Syria: Russia’s Hope for Relevance in the Middle East, Salvation in Global Affairs, and Domestic Security

Written by: Jared Lang

From the conventional perspective on recent Russian foreign policy, getting involved in the Syrian Civil War appears to break from Putin’s playbook. When it comes to foreign conflicts, Putin has, since his ascendence to the Russian presidency in 2000, deployed armed forces almost exclusively in the countries immediately neighboring the Russian Federation or former Soviet Union countries. Syria is now the sole exception. Aside from simply propping up an ally in need, Putin has used the seemly unorthodox foray into Syria to preempt an increased security threat to Russia, maintain Russia’s power and prestige in the region, and to boost the Russian economy. 

Russia officially entered the Syrian Civil War on September 30, 2015, when the upper house of Russia’s Parliament gave its unanimous approval to use force in Syria to fight terrorism. The explanation for this action came from two directions: first, and most clearly, to support Russia’s ally, Bashar al-Assad, while the second reason delves deeper into Russian security concerns. According to Sergey Ivanov, head of the Presidential Administration, Putin requested approval to use force in Syria after considering the intelligence that thousands of citizens from Russian and neighboring countries left for Syria to join terrorist groups, including ISIS. Ivanov went on to say, “This is not about reaching for some foreign policy goals, satisfying ambitions, which our Western partners regularly accuse us of. It’s only about the national interest of the Russian Federation.” The FSB (the Russian internal security service, most similar to the FBI) reported that approximately 2,500 Russians had already joined ISIS by the time the use of force was approved. Most of these fighters came from the Muslim-majority Caucasus regions, where Russia has had several previous conflicts. While the departure of these fighters may seem like a respite for the Russian government, their departure also comes with a substantial security risk. These same fighters may return from Syria with the knowledge and combat experience they gained while fighting for terrorist groups. This would then pose a heightened security risk to Russian interests.

One way Russia hopes to counter these security concerns is by defeating the terrorist groups in Syria before the fighters have a chance to return home. In the Kremlin’s mind, the best way to eliminate this threat is to prop up the one actor they feel is prepared and capable enough of getting the job done: Assad. Putin has essentially confirmed as such. When asked if he was trying to save Assad’s regime, he responded with a simple, “You’re right”. This desire to protect and ensure the survival of the Assad regime as a means to eliminate the threat of terrorists returning to Russia is a significant reason why the Russian military has targeted rebel groups other than ISIS and other extremist factions. 

Aside from the security implications of instability should Assad lose power, Syria is also home to Russia’s only military bases in the Middle East, which could be put at risk if Assad is replaced with a government less friendly toward Russia. The naval station at Tartus was the only Russian military base outside the former Soviet Union until the Syrian government signed an agreement with Russia in 2015 to allow the Russian military to use the Hmeimim airbase for an indefinite period of time for free. Support for the Assad regime represents Russia’s attempt to preserve its military presence and project power in the region. 

If Russia loses this foothold in the Middle East, it spells the end of Russian influence in the region for the foreseeable future. Putin cannot allow such a thing to occur, as his rallying call to his people is the promise to restore Russian power. Additionally, by intervening on Assad’s behalf, and especially considering the weakness of the Syrian military before its involvement, Russia sets itself up as an indispensable actor in any potential ceasefire or peace negotiations, therefore reaffirming its importance on the world stage. 

On a more economic note, as one of Syria’s few military hardware suppliers, Russia is a significant trading partner for the Assad regime, adding another layer of assistance in reinforcing the defensive positions and advances made by the Syrian military. By all accounts, Russian weapons exports have increased since the conflict began, rising from $10.3 billion in 2010 to $14.5 billion in 2015 when Russian intervention began. In addition to the economic benefits, Russia has used the Syrian Civil War as a testing and demonstration ground for its latest weaponry. The success Russian military hardware in Syria has led to international orders for Russian military systems in excess of $56 billion in 2016. The clear increase in Russian arms sales from 2010 through 2016 are clear indicators of how high a demand there is for Russian arms systems, especially those demonstrated in Syria. This economic effect should in no way be understated, as the Russian economy has been crippled by sanctions and the 2014 drop in oil prices, and still has not recovered. 

Though Russia’s intervention in Syria may seem at odds with Putin’s regular playbook, when analyzed in the context of providing a boost for the Russian economy, preempting domestic security issues regarding returning fighters, as well as rebuilding Russia’s superpower status in the global arena, Putin’s decision to enter the conflict in Syria is a deeply nuanced one. However, no matter how much the Syrian conflict helps the Russian economy and promotes Russia’s powerful stature around the world, Putin must be careful not to make the mistakes his predecessors during the Soviet era made during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or the Russian people may quickly turn against his aggressive, interventionist policies.