Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the intransigence of President Vladimir Putin over any international action to ease the horrific humanitarian crisis, has taken Western governments by surprise and exposed new fault lines in the international system. Despite repeated pleas by the United States, Britain and France for an international settlement of the Syrian conflict, Putin actually increased Russia’s involvement in the conflict by providing weapons and military training to pro-regime forces, printing Syrian bank notes to offset hyperinflation and paralyzing the United Nations Security Council as well as other international diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.
Western foreign policy decision makers and experts find it hard to explain Moscow’s actions and to understand Putin’s motives. Matters became more confused by the added ingredient of the rise of Daesh, or Islamic State in the Levant, also known as ISIS. The media’s obsession with Daesh and Islamic terrorism served to work not only in the favor of the Syrian President, but also of Putin, who in 2011 and 2012 justified his opposition to military intervention in Syria, in part, by arguing that it would unleash and strengthen extremists beyond Syria. Putin and his government have been assiduous in minimizing the brutality of the Syrian regime to justify their actions; the behavior of Daesh in Syria thus further enhanced the image of Russia as a balanced player and sage observer of Middle East affairs that was supporting a secular government in the face of barbaric religious fanatics.
In reality, Russia has apparently been instrumental in blocking international efforts to remove Assad from power, undermining the moderate Syrian opposition, defeating the Free Syrian Army and dragging other militant opponents of the Syrian regime into a war of attrition. Putin’s efforts reached a crescendo of praise even by several Western observers after managing to prevent what appeared to be inevitable US-British-French military action against the Syrian regime in September 2013. This came after the chemical weapons attack in the Ghouta district near Damascus which killed hundreds of innocent civilians, including children, with scenes that were reminiscent of images of the Nazi Holocaust in the heart of Europe. Putin’s triumph was capped by an agreement with the Obama administration – which was far from enthusiastic about the military option – to convince Assad to handover Syrian chemical stockpiles under international supervision. Facing near-certain attack, Assad complied, which further boosted Putin’s image as an effective and influential fixer on the world stage who – for the first time since the Cold War – placed Russia on an equal footing with the United States.
Putin’s sympathizers in Russia and in the West’s academic and media circles further bolstered this favorable narrative by pointing out that Moscow was acting as a pragmatic world power which was insisting on avoiding a military confrontation with very uncertain consequences. These voices added that Putin was legitimately aggrieved and threatened by Washington’s tendency to take unilateral military action without consulting Russia. These grievances date back to NATO expansion and plans for missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, the attacks on Serbia in the 1990s, the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 and regime change in Libya in 2011.
Beyond the military concerns, the Putin-friendly narrative has noted that Russia’s pro-Syrian regime stance was also driven by economic interests. Relations between Moscow and Damascus date back to the 1950s. Syria has been among the largest consumers of Soviet and Russian weapons and Russian investments in the Syrian economy increased dramatically since 2004 with trade turnover crossing the $1billion per year level until the Syrian uprising in 2011. More significantly, the Russian support for the Assad regime and its new assertiveness seemed to lead to bigger and better trade arrangements with other Middle Eastern countries including Iraq.
Putin craftily put Russia on the map as a viable alternative to the United States. Indeed, the lack of support the US provided to its longstanding and loyal ally in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, further underlined the potential importance of a Russian option.
While segments of this narrative are based on reasonable analysis it also contains serious flaws. To better understand Putin’s behavior it is necessary to delve into history to recognize that his actions are not unique and are in fact closely tied to the age old Russian political struggle between authoritarianism and reform. Following the failure of détente in the 1970s, Leonid Brezhnev had reinitiated a massive investment in third world conflicts and particularly in the Middle East. Most notably Moscow then focused on Syria, offering massive military support that reached tens of billions of dollars by the mid-1980s. The attraction of Syria was bolstered by its occupation of Lebanon and budding relationship with post-Shah Iran. More broadly, Brezhnev and a few colleagues ordered a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan, bleeding Soviet resources dry. The late Brezhnev era and his successors until Mikhail Gorbachev oversaw a decaying state that despite the façade of a great superpower was in fact crumbling. The cult of personality around Brezhnev and impressive military parades in Red Square sought superficially to disguise the grim social and political reality with an image of strength.
While the Russian economy, straining with low oil prices, has not reached the nadir of the late Soviet period, there are striking similarities. Since 2004 Putin has tried to centralize power and expand the authority of the state through the security apparatus. He has silenced opponents, often by force and intimidation and stifled innovation and diversity. The Russian intervention in Syria was partly a predictable consequence of the new realities in Russia, with the goal of masking failures and weaknesses and legitimizing the propaganda claims that the West is the wolf at the door that demanded Russia turn itself into a fortress (Putin actually used those terms).
Syria in itself is of little economic and strategic value to Russia. Indeed sanctions and reputational damage have had a higher cost on Russia’s economy and in reality it is now Iran that controls and governs the military efforts on the ground in Syria. Moreover, the growing indication that Iran and the Syrian regime facilitated the rise of Daesh and Sunni militancy creates menacing possibilities for the future of the Russian Caucasus region. Putin’s chest beating over Syria has been hollow and betrayed his anti-democratic nature in the eyes of the world. Moscow also riled influential actors, including the Saudis, who have a major influence on world oil prices. If the economy continues to falter, Putin faces his own struggle for political survival as chants of “Russia without Putin” were once again heard on the streets of Moscow in the rally following the assassination of the leading opposition figure Boris Nemtsov. For Putin the Russian lure of authoritarianism and power proved too strong to resist but at what cost? For as long as foreign policies are driven by a domestic authoritarian agenda the sustainability of the current regime in Moscow should not be taken for granted.