Ever since it started at the end of September, Russia’s military engagement in Syria has given rise to many questions, contradictory interpretations, different hopes and fears. While some have seen it as anti-Western policy, others have hoped that it will eventually lead to a common anti-ISIS coalition in Syria. The terrorist bombing of a Russian passenger plane over Sinai and Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian fighter jet have only added to hopes, fears and questions.
So how to interpret Russia’s actions in Syria? Why is it there? What to expect from Russia in Syria, and what not to expect?
The motivators of Russia’s actions in Syria are rooted in three contexts: strategic, transactional and domestic.
Taking the last, the domestic, first, Putin’s regime lost the features of “managed democracy” after the 2011-2012 protests; it then saw the collapse in oil price and the sanctions of 2014 erode the foundations of hitherto workable social contract. This means that now it is in need of a new type of legitimacy – which can be found in military chieftain type of leadership and permanent state of emergency. In order to preserve the image of vigorous leadership and deter the feelings of stagnation, bold action is helpful, if not irreplaceable.
Secondly, there is transactional context. It is true that Russia was increasingly deadlocked in eastern Ukraine; sanctions were starting to bite and the Minsk process did not give the results Moscow had hoped for. Moscow is not (yet) ready to give up on its aims in Ukraine – to gain control of Kyiv’s geopolitical choices. But it is also not asking for a clear-cut trade-off involving Syria and Ukraine. Instead, Moscow seems to be hoping that by widening the context and shifting the focus it might break out from international isolation (that is happening) and eventually be able to extract at least some of its goals also in Ukraine (probably less likely to happen, although nothing is certain).
What are the foundations of stability?
However, most interesting for our purposes is the strategic context of Russia’s actions in Syria. There is a military side to it: Moscow surely wants to showcase its weaponry (its prominent export article) and to hold on to its base in Tartus that – even if it does not amount to much – is its only base at the Mediterranean. But there is more. Contrary to the claims that Russia is acting in Syria mainly as a spoiler of Western policies, Russia is in fact truly trying to impose a solution – but the problem is that its vision of a workable solution is drastically different from the West’s. The fundamental disagreement was very evident in the speeches given by President Obama and President Putin at the UN General Assembly on 28 September, two days before Russia’s bombing raids started: Putin and Obama differed on the basic question of what constitutes foundations of a sustainable state.
Russia’s instinct is the opposite of the West’s: to support the strongmen, to push the genie of a popular revolution back into the bottle, to keep the lid on the pot and hope the boiling will go away
Obama gave an eloquent defence of democracy as foundation for stability. This is the same vision that also guided – or some would say misguided – his predecessor’s policies in the Middle East: the belief that one needs to address the root causes of terrorism, such as authoritarianism, corruption, repression, and then, on fair foundations, democratic stability can take root.
Russia simply does not believe in democratic stability. With some difficulty, Moscow may acknowledge that it exists in the West, but Russia itself has never experienced it; and when it comes to solving the crises the Middle East, Russia’s instinct is the opposite of the West’s: to support the strongmen, to push the genie of a popular revolution back into the bottle, to keep the lid on the pot and hope the boiling will go away. The chaos that has engulfed the Middle East after US-sponsored regime changes is seen as vindicating Russia’s views. The argument that societies won’t accept tyrants, and therefore any authoritarian stability is bound to be a temporary postponement of problems, is simply lost on Russia. The power of societies is a big blind spot for the Kremlin that not only saw a Western hand behind all post-Soviet colour revolutions, but, decades earlier, spent weeks debating whether it was the US or the UK behind Poland’s Solidarność – because it was deemed inconceivable that Poles themselves could organise something like that.
The questions of Assad and ISIS
In Syria, Russia’s strategic goal is to prevent the collapse of the state. Survival of the regime is seen as a key to the survival of the state. And the personality of Assad is (still) seen as a key to the survival of the regime. The latter may change – Moscow harbours no personal affinity towards Assad, and if it decides that his departure would help the regime to survive, it may support it – provided that it does not take the shape of a “colour revolution,” Western-inspired overthrow, or Libya-style execution. Moscow – and this includes Putin personally – takes pride in its loyalty to allies or clients, which it sees as being in deep contrast with America’s perceived betrayal of its long-standing regional allies, such as Hosni Mubarak.
The idea that regimes must be punished for their crimes is also something that Russia does not share. Moscow is opposed to the concept of transitional justice. It avoids facing the crimes of the past on its own soil, assuming that opening this Pandora’s box would tear the society dangerously apart. Even more so in the Middle East: in Syria, Moscow sees support to and talks with the regime as a path to the solution, and (correctly) assumes that focusing on punishment would make such talks all but impossible. Thus, as far as Russia is concerned, Assad may leave if the regime can survive without him, but any departure must happen with dignity, immunity and a certain conditionality.
For now, however, Russia’s main focus is on supporting Assad and the regime. They hope that Western-supported “moderate opposition” will see that a military overthrow of the regime is impossible and will accept a settlement, even if on bitter terms. It also hopes that the deepening refugee crises and terror alerts will in the end bring the West around to Russia’s position and makes them to see the Assad regime as part of a solution, rather than problem. The launch of Vienna process is seen as initial vindication of these hopes.
