Russia's military intervention in Syria, although it had implicitly announced through the massive transfer of Russian weapons and military personnel to Syria, has provoked a worldwide impression. During the past decades, Russia, as well as Soviet Union, had maintained a rather cautious stance on the Middle Eastern affairs. The risky decision of Vladimir Putin of the mission of the Russian army on a battlefield, far from the “near abroad”, represents a substantial shift in the Russian foreign policy. In any case, this step undertaken by the Russian president will have a serious impact on the global balance of power.
However, what were the underlying motives behind this move, and what Putin seeks to obtain through Russian involvement in the Syrian bloody war?
Bellow, we summarize possible motives behind this decision.
1. The vital necessity to protect, at all costs, its military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean Region. So far, Assad’s regime is the only one that might ensure Russian unimpeded activity in the Middle East. But recently, this foothold was found on the verge of being lost, due to the rapid advance of Islamist armed groups. Both in central areas, dominating by Daesh, and in northwest part of country, where al-Qaeda affiliated groups are fighting against the Syrian government had gained significant positions at the expense of Syrian Arab Army (SAA). In August 2015, Islamic Factions “Al-Nusra Front”, “Jaish al-Fatah”(Army of Conquest) and other small groups, as well as the “Free Syrian Army”, well equipped by the West, Gulf countries and Turkey, threatened Latakia, where Alawites constitute the majority. Islamists could reach the Mediterranean coast in a few days. For the rebels, gaining access to the sea was a strategic goal, but for the Syrian president and for Russia it would constitute a disaster. Tartus, in Latakia governorate, is the site of the last official Russian military base, outside of the former Soviet Union area. So, for Moscow last option to defend its geostrategic interests in Syria remained to start a military intervention in the Syrian civil war, consisting mainly of air strikes not only against ISIS but also “al-Nusra Front” and the “Army of Conquest”. The strategic aim of Russian bombing is to enable SAA, Hezbollah and Iranian troops to repel Islamic groups away from Latakia and Hama –if possible conquering Idlib and Aleppo- and to seal the border with Turkey.
2. The strong Russian military presence in Syria will have as a result Moscow to be a key player throughout the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, defeating US efforts to oust the Russians from the Balkan Peninsula, Middle East and Cyprus –No doubt that one of the objectives of the new, under consultation, “Annan Plan”, is to reduce Russian influence on the island. But after the Russian military intervention in Syria, Moscow’s interests in region cannot be ignored.
3. The crucial problem with jihadists from the Russian Federation, fighting in Syria. In September 2015, approximately 2.500 Russian nationals and 7.000 citizens of other post-Soviet republics were fighting alongside the ISIS. For instance a former sergeant in the Georgian Army Abu Omar al-Shishani serves as a commander for the “ISIS”. The Chechen-led Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar was cooperating with the “Al-Nusra Front”. Returning home all these Islamic veterans will be a permanent threat for the Russian state. Therefore, it would be more prudent to neutralize the enemy before returning.
4. The apparent “inability” of the International Coalition against ISIS, led by USA, to restrain jihadists. Coalition airstrikes haven’t, so far, degraded ISIL’s capabilities. Even worse, Turkey has launched an offensive, with fighter aircraft, against the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is a mortal enemy of ISIS. However, the brutal behavior of Daesh fighters has caused worldwide indignation, and the world community has been preparing to welcome any contribution in the struggle against the new-barbarians, demanding an end to the bloodshed. Therefore, the complaints against the recent military intervention in Syria by Russia are very difficult to be considered non-hypocritical. This is the main reason behind anti-Russian outcry focusing on the accusation that Russian aircrafts are bombarding exclusively the moderate opposition’s positions. –which no one knows where it is or who its leader is.
5. The migrant and refugee crisis have provoked a number of reactions in Central and West Europe, and serious disputes have arisen among the EU state-members about the way to tackle the crisis. Russian intervention in Syria could create favorable conditions for the faster solution of the problem or at least suspension of the influx of immigrants to Europe. Until the end of the war in Syria and the defeat of jihadists the exodus will be unstoppable. These feelings among European peoples weaken the aggressive policy against Syria, followed by London and Paris that both dream a world back in Sykes-Picot era.
