The now defunct Soviet Union maintained a long and close relationship with the Baathist regime of Hafez Assad. The relationship between the Baathists in Damascus and Moscow preceded the advent of Hafez Assad as Syria’s dictator in 1970. During the Six-Day war (June 1967), Moscow was allied with Egypt and Syria, and provided them with huge military supplies and diplomatic cover. When Egypt and Iraq turned away from Moscow, Syria remained the only Soviet anchor in the region. The Syrians rewarded Moscow with the only naval port in the Mediterranean - Tartous.
Under Vladimir Putin, Russia’s involvement in Syria has less to do with keeping the dictator of Syria, Bashar Assad in power, and everything to do with preserving Russian interests in the Middle East. Russia seeks to entrench its bases in the Alawi majority land area of northwestern Syria (along the Mediterranean Sea) where its military and naval bases are located in the Tartous and Latakia areas.
This last year of fighting has seen Assad’s domain shrinking significantly. Sunni rebel groups such as the al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda affiliate) are holding areas around Idlib and Aleppo, while other rebel groups supported by members of the U.S. coalition are on the ground near Homs and Hama. Russia’s bombing has focused primarily on the northern areas that threaten their bases in Latakia and Tartous. Nevertheless, the Russian involvement is also facilitating the Syrian army’s ability to regain lost territory from the rebels, and then hold these areas with Iranian, Hezbollah, and Russian support.
Russia taking sides in the Syrian civil war is not new. Almost from the very beginning of the war, Russian experts have aided the Assad regime, providing his military with advanced Russian weaponry, including SA-17 and SA-22 surface-to-air missiles, as well as light arms and ammunition, without which the Assad regime would have collapsed. Putin’s strategy in Syria changed however, in the early fall of 2015. Russia committed ground forces and has deployed its air power in Syria, and launched cruise missiles from a Caspian Sea based submarine.
Putin’s escalation of Russian involvement in Syria is a result of rebel forces threatening the port city of Latakia from their bases in Idlib. The capture of Latakia by rebel forces would have spelled the end of the Assad regime, and possibly the massacre of thousands of Alawis (a breakaway sect of Shiite Islam). More importantly, it would have threatened the Russian bases in the region. The possibility of the rebel forces moving southwest towards the Alawite heartland Qardaha, (the birthplace of Hafez Assad), would have posed a major strategic dilemma for the Assad regime. It would have meant choosing between defending the Alawite heartland and the safety of its population, or maintaining the government presence in the capital of Damascus. The Russian involvement solved this critical problem for the Assad regime.
Putin’s decision to get heavily involved in Syria had a great deal to do with the weakness of the Obama administration, and its reluctance to get involved beyond superficial bombing. The occasional U.S. aerial support given to Kurdish fighters was insufficient to tip the scales or prevent the mass exodus of Syrian civilians. Earlier, in August, 2012, the Obama administration’s announced a ‘red line.’ President Obama, in an interview with NBC-TV stated: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
The Hill quoted (10/7/2014) the former Obama administration’s Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as saying that “President Obama damaged U.S. credibility when he decided not to take military action against Syrian leader Bashar Assad, despite drawing a "red line" against the use of chemical weapons.” Panetta added, “It was important for us to stand by our word and go in and do what a commander-in-chief should do.” U.S. intelligence determined that Assad had used chemical weapons that killed an estimated 1,400 Syrians. Obama requested that Congress provide authorization for airstrikes against the Assad regime. Russia then brokered a deal by which Assad agreed to turn over his full chemical weapons stockpile to avoid U.S. strikes.
Putin found encouragement in the pathetically weak U.S. response to the Russian invasion and the annexing of Crimea on March 18, 2014. Crimea was an internationally recognized Ukrainian territory.
The Obama administration showed further weakness following demonstrations by pro-Russian groups in the Donbass area of Ukraine, which escalated into an armed conflict between the Kiev based Ukrainian government and the pro-Russian separatist forces of the self-declared Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republic. In August, 2014 Russian military vehicles crossed the Ukrainian border. U.S. and western sanctions had little impact, and exposed the Obama administrations unwillingness to take serious action.
Moscow has had additional reasons for intervening in Syria. Its ongoing struggle with Sunni-Muslim Chechen terrorists, of whom 2,000 have found their way into Syria, worried Putin. The fear that Assad’s fall would usher in an Islamist state in Syria was a factor as well. Then came the downing of a Russian passenger jet in the Sinai by the Islamic State (IS) affiliated terrorists, and the Paris attacks by IS, reinforcing Russia’s action. The New York Times headline (11/20/2015) is most telling. “For Russia, Links between Caucasus and ISIS Provoke Anxiety.” According to the NYTimes, 7,000 recruits from Russia and the former Soviet Union are now in Syria and Iraq.
Another reason for Putin’s Syrian involvement is to project Russia as still being a superpower equal to the U.S. In fact, the more the Obama administration ‘leads from behind’ the more stature Moscow acquires. Moreover, unlike the U.S. administration deal-making with America’s enemies (Iran and Cuba) while ignoring the interests of its allies (Israel and Saudi Arabia), Putin has shown that he stands behind his Syrian ally. Assad is routinely portrayed in the Russian media as Moscow’s ally in the struggle against the Islamist challenge, and therefore Russia’s loyalty to Assad is seen as a matter of principle.
Russia will use its involvement to deepen its influence in Syria and throughout the region. As ties between Washington and former regional allies became strained, Moscow has seized the opportunity to strike a deal with President al-Sisi of Egypt. The revival of the previously robust military cooperation with Cairo since November, 2013 has to be seen as a gain for Russia and a warning sign for the Obama administration. The Saudis are also considering purchasing Russian weapons.
Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria demonstrated a stark contrast to U.S. indecision regarding Syria. Whether or not the Syrian adventure becomes another Afghanistan for Moscow, it has forced all the other players in the Middle East to react. For now at least, Putin’s Russia has become a major player in the Middle East.