Recent increases in Russia’s military presence in Syria not only help reinforce a regional ally in opposition to the West, but also ensure Russia’s prominent role in Syria’s political future, with or without Assad.
Seeking to clarify the ‘intent’ behind Russia’s military build-up in Syria, the US has issued warnings to Russia over its increased military support to the Syrian government. Reports from Washington state Russia has sent aircraft and two tank landing ships to reinforce its naval base at Tartus. More significantly, it has reinforced an airbase south of the coastal town of Lakatia, in what appears to be an effort to establish a forward operating base. The US says Russia has sent artillery units, seven T-90s, howitzers, armoured personnel carriers and mobile housing units to this site, reflecting a simultaneous increase in Russian personnel.
Troops on the ground?
Russia has defended this upsurge as a continuation of the assistance it has already provided to Syria through bilateral agreements. Although Russia maintains the additional personnel merely constitute technical and military advisers, there have been a number of reports, including some with citations from Syrian rebel groups, that Russian troops are fighting with the Syrian army. Putin has denied Russia is actively participating in military operations in Syria, but has said Russia is ‘looking at various options’. Given the so-called ‘little green men’ present in Crimea, Russia’s word on this means little.
Russia’s intent in Syria is broadly defensive. Syria matters to Russia given it is home to a Russian naval base, although until recently it was not hugely significant. At a time when Assad’s forces are depleted, particularly through desertion and defection, Russia is aware it must stay engaged with the Syrian regime to ensure a prominent position in any potential political transition. Increased support for Assad helps strengthen Russia’s position alongside the US in the Middle East, which matters greatly to Putin.
Russia’s Foreign Policy Coup
Russia has made some clear strategic gains with its Syrian policy. As in Ukraine, it has secured a degree of leverage in constricting Western decision-making and actions. By taking an approach that contradicts the West, but is based on a shared goal of countering Daesh, Russia seeks to undermine the dominance of Western policies so that Russia’s interests must be considered.
Most recently, Russia has succeeded in undermining the US’s relationship with Iraq. Despite the US raising concerns, Iraq has refused to block airspace access for Russia to transport materiel to Syria. It is likely that Russia is also liaising with Iran. There are rumours that Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, has made two trips to Moscow despite a UN travel ban. Russia recently announced its desire to build its own anti-Daesh coalition, in contrast to the US-led coalition, but which must include the Syrian government. Such actions allow Russia to undermine Western approaches and put itself at the forefront of Middle East policy.
On the one hand, Russia frames its intent as based on Western principles, namely countering Daesh and stabilising Syria. Another shared concern pertains to foreign fighters. There are of course highly valid risks associated with the hundreds of Russians and Russian-speakers defecting to Daesh, particularly given fears they will return to launch attacks at home. However, Russia is playing up the Caucasus card to justify increasing recent support to Assad. Distorting alleged connections between Chechen groups near Lakatia and Daesh helps solidify opinion in support of Russia’s recent reinforcement.
This shared interest allows Russia to pursue a contradictory approach to Syria to the West, pushing its uncompromising claim that the Syrian army is crucial to defeating Daesh. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said ‘to exclude the Syrian army from the fight against the Islamic State is absurd’. The deal-breaker for Russia is not Assad himself, but rather a strong alliance with the current Syrian government to secure Russia’s place in future political decision-making. Russia also uses this contrasting approach to undermine Western criticism. By phrasing Russia’s interests in Syria solely around presenting a united front to counter Daesh, it can deflect criticism of Russia’s support for Assad. Russia is acutely aware the West would rather have Russia in the fight against Daesh, allowing Russia to push for its own terms.
The strength in Russia’s policy has been its consistency. Bolstering Assad at this time not only helps secure Russia’s regional position, but also shows Russia’s commitment to the view that simply removing Assad will not solve the conflict, or by default help defeat Daesh. Russia has heavily criticised the West for its handling of Iraq and Libya with such strategies, and has highlighted their negative consequences. This was recently demonstrated by Putin’s reference to the European migrant/refugee crisis. At the recent Collective Security Treaty Organisation summit in Tajikistan, Putin said ‘if Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in the country would have been worse than in Libya, and the stream of refugees would have been greater’.
Russia’s staunch support for the Syrian regime means Russia must be consulted regularly by the US and its allies. Unlike in Ukraine, sanctioning Russia would be counter-productive to Western efforts to combat Daesh, which is the key priority in Syria and Iraq. Although Syria has its own foreign policy gains for Russia, the timing of Russia’s reinforcement to Assad is helpful in other areas. At the UN General Assembly in New York, Russia will be able to prioritise discussions on its role in Syria instead of international criticism of its actions in Ukraine.