Author: Johannes Sender
Russia’s military intervention into the Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad leadership has invoked much critique, especially by Western states. During the NATO defence minister meeting on October 8th, many accused Russia of bombing non-ISIS rebel groups on behalf of the Syrian government under Assad. The US defence minister Carter called actions by the Russian forces “increasingly unprofessional“. Many diplomats seem to think the same about Russia latest foreign policy, which they called “chaotic and without a clear aim”. They argue that the bombing of Assad’s non-ISIS enemies would not make the situation any easier and is not fulfilling a greater strategic goal. In this article, Johannes Sender, Master student of International Security and Law, argues that Russia’s foreign policy in Syria as well as in the Ukraine can be read to serve strategic interests: Challenging it’s status in the international order and forcing others to play along.
A short overview about the Syrian Civil War:
The Syrian Civil War has its roots in local anti-governmental demonstrations in early 2011. As the Assad government suppressed such demonstrations by force, the struggle turned violent and developed into a full-scale civil war when rebel brigades were founded, many being former government forces, to battle the Syrian armed forces. So far, approximately 250,000 people lost their life and about 11 million fled their home. As many civil wars, the Syrian is increasingly complex. Entangled in the conflict several different rebel groups exist, often connected in ever-changing alliances. Additionally, these groups, including the Assad regime itself, are supported by different third states. I will provide a rough picture of the most important relations and groups.
The Syrian government, which in the eyes of many (especially western) states has lost it’s legitimacy through the civil war, is lead by Bashar al-Assad who is a member of the Alawite minority. In the beginning of the conflict, Assad’s biggest opponent was the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group formed of former government forces. As the FSA, along with many rebel groups that are considered to be “moderate”, lost influence and power during the civil war, nowadays the two most important groups are: The so-called “Islamic State” and an alliance within which the strongest group is “Al-Nusra”, a extremist Islamic group with good connections to Al-Qaeda. In addition, the Kurdish regions in Syria are defending their territory (mostly against other groups, especially IS) with help of their armed militias such as the YPK. The various groups are involved in battles against both the Assad regime and against each other, to gain the most influence in Syria.
At the same time, other actors interfere in the conflict. A Western and Gulf State alliance has begun to attack IS with airstrikes, often in support of Kurds who are seen by many as the biggest protectors of minorities inside Syria. Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah back president Assad, with the Hezbollah being strongly involved due to fighting troops in Syrian territory. Besides the help and the support of the Alawite population at the coast (which fears annihilation if extremist groups win the war and conquer their cities), the Assad regime also has the support of Moscow. While at first Russia was only protecting the Assad government diplomatically and supported them with weapon shipments, this support has now increased: Russia stationed more troops (besides the normal troops inside an existing navy base) in Syria, has increasingly delivered more weapons and has now begun to bomb targets in Syria as well. While publicly stating that these actions are directed against IS targets, evidence suggest that Russia is mainly bombing other anti-Assad rebel groups. Other actors in the conflict are especially Arabic Gulf-States who support anti-Assad groups with arms and money as well as Turkey. Turkey has been working on Assad’s fall since the beginning of the conflict and some say it supports (at least passively) extremist groups. Another stake of Turkey is “Kurdish Issue”. Turkey is afraid that increasingly autonomous Kurdish territories in Syria and Iraq will form a state, and thus motivate the Kurdish minority in Turkey to try the same. In the increasing clashes between Turkey and the Kurdish PKK, Turkey has also bombed targets in Iraq.
Russia’s Foreign Policy:
Now we will look at Russia’s role in the conflict and a global Russian foreign policy under president Putin who stated “the fall of the USSR was the biggest geopolitical catastrophe in the 20th century”. In the past years not only the rhetoric from the Kremlin has got more aggressive. In the follow up of the revolution in Ukraine, Russia annexed, under international protest, the Crimea. In the evolving civil war that followed the revolution and annexation, Russia supported the separatists, even if Russia themselves denies a direct involvement in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Nevertheless, after the annexation of the Crimea, Moscow announced that they supported the separatists there and that Russian troops were involved. Many experts have argued that this rather extreme reaction to the government change in Ukraine is due to the fact that this is direct Russian neighbourhood and Russia felt increasingly threatened by NATO and NATO-friendly states in the east.