6. Common interests in the zone of Shi’ite influence, stretching from Lebanon to Iran with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Syria’s Alawites, Iraq’s Shiites and Islamic Republic of Iran (this zone can be extended to Yemen’s Houthis). The international nuclear agreement with Iran has helped Moscow to further the cooperation with Teheran and Russian military intervention has forged a new Iranian-Russian alliance. With Russia providing air support, bombing rebels from above, the arrival of Iranian Special Forces will be playing a decisive role on the ground. At the same time, Iraqi Shiite lawmakers and militia leaders urged the government to allow Russian air force to carry out airstrikes on ISIS positions in Iraq. For the time being, Moscow, will not accept this request, as Russia does not want to move against American interests in Iraq. But Iraq signed an intelligence-sharing agreement with Russia, and Russia’s generals established an operational room with Iran and Syria inside Baghdad’s Green Zone. Moreover Russia fired missiles from the Caspian Sea through Iraqi airspace en route to Syria, while Iraqi officials even discussed the prospect of giving to the Russians an airbase. A potential ally for Moscow in the region is the Syrian Kurds. The leader of the Syrian Kurds Salih Muslim (Democratic Union Party-PYD) announced his willingness to cooperate with Russia and Bashar al-Assad, against ISIS. Moreover, Syrian Kurds support Russian military action in Syria, as Moscow had promised that it would respond to any Turkish intervention, which Kurds are afraid of. Instead, Russia has responded by inviting Kurdish representatives –from People’s Protection Units (YPG), ideologically linked to the PKK- to the established intelligence sharing centre of the Russia/Iraq/Iran/Lebanese Hezbollah alliance. After the war, Moscow would hail an autonomous Kurdish region in Rojava along Turkish-Syrian borders –though without access to Mediterranean coastal strip.
7. Kremlin officials have noticed disagreements inside the US government, among the White House, State Department, Pentagon and powerful and influential groups within the realms of business and politics, on what to do about Syria and the war against ISIS. Before a year, American president pushed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel out of his job, with White House officials citing disagreements over Iraq and Syria policy. Different voices were echoed over the Ukrainian issue and the deal with Iran, as well. But for Obama the real nightmare is to repeat the “Libyan story”. US’s intervention in Libya was a failure, as country devolved into a failed state and serves as a safe haven for militias affiliated with both al Qaeda and the ISIS.
On its part, the State Department had tried to push back the Russian moves, by asking Bulgaria and Greece to deny overflight permissions to Syria-bound Russian transport planes. But Obama didn’t even know about these moves in advance, and when he found out, he was upset with the department for not having a more complete process to respond to the crisis. For the US the options available are to try to confront Russia inside Syria or, as some in the White House are advocating, cooperate with Russia there on the fight against the Islamic State. In this context, a secret deal between Putin and Obama about the future of Syria would not be excluded as a “conspiracy theory”.
8. Regaining control over Central Asia. Russia has been pushing its military presence across the region. Moscow justifies building up military presence in the region by highlighting the threat Central Asia and Russia are facing from Afghanistan and beyond. Putin at the Dushanbe summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in September said that “there is a growing threat that terrorist and extremist groups can penetrate into territories that border Afghanistan” (Afghanistan shares a border with three Central Asian countries: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan).
Russia has announced an increase in troops in Tajikistan, its largest foreign base, from 5.900 to 9.000 soldiers by 2020, and concluded deals with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to extend its bases till 2042 and 2032 respectively. Leaders of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), during the summit in Kazakhstan in October, are expected to sign a concept of military co-operation until 2020.
9. Ukraine is, always, one of Russia’s vulnerable spots and Western is constantly using the Ukrainian crisis to impose sanctions, bans and asset freezes against Russia. The annexation of Crimea and the civil war in Donetsk and Lugansk, East Ukraine, constitute the ground of the disinformation campaigns and of the dominant Western narrative on Russia and the Russian threat. With one bright move on the chessboard, Putin has changed the agenda and downgraded the Ukrainian conflict. The Russian president showed up at the United Nations for the first time in a decade, proposing a coalition battling ISIS away from America’s grip and, as CNN reported ‘‘Vladimir Putin steals Barack Obama’s thunder on the world stage’’. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, from now on, has a very complicated duty to find new ways to bring attention back to Kiev’s conflict with Russia, which has been losing urgency amid a host of other crises in the Middle East.
10. Russia seeks to form a wider coalition by joining forces with China. Beijing has an interest in strengthening its military presence in the Middle East and in Mediterranean Sea. There is participation of 1.000 Chinese peacekeepers under the UN flag in Lebanon and China plans to post units in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover China’s concern about the threat presented by Uighur terrorist group, known as the Turkistan Islamic Party, is growing, which captured a Syrian air force base. If, when and how –for instance within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization- Chinese forces will have undertake joint military action along with the Russians in Syrian war is premature to foresee.
In any event, the success of the objectives Kremlin has set for itself have as a precondition success on the battlefield. For now, Putin’s Syrian move in the global chessboard gives him the opportunity to make a tremendous shift in geopolitics, according to his theory of a “multipolar world”.