Continuing the Discussion: Russian Involvement in Syria…

Read Time:5 Minute, 42 Second

Russian Involvement in Syria Deserves Benefit of the Doubt


It has now been four and a half years since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. Official estimates range from 220,000 to 310,000 dead, with at least 30,000 of that count being children. That figure does not take into account the more than four million registered Syrian refugees that are displaced throughout Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and to a lesser extent, Europe. The United States has tried several strategies in the Middle East: “boots on the ground” in Afghanistan and Iraq, airstrikes lacking a ground component in Libya, and covert support for “moderate” opposition with airstrike support in Syria, all in the attempt to push for regime change in a highly unstable region. Unfortunately, all of those strategies have resulted in what can only be qualified as abject failure: in all instances, U.S. involvement in the regional conflicts has led to regime collapse with no stable replacement. Of the 5,000 initial recruits the United States had hoped to train with its $500 million Pentagon-run “moderate” rebel training and support mission, only four or five fighters remain on the battleground in Syria.

Countries that are supposed to be our “allies,” such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, engage in the same oppressive policies at home (or worse) that would justify a U.S. push for regime change in a geopolitical foe. Moreover, these countries may in fact be feeding the beast we are trying to tame — some of the largest flows of private funding for the Islamic State group originate in the Gulf region. While engaging in joint coalition strikes against the Islamic State group with our forces, the Saudi and Qatari states provide covert state support for organizations ranging from Hamas in Palestine to radical Wahhabi-strain madrassas in Pakistan. Turkey claims to seek protection of its borders by invoking Article 4 of the NATO treaty while directing the vast majority of its bombing campaigns on independence-seeking Kurds on its frontier.

None of these observations is meant to discount the role of the United States in managing regional conflict or our nation’s intention to support peace and security in the world. Rather, it is meant to point out the inherent hypocrisies and record of failure standing behind us as we seek to build credibility in the Middle East. Perhaps it is time to stand back and allow another state actor to “lead from the front,” given that no coalition partner has yet done so. That actor is Russia. Yes, the Russia that annexed Crimea; the Russia that provided arms and troops to stoke the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region; the Russia that has steadily crept into the northern region of Georgia.

Yet Putin’s Russia is also the only actor and potential U.S. partner that has direct access and control over Assad. It is the only other actor that is capable and willing to engage in an intensified airstrike effort in Syria. The U.S. should seize the chance to engage in a NATO-Russia partnership in Syria while there is still a chance to pull the current global relationship back from the brink. Russia has a clear stake in the success of the region, or at least its stabilization. Every effort to reduce terrorism in Syria is done to minimize the impact of returning fighters to Russia’s restive Caucasus region. Every Russian declaration of military prowess is a desperate attempt to engage and mend relations with the West. Every minor win in Syria represents one additional step towards Bashar al-Assad having to face the ballot box and the consequences of his actions in Syria’s civil war. If the United States wants to approach the situation tactfully, we should clear the way for Russia to assist us in the space where the search for partners needs no further solicitation.

Russian Involvement in Syria is Flawed and Dangerous


Syria requires strategic thought and a new consensus – not further foreign boots on the ground.

The sudden escalation of Russian hostilities within Syria marks a dangerous new stage in the increasing internationalization of the conflict. While it is certainly true that the United States, Europe and their respective partners in the Middle East have been woeful in their attempts to find a resolution to the intractable spiral of violence, Russia’s current strategy has seemingly adopted a more mythical “silver bullet,” albeit one with more lasting repercussions. Heavy-handed military interventions can be necessary to achieve well-defined aims, which are supported by a broad grouping of actors.

However, there are few successful examples of direct military intervention into the Middle East by foreign powers within the last 50 years, and there is little evidence to suggest Russia’s campaign will be an exception. Considering that strategies should be oriented towards securing a set of multi-layered outcomes, each intended to enhance the respective position of the strategist vis-à-vis the opponent, it is far from clear that an aerial campaign, with limited ground support, is the correct mechanism for “securing” any possibly beneficial outcomes for Russia.

To start, one must consider whether Russia’s domestic security is enhanced by such a campaign, then proceed to ask whether Russia’s regional ambitions are fulfilled by such a strategy, and lastly, assess what effect Russia’s actions have on its wider geostrategic and geo-economic interests.

From a domestic security perspective, by overtly positioning itself as an aggressor against Syria’s predominantly Sunni Islamic opposition, Russia has clearly raised its profile as a target for future acts of terror by global jihadist groups. From a regional perspective, if control of the Tartus naval base is a core strategic goal, then it seems likely that this concession could have been secured from the opposition and other regional powers in exchange for neutrality. Acknowledging that very real possibility, it certainly is unclear what further “concessions” Russia has gained from its recent military actions, many of which have led to notable civilian casualties.

Lastly, there are few independent observers who could convincingly posit that military support in favor of a regime that barrel bombs civilians will create global diplomatic and economic gains. As a distraction from Russia’s current challenges both domestically and in Ukraine, one could argue that Russia has arguably achieved some short term success, but at the long term cost of diplomatic and commercial relationships with key stakeholders in the Middle East. As with many of Russia’s more recent actions, it is difficult to look at Russia’s latest foray into the Middle East without concluding that it is both a rash action and flawed one.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Formatting changes were made as well as Author correction on 2 December 2015 at 14:19 GMT.

Leave a Reply

Previous post New SAIS IPE Professor, Dr. Ling Chen, Talks Chinese Political Economy
Next post SAIS Alum Discusses Work in Risk Analysis
%d bloggers like this: