A mural of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Latakia, one of the last strongholds of the Assad regime
In a recent UN address, Vladimir Putin sought to justify his military support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad by speaking about his commitment to fighting terrorism. Putin’s rhetoric, however, barely conceals the fact that Russia’s escalating assistance to the Assad regime is more likely an attempt to re-establish a foothold in the Middle East rather than the beginning of operations against ISIS. In backing Assad amid Western governments’ calls for him to leave power, Putin has presented a fait accompli to the international community after four years of paralysis over the Syrian Civil War.
The Russian Connection
Syria has long been a staunch Soviet and Russian ally, particularly after Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, took power in 1970, and turned to Moscow for assistance to balance against American support for Israel. Since then, Syria has remained a faithful partner — Moscow’s last true ally and strategic outpost in the Arab Middle East.
While much of the country is uninhabited desert, its densely populated coastline offers Russia valuable military options. The port of Tartous hosts Russia’s sole Mediterranean naval base, crucially allowing Moscow’s smaller vessels to operate throughout the Mediterranean littoral without returning to the Black Sea via the NATO chokepoint of the Turkish Straits. The neighbouring city of Latakia is home to Russia’s largest foreign signals intelligence station and a new air facility. Moscow is investing heavily in developing its military infrastructure in Syria alongside providing military and technical assistance to the regime.
In addition to being centres of Russian operations in the Middle East, the governorates of Tartous and Latakia comprise the homeland of the Alawites, the minority sect to which the Assad family belongs. The coastal plain is separated from the country’s interior by the Syrian Coastal Mountain Range, often referred to as the Alawite Mountains, which presents a major barrier against rebel incursions. West of this mountain range is the last Syrian territory still under solid government control.
Because of their importance to the regime, both ethnically and militarily, cities like Tartous and Latakia have seen significantly less violence than have cities like Damascus or Aleppo. The largely Alawite military leadership has concentrated its forces around the heartland in order to defend its kin. Having taken most of Syria, opposition groups face a much harder task in dislodging the lion from his mountainous stronghold.
Why Russia Will Leave ISIS Alone
Growing Russian support for Assad will compound the challenges facing the rebels, many of whom are backed by Sunni Arab states, American allies, or the US itself. With so many countries backing the opposition, Moscow’s assistance is invaluable to the very survival of the Assad regime. Although the Alawite heartland provides a prime base for pushing back ISIS advances, it is also a centre from which to bolster the government’s defence — and Mr. Putin has good reason to focus on the latter. With a long history of terrorist attacks emanating from its southern provinces of Dagestan and Chechnya, Russia is no doubt wary of putting pressure on ISIS for fear of provoking Islamic terrorists in the restive Caucasus. Indeed, several militant groups there have already pledged allegiance to the ‘caliph’ Baghdadi, and ISIS has declared a governorate in the region. Given the ease with which the group could encourage and undertake attacks in southern Russia, Moscow faces a significantly higher risk of blowback than Western countries battling ISIS.
Shirking the fight against Islamic terrorists and deepening the Syrian government’s reliance on its military assistance will have sizable benefits for Russia. Leaving the US and its partners to shoulder most of the burden in the fight against ISIS will direct reprisals towards them instead of towards Russia. European members of the anti-ISIS coalition have recently suffered a number of lone-wolf terrorist attacks inspired by ISIS propaganda and have foiled many more. Moscow will hope to avoid this fate by leaving ISIS alone.
Putin’s designs are helped by the fact that protecting Assad requires very little action against ISIS. The group has little presence in western Syria and poses less of a danger to the regime than factions like the moderate Free Syrian Army or the hardline Jabhat al-Nusra. Indeed, some have argued that Assad allowed ISIS to grow in order to bleed other rebels white, force outside powers to intervene, and suppress demands that he step down. These claims are supported by evidence that the regime purchased oil from ISIS and, at least early on, cooperated and coordinated with the group. As long as Moscow keeps up the pretence of fighting terrorism, it can spend most of its energy on strengthening Assad.
Instead of using its military hardware to invite terrorist reprisals within its own borders, Russia will likely fortify its position in western Syria. Rather than bombing ISIS commanders in Raqqa, Moscow would more sensibly deploy forces to solidify its hold in western Syria and, over time, the wider Middle East. In fact, US officials and rebels on the ground have reported that many of Russia’s recent airstrikes have hit locations on the northern and eastern fringes of the regime’s coastal provinces — areas without any ISIS presence. Minimizing blowback goes hand in hand with expanding Russian influence and power. Defending the regime will ensure the security of Russian military bases and maintain Moscow’s influence over Assad.
Russia’s Long Game
A strengthened Russian presence in Syria would be an island of stability in the current chaos of the Middle East. In addition to providing a base for military operations in the region, expanding its forces in western Syria would bolster Russia’s offensive presence just miles from Israel, America’s main ally in the Middle East. While relations between Russia and Israel are cordial, Russia’s friendliness with Iran will worry the Israelis, and their proximity to Israel will afford Moscow coercive leverage over Washington in larger political disputes.
Moscow’s close relationship with Tehran also augments the benefits of maintaining forces in Syria. Both Shia, Iran and Syria are firm allies — Iran supports the pro-regime Hezbollah and provides significant aid to Assad’s forces. Regardless of whether Assad remains in power or whether Syria maintains its current borders, the governments of both Iran and Syria will demand a say in any political settlement after the removal of ISIS. Assuming he, or someone close to him, remains in power, Assad’s reliance on Russia combined with Moscow’s influence in Tehran will afford Russia much bargaining power in that settlement.
With such influential friends, Russia stands to capture a large area of influence in the blood-drenched lands of Syria and Iraq. Assad will owe his survival to Russia, a debt impossible to repay. Tehran will want to take advantage of the post-ISIS power vacuum by tightening its grip over Iraq and solidifying its alliance with Assad. Today’s airstrikes in Syria could herald a bloody new path for the Shiite crescent running from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan — a path that may end right under Russia’s thumb.
Once again a savage civil war and humanitarian catastrophe have been used by outside powers as a means for their geopolitical ends. Increasingly fiery rhetoric from Washington and Moscow will further stymy international cooperation on Syria. Russia’s deepening commitment to keeping Assad in power will push countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia to up their support for Sunni rebels, many of whom fall under the same ideological umbrella as groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Both directly and indirectly, Putin’s actions will fuel the growth of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism. Worse, the war in Syria is fast becoming the largest proxy war since the fall of the Soviet Union. After four years and hundreds of thousands of deaths, it looks like things are only getting started.
Alex Davies is a junior at Cornell University, pursuing an independent major in International Relations and Computer Science.