Neil Quilliam
Senior Research Fellow; Project Director, Syria and Its Neighbours Policy Initiative
Michael BellCanadian Ambassador to Jordan (1987-90), Egypt (1994-98) and Israel (1990-92 and 1999-2003)
Tom NajemAssociate Professor of Political Science, University of Windsor
Syria is just the beginning of the Russian president's global ambitions.
People hold up portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin near the Russian embassy in Damascus on 13 October 2015. Photo by Getty Images.People hold up portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin near the Russian embassy in Damascus on 13 October 2015. Photo by Getty Images.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is totally committed to a sustained military campaign in Syria, the kind of muscle-flexing exercise, outside the Ukraine annexations in central Europe, not seen since the collapse of the Soviet empire. This is concerning on a global scale. Russia’s worldwide ambitions will not be waylaid.

Moscow’s official reason for intervention sounds familiar. It opposes Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in all its manifestations as evil in and of itself. Few analysts, however, are buying such high-minded rhetoric. Rather, Moscow’s geostrategic calculations are based on hard national interests. Putin calculated that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was firmly on the back foot, losing territory critical to his regime’s survival. It was now or never.

Putin’s immediate goal, therefore, was to save the secular Alawite regime, if not the Assad family itself – Russia’s only remaining client government in the Middle East. To do this included not only bombing ISIS but other opposition forces as well, mainly the powerful Al-Qaeda-aligned al-Nusra Front.

Without external support – Iranian, Hezbollah and now Russian – the Assad regime is unlikely to survive, let alone be in a position to defeat the largely Islamist opposition, whatever its rubric. Putin’s intervention has raised the regime’s morale, emboldening it. Iran and Hezbollah, Assad’s erstwhile allies and Russia’s partners in this bloodletting, are reinforcing their offensive against the opposition.

Indeed, the reaction to the Russian manoeuvre has been euphoric throughout good chunks of the region, although it has intensely annoyed the Gulf states.

Global military power

Western observers have been impressed with the performance of Russian aircraft and missiles. Some have concluded that Russian missiles fired from ships in the Caspian Sea may have surpassed equivalent American technological capability. Since 30 September, when their bombing raids began, the Russian air force has flown some 700 sorties, hitting more than 450 targets. Continuing offensives near Aleppo by Assad loyalists are meeting with considerable success.

Putin wants, among other things, to decapitate ISIS and other Islamist radicals before they penetrate Russia’s southern Muslim-populated hinterland, where there has been, and is, considerable religious and tribal-based animosity, whether it be Chechnya or elsewhere.

This is deeply intertwined with Putin’s desire to reassert Russia’s traditional role as a global military power: to re-establish its influence worldwide. He has pursued a programme to modernize Russia’s ailing military forces, which had, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, fallen well below the technical standards of those found in the West. The success of this programme is not fully known, but Russia’s military hardware in the Syrian conflict is telling.

Russian interests in the Middle East extend from Czarist times to the Soviet era. At its peak, the Soviet Union counted much of the secular Arab states as clients – including Egypt, Iraq and Syria – challenging the United States for regional hegemony. That came to an end in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Only Syria remained a faithful Russian client.

Putin wants to challenge Western hegemony again and reassert Russian influence. The reluctance of the Obama administration and public sentiment in the United States for further military adventures has opened the door. Russia has not only solidified its regional partners but has reached out to traditional US allies, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, by offering to sell to all of them the latest in Russian military equipment.

Conversely, the United States appears hesitant and uncertain, reacting to Russian initiatives as they develop, thereby highlighting an increasingly perceived weakness. Moscow calculated, correctly, that Washington would not be capable of derailing its intervention.

The fighting in Syria will continue unabated for years to come, destabilizing the region as a whole, and beyond. It will add to the already intolerable humanitarian disaster.

The choices the West has in Syria are limited – there are 'no good options'. The West has no real opposition to support in Syria. The pro-US secular forces have long ago been marginalized. Even if Assad were to fall, the chaos would continue to accelerate, with still more severe consequences for Lebanon, Jordan and other neighbours.

Putin is not the sort of leader who will facilitate the downfall of a fellow authoritarian dictator, although he might accept the Assad family’s demise if the regime itself survives. He will not give up expanding Russian influence. In the Middle East, he will not sacrifice Moscow’s growing reputation as the toughest hombre in town. He will brook no interference from those confronting Moscow elsewhere, rather they should live with uncertainty if not fear.

This article was originally published in the Globe and Mail.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback