What is Russia Really Doing in Syria?
Written by Marren Haneberg
Russia is a longtime ally of Syria, with relations dating back to the 1970s Soviet Union (Rahman-Jones). In 2015, Russia began supporting the Assad regime with weapons, air support, and ground troops. While Russian President Vladimir Putin claims the goal of Russia’s action in Syria is to fight terrorism, the US-led coalition claims Russian airstrikes have targeted “the non-IS rebel forces battling Assad’s government,” which the US supports militarily (Ahmado). By supporting opposing sides, the US and Russia have been fighting a proxy war in Syria.
In December 2018, US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of all 2,000 US troops in Syria. Russia responded to the announcement by reinforcing its dominance in the region. On January 7, Russian troops launched patrols “on the outskirts of Manbij, one of the most contested towns under U.S. control” (Sly). On January 8, “Russian and Kurdish websites posted videos of Russian military vehicles rumbling through the Syrian countryside trailing big Russian flags,” echoing images of US military patrols when they started in Syria in 2017. The intention of this display was to show that “Russia owns all of this now,” according to Aaron Stein, FPRI Middle East program director (Sly).
Russia’s complete advantage in Syria was short-lived. On February 22, Trump announced plans to leave 400 US troops in Syria (Kelly). Keeping a small amount of troops in Syria “could pave the way for US allies to keep troops in Syria” and maintain military opposition to Assad’s regime and Russia (“Russia, Syria urge…”). In reaction to Trump’s decision, Russia and Syria ordered the US to remove all its troops from Syria in a February 27 joint statement, promising safe passage for refugees in southeast Syria (Osborn and Golubkov).
Russia and Turkey’s “Scramble for Territory”
The US withdrawal from Syria has left a “scramble for territory” that “is likely to sharply increase tensions between Russia and Turkey” (Bick). While the two countries have some mutual interests in the region which helped them make the October 2018 Idlib agreement, their unaligned interests, such as those in east Syria, are a source of contention. The problem is that the “Turkish invasion undermines Russia’s efforts to bring the war to a successful conclusion,” that is, Turkey’s presence prevents Russia from establishing dominance in the Middle East (Bick).
While in December 2018 Russia and Turkey announced plans to cooperate in eradicating terrorism from Syria, the Kremlin cautioned that these “plans are in the works” and “no date has been set” for cooperation (Sly). Russia’s past behavior makes it likely that it will “attempt to play Turkey and the Kurds off of each other” (Stein). If this scenario is the case, Russia’s attempt to work with Turkey is merely political manipulation, with no plans for long-term cooperation.
Russia’s fight against ISIS
With an extensive history of terror attacks, Russia is wary of ISIS. Since 1970, over “3,500 people have died in 800+ [terrorist] attacks” in the country (Bremmer). In 2017, Putin said ISIS has recruited “between 5,000 and 7,000 people from Russia and other former Soviet republics,” especially from the North Caucasus, which includes Chechnya (St Petersburg attack). Russia has provided Assad’s regime with military support against ISIS and rebels, both of which it deems terrorists.
The alarming number of Russians who have left to join ISIS is, counterintuitively, beneficial to Putin. Many ISIS recruits come from Chechnya, a region with historical resistance to Russian rule, and their leaving dismantles this resistance. Without rebellion in the Caucasus on its hands, the Kremlin is able to pour more resources into supporting Assad’s regime and to “demonstrate its arrival and relevance in the Middle East” (Shlapentokh).
By supporting Assad, Russia hopes gain power in the Middle East, which would give it “say in major world events” and show that it is relevant on the global stage (Rahman-Jones). The US withdrawal from Syria presents Russia an opportunity to show European powers that it can lead the charge to save “Europe and Western civilisation from the threat of violent and extremist Islamism” and demonstrate its sway in Middle East affairs (Shlapentokh). At a time when the West has spurned Russia for its policies in Ukraine, this chance is crucial for Russia to meet its goal and become a major world player.
Ahmado, Nisan. 2018. “Syria: What’s at Stake for US, Russia, Iran and Turkey.” December 19. Voa News.
Bick, Alexander. 2018. “Could U.S. Withdrawal from Syria Lead to War Between Russia and Turkey?” December 26. Just Security.
Bremmer, Ian. 2017. “The Top 5 Countries Where ISIS Gets Its Foreign Recruits.” April 14. Time. http://time.com/4739488/isis-iraq-syria-tunisia-saudi-arabia-russia/.
Kelly, Mary Louise. Interview with Lina Khatib. 2019. “In Syria, Who Will Stay With U.S. Troops?” February 25. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2019/02/25/697839238/in-syria-who-will-stay-with-u-s-troops.
Osborn, Andrew and Katya Golubkov. 2019. “Russia and Syria tell U.S. forces to leave Syria: joint statement.” February 27. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-usa/russia-and-syria-tell-u-s-forces-to-leave-syria-joint-statement-idUSKCN1QG0WX.
Rahman-Jones, Imran. 2017. “Why does Russia support Syria and President Assad?” April 11. BBC News.
“Russia, Syria urge US to withdraw its troops.” February 27, 2019. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/02/russia-syria-forces-leave-syria-190227085626217.html.
Shlapentokh, Dmitry V. 2015. “Russia’s approach to ISIL: the hidden benefit of evil.” NATO. https://www.nato.int/docu/review/2015/isil/Russia-Syria-Putin-ISIL-Chechnya-Middle-East/EN/index.htm.
Sly, Liz. 2019. “Turkey and the Kurds turn to Russia to solve problems sparked by U.S. exit from Syria.” January 9. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/turkey-and-the-kurds-turn-to-russia-to-solve-problems-sparked-by-us-exit-from-syria/2019/01/09/7328cbba-142a-11e9-ab79-30cd4f7926f2_story.html?utm_term=.121408c8fdfc.
Stein, Aaron. 2019. “The Scramble for Northeast Syria.” January 22. Foreign Affairs. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/turkey/2019-01-22/scramble-northeast-syria.
“St Petersburg attack: Eight arrested in connection with subway bombing.” April 11, 2017. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-12/8-arrested-in-connection-with-st-petersburg-bombing/8435940.