Russia’s fight in Syria reflects the Kremlin’s fears at home

September 29, 2015
Russian Mil Mi-26 Halo helicopter flies over the Red Square during the Victory Day parade in Moscow

Russian Mil Mi-26 Halo helicopter flies over the Red Square during the Victory Day parade in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2015. REUTERS/Host Photo Agency/RIA Novosti

Russian tactical fighters have arrived in Syria, to join the tanks, transport and attack helicopters, and troops reportedly already delivered. These deployments have triggered cries that Russian President Vladimir Putin is again flexing his muscles at the West’s expense — as he has been doing in Ukraine since 2014.

Some argue that Putin’s Syria gambit is part of a grand scheme to rebuild Russia’s global status. The Kremlin’s moves, however, are better understood as a desperate, risk-laden attempt to shore up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad because his country is one of the few left in the Middle East over which Russia still holds significant influence and where Moscow has long had a military presence.

Russian President Putin shakes hands with Syrian counterpart al-Assad in Moscow.

Russian President Putin shakes hands with Syrian counterpart al-Assad in Moscow.

In fact, the Kremlin truly believes that Washington organized and financed the entire Arab Spring — as well as a string of other “colored revolutions” — that toppled authoritarian leaders along Russia’s borders.

If Assad falls, Moscow would likely soon lose its naval base in Syria — its only one in the Mediterranean. It might also possibly lose whatever other military or intelligence assets it has in the country.

Few in the West would lament the Russian military’s forced departure from Syria. But the reality is that the loss of Syria to radical extremists is neither in the West’s nor Russia’s interests. Although it won’t be easy and it is unpalatable to many, there is reason for Russia and the West to work together here — if a mechanism can be found.

The problem with finding that mechanism is that Moscow and Washington continue to disagree over what to do with Assad. The West wants him gone, arguing that his bloody regime fuels extremism and has prompted the refugee crisis. Russia, however, thinks he is the only force capable of preventing radicals from seizing power. We haven’t been able to bridge that difference for years.

Russian navy sailors take part in a festive ceremony marking the first anniversary of the Crimean treaty signing in Sevastopol

Russian navy sailors mark the first anniversary of the Crimean treaty signing in Sevastopol

Though the West and Moscow have had some tactical cooperation on Syria on issues like safeguarding and eliminating the country’s chemical weapons stockpiles, that cooperation occurred only after the weapons they had already been used. It was too little, too late.

We might be at a similar inflection point. Both Russia and the United States should face the fact that neither country’s policy is working. The fight in Syria has become a conflict between Assad’s struggling army and a collection of radical Islamic militant groups, of which Islamic State is the most dangerous. Some of these groups hate and fight each other, as well as Assad. But that does not make any of them palatable.

The Assad regime’s collapse would be a big problem for Putin. Moscow increased its support for that brutal regime after the 2011 Syrian uprising. This was less out of love for Assad than because the Kremlin views Washington as the source of regional instability – orchestrating not only the Arab Spring but the other uprisings that brought down authoritarian leaders along Russia’s southern borders.

This is a key reason why Putin makes opposition to “U.S.-sponsored regime change” the centerpiece of his foreign policy and claims these policies stoke instability. It is also why Russia hung on to disgraced former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to the very end.

Western support for the “moderate” opposition has neither pushed Assad out nor led to the rout of Islamic State. Putin’s latest approach, though, is risky.

Putting boots on the ground in a chaotic civil war could have unforeseen consequences. The Russian people still remember their bloody wars in Afghanistan and in Chechnya — and are not eager to get involved in another brutal conflict in the Muslim world.

One recent Russian press report claimed that Russian soldiers about to go to Syria complained to their superiors and the country’s human-rights council about the deployment and indicated they do not want to go. One soldier, speaking anonymously to a reporter, said, “We don’t want to go to Syria. We do not want to go die there.”

If this report is true, the Kremlin should be worried. While Russians generally support the annexation of Crimea, recent polling suggests ordinary Russians are against interventions abroad, with 77 percent reportedly opposing Russian boots on the ground in Syria.

Can Putin afford another quagmire? The war in eastern Ukraine is not going well. Putin can fuel the war in Ukraine — but he cannot win the peace.

He has eagerly hid the military losses and exorbitant costs of that war from his people. His 18-month effort to manufacture conflict in the country succeeded in alienating the Ukrainian population and pushing them closer to the West, which undermined his long-term goal of reinvigorating Russian influence across Eurasia.

Chinese President Xi shakes hands with Russian President Putin before their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing

Chinese President Xi shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin before their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

The annexation of Crimea has similarly cost Russia a great deal — in billions of rubles, in international isolation and in Western sanctions. The Russian economy is hurting. Oil prices have dropped by half over the past year, as has the value of the ruble.

In addition, Putin’s pointed pivot to China as his new partner is proving problematic. Beijing is a tough negotiator bent on squeezing Moscow as hard as it can. Russia’s economic malaise is bubbling throughout the former Soviet space, which is further pushing Central Asia toward China and providing Beijing with openings in the Caucasus mountains and even in Ukraine.

Russia’s reckless policies in Ukraine, besides devastating that country, have also caused Moscow unanticipated serious problems. Sending troops to Syria and getting involved in its messy civil war is equally dangerous. Putin is unlikely to be able to hid the deaths of Russian troops in Syria as easily has he has done in Ukraine. Russians killing Islamic militants also risks retaliatory steps in Russia. Moreover, developments in Syria could easily spin out of control. Is Russia willing to provide enough support to actually save Assad at this point?

