“It’s when the ‘international community’ expresses ‘concern’ about your ‘situation’ that your situation is well and truly fucked.” – Michael D. Weiss
“The secret of politics? Make a good treaty with Russia.” – Otto von Bismarck
What is Russia’s game plan in Syria?
Latest reports show that Putin has sent arms and troops, including fighter jets and advanced tanks, to Syria. The world, having been caught off guard, scrambles to explain the reasons for this new development.
What everybody knows
If you read a typical analysis on the subject, you will likely learn that Russia has supported the Assad regime for years, that the Tartus naval base is Russia’s only toe-hold in the Mediterranean, that Russia is concerned over the spread of Islamism and wants to fight the Islamic State, and so on. (CNN)
Those are the basic facts, on which most analysts would agree. The Syrian Civil War has raged for years, killing some 250,000 and displacing millions. Russia has been involved from the beginning, by shipping arms and placing “advisors” on the ground, while at the same time taking an active diplomatic role.
What is more interesting though, is to frame Russia’s increasing involvement in terms of filling a vacuum. On the one hand, Assad’s forces are weakening, both spring and summer saw the IS and the Al-Nusra Front continue to make substantial gains, despite heavy involvement on the ground by Hizbullah and Iran.
On the other hand, the United States has practically become irrelevant in this conflict, having lost almost all credibility over Obama’s red line debacle back in 2012 and its spectacular failure to prop up non-extremist rebel forces, where reportedly only 4 or 5 US-trained Syrians remain in the fight against IS (NYTimes).
Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, argues that “Russian aims are best defined by a set of [three] concentric circles, the innermost circle being the most defensive and least ambitious, and the outermost the most offensive and expansive.” According to Garfinkle, the first circle is about propping up Assad and preventing the fall of the regime. The intermediate circle has to do with influencing a potential political settlement by tilting the battlefield in Assad’s favor. The third and most ambitious circle is aimed at the EU, by exacerbating the refugee crisis and thus potentially furthering the destruction of the EU. I freely admit that the third circle is where Garfinkle lost me, as it seems too far-fetched and too much of a gamble even for Putin.
Projecting power and influence
In my opinion, the more likely explanation for Russia’s increased involvement is derived from looking at the general situation in the Middle East through the lens of their primary foreign policy goals.
It is no secret that Putin desires a greater role for Russia on the world stage. Celeste Wallander saw in 2000 Putin’s goal to “bolster Russia’s status as a world player rather than simply accept a supplicating role in international negotiations”, “seeking a multi-polar world in which Russia is a great Eurasian power”, where cooperation with the US isn’t necessary in order to achieve Russia’s long-term goals (Wilson Center).
Cooperation with the US isn’t necessary in order to achieve Russia’s long-term goals
Indeed, the US plays along nicely and it seems clear that there will be no real US opposition to Russia’s advance, save for expressions of concern. With the US firmly on the sidelines Putin has an opportunity to strengthen Russia’s role in the Middle East and consequently on the world stage. It should be clear by now to every despot, that while Russia may not be nearly as powerful as the United States, betting your regime’s survival on Russia is still smart politics. Al-Sisi of Egypt surely knows it, having visited Moscow three times as President and hosted Putin once in Cairo, proclaiming deepening ties between the (former?) US ally and the greatest enemy of the United States.
Russia has unfortunately a chance to deepen ties with countries in the Middle East as US influence wanes. The US has gone from fleeting moments of victory in the early years of the last decade to latter days foreign policy failures. Chief among the former were the swift ousting of Saddam Hussein and dismantling of Qaddafi’s nuclear program. This was a time when American projection of power in the region was at an all-time high. Later came a series of unfortunate events beginning with the Iraqi quagmire as the country was broken down by sectarianism, the disastrous Libya intervention, and culminating in the withdrawal from Iraq and the subsequent ascendance of the Islamic State. I shall not forget here the previously mentioned red line in Syria nor the administration’s tone-deafness vis-à-vis its regional allies when it comes to the Iran deal. The successful killing of Bin Laden was a small victory in comparison to said failures, merely rectifying the shame of leaving him alive and at large for so long.
In the meantime, Russia is seen by regional leaders as sticking to its main regional ally, in direct challenge to stated US policy of ousting Assad (reiterated today by Kerry), while bolstering ties to other key players, such as Iran and Egypt.
Where all this will ultimately lead is yet unclear. The economic risks Putin has taken should not be underestimated. Should the Islamic State, as well as various rebel groups, continue to make gains, despite heavier Russian involvement, this may lead to a Russian loss of influence. To prevent this Putin may be forced to double down on this strategy which in turn may lead to Russian military losses, potentially fermenting unrest at home.
Vladimir Putin increasingly looks like quite the gambler as he is in the process of adding a Middle Eastern adventure to the ongoing war in Ukraine. For the Obama administration, which disturbingly looks like it has been caught off guard, this is the price of inaction, whether prudent or not. For Israel the stakes are high as well, with an increased Russian presence and more advanced military technology in the hands of Assad, potentially leading to a game-changer on its north-eastern border.
The game of thrones is on.