With the intervention in Syria, the Russian foreign policy goes one step further and beyond Russia’s direct neighbourhood. Since Western experts and diplomats have not yet found a response to Russia’s new behaviour, we will take a look at what Russia might be looking for to achieve on the international political agenda.
Some academics and IR specialists call the years since the end of the cold war “pax Americana”: The one and only real superpower, despite the fact that other states still have huge nuclear arsenals and more, there was only one true hegemon; The United States of America. Many have argued that the unipolar dominance of the USA has already changed; especially a growing China is seen as the new competitor for the US. Still, it was mainly the US who dominated world policy and who was able and willing to interfere in situations worldwide, not last through their network of worldwide spread military bases. The latest years of Russia’s foreign policy indicates that Russia under Putin is no longer willing to accept this unipolar order. This can currently be seen in Syria. While western diplomats apparently miss a bigger plan behind Russia’s promise to bomb ISIS but is really bombing mostly non-ISIS rebel groups their might exist one that goes behind the pure support of Assad and the security of it’s naval base in Syria.
Evidence indicates that Russia is in fact mostly bombing such non-IS held areas.
As stated, many (Western) officials see a situation in which Russia fights those rebels and might create a situation where there is only Assad and ISIS left, as only more problematic. This is certainly true from a western perspective.
Nevertheless, from a Russian perspective, this might serve bigger strategic aims.
One might be an enforced cooperation between Russia and the West. If Russia’s intervention should lead to a situation where there is notably only the Assad regime and ISIS, this might lead to a situation where the west (as many already began to state, but even more refuse) to see Assad as the lesser of two evils.
They could think of cooperating with Russia in the fight against ISIS, which would result in a higher diplomatic reputation of Russia in the international community. As it has to be noted, since Russia started its engagement in Syria, the Ukraine conflict was put on hold. This does not only demonstrate a direct Russian influence in the conflict, but also opens the door for more diplomatic talks between Russia and the West. From a Russian perspective this sends a message that indicates that Russia is strong, Russia will do what it thinks is necessary to serve their interests and Russia is once against a global player with an own agenda. However, by putting the Ukraine on hold it communicates as well: A dialogue is possible, but on Russia’s conditions.
While the intervention in Syria against non-ISIS rebels might also be a long-run game for Russia to get acknowledgement and to regain it’s place in the global order, it certainly supports Russia’s regional interest in Syria as well. Not only could an Assad vs. ISIS Syria be a stake for Russia in diplomatic terms, it also reduces the Western influence; if there is no “moderate opposition” the west has nobody to support in Syria and cannot actively intervene in Syria to bring down Assad. At least not other than through a direct military involvement which is a) unrealistic because it would need gigantic military and financial funds to control Syria and b) with Russian forces on the ground it is a decision worthwhile of overthinking even more often by now. Since Western states (other than potentially some other regional actors) will not support ISIS by any means, Assad and Russia can then fully concentrate on fighting ISIS without having to worry about support for the enemy by Western states.
Russia has left more than two decades of it’s post Cold War position behind and is increasingly aggressively pushing upon the stage of world politics, leaving the West for the moment into a shock stare. If the current events in Eastern Europe and Syria are really a challenge of a Western unipolar order or not – Russia wants international recognition as an important actor and ensures that whatever outcome will result in Syria, it will not be made without Russia. Concluding, Russia’s intervention in Syria could not purely serve its interest in upholding the Assad regime in Syria, but also work as a forceful door opener into the big diplomatic game and a cooperation on Russian conditions.