Assad’s collapse after a last-ditch effort to save him could damage Putin politically at home. He was dealt an embarrassing blow in Ukraine after the Yanukovych regime — in which the Kremlin invested heavily — fell like a house of cards in 2014.

Supporting two such weak and morally bankrupt regimes’ to the very end shows there is little strategic thinking going on inside the Kremlin.

16 comments

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The collapse of the Assad regime would trigger the same mayhem as the previous regime change strategy in that area. When will politicians stop playing with peoples lives by bringing down dictators to only leave a void for mass murderers. Its interesting to note that despite attempts to destroy Iran the US has had to negotiate with the leaders of that nation and arrive at a compromise. A lesson that the US should remember going forward

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

It is interesting that author credits Russia with “devastating” Ukraine, while the matter of fact is that this accomplishment is plainly at hands of the revolutionary government in Kiev. It is this government that started the war on their own people in the East by declaring the “anti-terrorist operation” – look at the early BBC reports of locals stopping Kiev’s APC with their bare hands! It is this government, again, that had decimated formerly gorious Ukraine heavy industries by declaring all sorts of “independence of russian gas”, “sanctions” and “embargos”. Just look at the most recent decision to ban russian airlines from flying to Kiev, which was immediately “mirrored” by Russia – economically ridiculous! But politically understandable – a desperate attempt to build an “iron curtain”, dispose people of the first-hand knowledge so as to be able to perpetuate own revolutionary myths. Sad, sad…

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

Another white guy bring stupid solutions to the table. Mr. Stronski probably loved the stupid war in Iraq, that gave birth to ISIS, and now he wants the same for Syria!!!!

Unbelievable. When will white people learn?
When ISIS comes to the US????????

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

They should keep Assad until ISIS is defeated. After that US and Russia should help hold independent elections in Syria. Assad is needed at the moment for stability. And if he wins the elections after that, then he should be allowed to stay.

Posted by I_am_lord | Report as abusive

Russia is failing anyway. The smart people have all left. The investment money has left. All they export now is orphans and herpes.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Mr Putin’s speech at the 43rd Munich Security Conference back in 2007 is an answer to all the questions that the political “elite” loonies and unethical journalist have about his present moves.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

As early as the Munich Security Conference of 2007 Puiin threatened to start the Cold War again, and he did.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

It’s about time Russia did something productive. They can have ISIS.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

The US slams Volkswagen a day after Merkel says “lets talk to Assad.” Why??

Posted by CNNpropaganda | Report as abusive

Come on Reuters let’s start banning the Russian trolls already. They don’t make hard. Every option article has the same handles posting pro-Russian dribble. Its one thing to invite comments but its another not to moderate them properly so voices have equal chance of being read.

I am guessing that if you trace the IP Addresses back to their source you have most of these “people” somehow sharing the same flat in some Russian town.

I am not talking about censoring people’s views. Moderating them and punishing abuse though would be a nice courtesy to your other readers.

Posted by phaber74 | Report as abusive

Yet another litany of propaganda nonsense, starting with convoluted elaborations why Russia gets engaged in Syria. This is simple when one sees catastrophal results of the US playing role of global policeman treating the world as its own backyard. Now when many millions are leaving creating humanitarian inferno its time to act. One can wonder why Russia has not acted before. The answer is also simple: Earlier there would be condemnations of “aggressive” Russia. Now when the collapse of US policy is evident nobody dares to tell this (with the exception of Kiev lunatics).

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive

@”people” somehow sharing the same flat in some russian town

– take off the tin hat – perhaps russians came to our town, but not the ones you’re referring to :)
You might look up the most endorsed comments on BBC’ article on the issue from yesterday. All 50 or so of them with tens of thousands of endorsements. I doubt one could put that many people in same flat. As one commenter wrote there, “anybody with half a brain or more can see things for what they are”. And you do not have to be russian for that :)

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

USA fight in Iraq reflects the White House’s fears at home

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

As far as Russia’s fear about US covert operations this short list of CIA ‘moderate’ rebel involvements might be a good reason to think that way: 1949 Syrian coup d’état
1953 Iranian coup d’état
1954 Guatemalan coup d’état
1959 Tibetan uprising
1961 Cuba, Bay of Pigs Invasion
1964 Brazilian coup d’état
1973 Chilean coup d’état
1976 Argentine coup d’état
1979–89 Afghanistan, Operation Cyclone
1980 Turkish coup d’état
1981–87 Nicaragua, Contras
2013- Syria
And I didn’t include the admitted Nuland fiasco of admitting they financed the overthrow of the Ukraine.
It’s just possible the paranoia is correct.

Posted by SR37212 | Report as abusive

Ok, let’s get down to the real reason Russia is in Syria. Russia’s friend Assad can stop the proposed natural gas pipeline from running through Syria into Turkey and Europe. That pipeline could eliminate Russia’s energy stranglehold on those countries. Forget religion, morality or nationalism. It’s about money.

Posted by GeorgeBurdell | Report as abusive

Russia is fighting a losing battle. Syria is a dogs breakfast and maybe if Putin would have invaded earlier he might have done some good. However, Putin or no Putin Damascus will be totally destroyed in the end.

Posted by Idle_Storm | Report as abusive