and what it may be learning from this experience is therefore critical to understanding how Russia views the use of force today.
This case study examines Russian policy changes towards Syria from 2012 to 2016 as Moscow moved from largely diplomatic efforts in Syria to overt military involvement.
Russia’s Strategic Calculus
Diplomatic ties between the Soviet Union and Syria were established in 1944, when Syrian independence remained unrecognized by the international community. Over the course of the Cold War, Syria came to be the Soviet Union’s closest ally in the Middle East. While over the course of the last two decades Russia has been less active in the Middle East than was the Soviet Union before it, Syria remains its most important foothold: Moscow forgave $10 billion of the $13 billion in Syrian debt inherited from the Soviet Union, continued to sell weapons to Damascus, and maintained a naval facility in Tartus. The Kremlin viewed the uprising that began in Syria of 2011 with unease.
In addition to its longstanding relationship with Assad, popular uprisings against extant regimes struck a bit too close to home for the Kremlin.
Moscow viewed the Arab Spring uprisings in part through the prism of the “color revolutions” that shook the post-Soviet region during the previous decade, and which Moscow asserted were engineered by the West. Russian president Vladimir Putin stated that,
“We have been actively opposing everything that took place… in Iraq, Libya and some other countries.”
In March 2012, the UN Security Council finally issued an official statement approving a nonbinding, six-point peace proposal that called for a cease-fire, the granting of access to humanitarian aid providers, and the withdrawal of heavy weaponry from residential areas. To gain Russia’s support, the statement issued no condemnation of Syria and did not provide a timeline for Assad’s compliance.
Moscow continued to view Assad as the legitimate ruler of Syria and the only hope for stability, and argued that only the Syrian people, not the international community, had the right to determine who would rule them. Russian diplomatic efforts played a key role in preventing U.S. and allied airstrikes against the Assad regime in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2013, convincing Assad to join the Chemical Weapons Convention and to cooperate with the U.S. and the international community on the removal of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles.
Russia also views the Syrian conflict in a global context. Much of Russian foreign policy in recent years has been geared to establishing itself as a great power and global player. According to the official Russian National Security Strategy in 2015, “A solid basis has been created at this time for further increasing the Russian Federation’s economic, political, military, and spiritual potentials and for enhancing its role in shaping a polycentric world.” A role in the Middle East is important to achieving that goal.
Russia’s intervention, of course, was not driven solely by the desire to be seen as a critical global player. However, intervention to protect its significant interests in Syria guaranteed that in both Syria and the wider region, Russia would play a key role moving forward alongside or opposition to the U.S. and that its interests would have to be taken into consideration in any diplomatic process.
The Syrian civil war was also seen by Russia as a threat to domestic security. Reports indicated that substantial numbers of Russian citizens were going to Syria to fight against the Assad regime. There were even reports that local Russian government officials were making it easier for fighters to head to Syria, ostensibly in the belief that they would never return. These factors constitute the background and starting conditions that influenced policy changes regarding Russian intervention in the recent conflict in Syria.
Russian Involvement in Syria
In September 2015, Russia carried out its first round of officially confirmed airstrikes in Syria. They came just after Assad had personally submitted a request to Putin urging Russia’s intervention in the conflict, providing Russia with a basis under international law for its intervention. On August 26, 2015, Syria signed an agreement that governed the status of Russian forces in Syria, according to which: Moscow would deploy a contingent of its air force on Syrian territory at Damascus’s request; Syria would provide Russia with the free use of the Khmeimim airbase for an indefinite period; and Syria and Russia would acknowledge the need to defend one another’s territorial sovereignty. This guaranteed Russia’s unimpeded military access to Syria.
Why did Russia switch to a military strategy at that point in time? In retrospect, several mutually reinforcing factors appear responsible. The most obvious is the military situation on the ground. The Syrian military was losing ground, unable to mount an effective offense, and losing the capacity to defend its few strongholds in the south and on the coastline against attack.
While Russia’s commitment to Assad himself was and remains uncertain, by mid-2015, the possibility that he would be driven from power by force threatened multiple Russian interests in Syria, including the Russian military presence and the maintenance of a friendly regime.
The experience of Crimea also appeared to show that a small amount of military power, applied judiciously, could rapidly and effectively change facts on the ground.
Russia argued that as it, too, was fighting ISIL, then the United States and its allies had no ground for complaint over Russian military intervention — particularly as their own operations were continuing. Russia seemingly perceived an opportunity to compel the U.S. and its European allies into joining a counterterrorist coalition. Russian officials hopes that such a coalition would lead the U.S. and Europeans to pull back their demands for Assad to leave power, and for the Europeans to back off their support for Ukraine-related sanctions. For many in Europe, the allure of a counterterrorism coalition with Russia grew even stronger in the aftermath of ISIL-inspired terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, and elsewhere in Europe.
Russia continued to describe its military action as being anti-ISIL, despite consistent reports that Russian airstrikes were targeting other components of the anti-Assad coalition, particularity those that posed the most immediate threat to Assad’s forces in northwestern Syria, and civilians.
Military interventions that would cross purposes with the efforts of multiple actors — some seeking to destroy ISIL, others seeking to remove Assad — made the prospects of an international counterterrorism coalition uncertain at best.
Russia ultimately judged that small-scale intervention would demonstrate its resolve, bolster Assad enough to keep him at the negotiating table, guarantee Russia a key role, and, potentially, help prevent the chaos that it continued to fear would result from the overthrow of Assad’s regime.
The circumstances under which Russia chose to pursue a diplomatic resolution during the course of its intervention is part and parcel of the broader Russian strategy in Syria. Russia has played a key role in efforts to negotiate a cessation of hostilities, engaging in negotiations throughout the conflict. However, Russia appears to view this diplomatic process as purely a means through which to lock in the military gains made by Assad (with Russian assistance), rather than as a desired end state in and of itself.
Early Russian efforts in the Syrian conflict involved diplomatic negotiations and support to the Assad regime in a nonmilitary capacity; however, the imminent defeat of a Russian ally in the Middle East threatened Russia’s presence and regional influence and was perceived as a dangerous loss of partner that would threaten several Russian interests.
Russia eventually decided to use force openly in Syria after the West had imposed limits on its own use of force, focused on countering ISIL instead of the Syrian government. Military intervention was aimed at preventing the collapse of the Assad regime, securing Russia’s military foothold in the eastern Mediterranean, establishing a stake in any new regional order that might follow in the Middle East, countering terrorism, and deflecting attention from its intervention in Ukraine with the aim of reducing its diplomatic isolation and possibly creating eventual leverage against U.S. and European sanctions.
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