As concerns ISIS, Moscow probably thinks that this can be dealt with once the Syrian regime has consolidated itself and ready to provide effective fighting force (read: ground troops) to tackle it. Also, some questions remain on how resolutely Russia would want to move against ISIS. On one level, Russia definitely sees ISIS as a serious threat and wants it gone. But on other level there is an instinct to keep ISIS busy in the Middle East, lest it come to Russia. It is estimated that around 4,000 Russian citizens are fighting with ISIS in the Middle East; another 6,000 come from the Central Asian countries that have visa-free access to Russia. If this 10,000 strong force, or even a reduced version of it focuses its attention on Russia’s North Caucasus – where an ISIS governorate, Wilayat Qawqaz, is in official existence since June – then this could turn into a nightmare that Moscow wants to avoid, if it can. In addition, steering clear of ISIS for now has a shorter-term tactical advantage of placing the moderate Syrian opposition between a rock and a hard place – between Assad and ISIS – and thus making them more amenable to accept the regime’s terms for settlement; and, as a consequence, making the West regard the regime as the only alternative to ISIS, with no “third force” on the horizon.
The impact – or lack of it – of two plane crashes
Many Western analysts have expressed hopes that the Sinai plane crash – where an ISIS-planted bomb caused the death of 224 Russians – has made Moscow to align its views with those of the West and to turn more against ISIS. This is a mistake. One needs to understand that in Russia, terrorism does not cause the sort of resonance it does in the West. Russian society has been exposed to terrorism for over 20 years. Russians have been blown up in their apartment blocks during sleep, they have seen hundreds of children murdered on their first day at school and hostages suffocating in their own vomit during a mishandled rescue operation. Often, the origin and true motivation of the perpetrators of terrorist acts remains murky. Against this background, the Sinai plane crash, though dramatic, was not really a new low.
One needs to understand that in Russia, terrorism does not cause the sort of resonance it does in the West. Russian society has been exposed to terrorism for over 20 years.
As concerns the Kremlin, then in Putin’s Russia terrorism, be it at home or abroad, has never caused a policy change. Rather, it may have accelerated and amplified policies already in the pipeline (9/11, by the way, did exactly that) or provided PR-cover for policies that the state had decided to embark on. The media coverage of the Sinai crash betrays a clear trace of political opportunism: at first, equipment failure was suggested as a potential cause (read: nothing to do with the military campaign in Syria.) Then, when Western special services announced it had been a bomb, there were suggestions that the West itself had planted a bomb (read: still nothing to do with Syria; the evil West is after us.) Finally, the official report that came already after the Paris attacks acknowledged it had indeed been an ISIS-planted bomb, but that was already announced in a new context, with Russia aiming for a diplomatic break-through with the West – so now it was expedient to claim that Russia was at the forefront of fighting a common enemy. But none of this had any impact whatsoever on Russia’s actions on the ground in Syria.
Russia’s fighter jet shot down by Turkey is a somewhat more complicated matter. Unlike the Sinai crash, it was not a foreseen collateral damage. President Putin was wounded and angry when he commented on it, and by now Russia has announced a range of measures to punish Turkey, with more to come.
Podcast: ECFR's World in 30 Minutes. Russian-Turkish relations, with Asli Aydintasbas & Kadri Liik
This is likely to redesign Russia’s relationship with Turkey – that has in many ways been unique for Russia. As has been famously said, Russia tends to view its neighbours as enemies or vassals – but for the last decade or more, Turkey has been a notable exception here. With Turkey, Russia has managed to have a pragmatic compartmentalised relationship where the two powers work together on certain issues and agree to disagree on others. This may now come to an end. But even so, the spat is unlikely to have any game-changing spill-over into the wider relationship between Russia and the West, or Russia’s policy on Syria. This is not to say, however, that a next similar incident, should it happen, might not do exactly that.
Moscow’s conditions for cooperation
So can the West cooperate with Russia on Syria, and how?
In its European foreign policy Scorecard, ECFR has followed the EU’s and Russia’s exchanges on the wider Middle East for many years now. What emerges is a fairly clear-cut picture: Russia cooperates with the West when the West’s suggested solution to a problem has sufficient commonalities with Russia’s vision. This was the case in Iran. And Moscow refuses to cooperate when it sees the solution in a drastically different way – such as in the case of Syria.
Remarkably, when the Russia-West relations landed at a new low after the annexation of Crimea, Russia did not try to become a spoiler of Western policies in the Middle East – probably realising that if the West has sound policies, spoiling was not really possible. If Western policies were unsound, endorsing them would have been the most sophisticated form of spoiling – but Russia has also refrained from that.
So this means that Russia will be happy to cooperate with the West on Syria if the West moves closer to Russia’s position. But it is next to impossible to bring Russia significantly closer to the Western position. Moscow has once already acted against its instincts when it accepted the UN resolution on Libya – and regrets the outcome.
However, that said, some minor – and not entirely cosmetic – changes to Moscow’s position are possible. Paradoxically, even though Moscow has a general blind spot for societies, it is better prepared to understand them in an Eastern context than in Western. Russia does not trust the idealistic Western-style demands of freedom or rule of law, but it does understand sectarian divides and tricky national balances of the East. So it may pressure the Syrian regime for concessions to the opposition if it believes these are necessary and do not cause the regime to fragment. Moscow also understands that if it wants the West to accept a settlement along Moscow’s lines, it needs to save the face of some of the West’s most valued allies on the ground, such as the Free Syrian Army. But there will be a limit as to how far Moscow will go. It does want a coalition with the West that would help it to leave its international isolation, but it will not go against its deeply ingrained views on the nature the sources of stability and viability of state.