Barack Obama meets with Vladimir Putin to discuss Syria, 29 September 2015
Russia’s recent announcement to partly scale back its military advances in Syria has been widely assessed as the final chapter of a geopolitical victory for Vladimir Putin. Just last October Obama warned of a “quagmire” as western pundits declared Russian involvement in Syria a strategic blunder on Putin’s part, particularly given the poor state of the Russian economy.
While claims of Putin ‘pulling one over’ on Obama are overstated, the Kremlin undoubtedly seems to have left the arena with a win. President Obama was correct in suggesting that involvement in Syria is a geopolitical nightmare; a vastly complex conflict with multiple opposition and ethnic groups, including the Assad regime, al-Nusra, and the Islamic State (IS) — complexities Russia has shown little interest in balancing. While President Obama and the Western pundits decried Russian involvement in Syria, they overlooked a critical point: Syria was never the objective.
Russia’s main goal in Syria was not regional stability — as the Economist bluntly put it, “There will be no quagmire in Syria because the Kremlin is not in the business of nation building.” Nor was it entirely to support its ally, Bashar al-Assad, despite the importance of combatting his removal by a pro-Western coalition on Russia’s very doorstep. Indeed, propping the Assad regime was only a motive insofar as it helped achieve other targets. Russia’s entrance into Syria was an exercise in using military force for two very particular political goals: a continuation of its politics of domestic distraction, and an opportunity to add to its arsenal in its quest to regain global influence — as well as an opportunistic side-effect with the potential to help destabilize Europe.
Politics of Distraction
Russia is currently undergoing one of its worst economic crises in a century, yet Putin’s approval ratings remain quite high. While counterintuitive, it readily explains a component of Putin’s Syria strategy: it is a means to distract his people from domestic failures. The answer lies in a Russian desire to recapture the global stature of its Soviet past—the very same desire that propelled Putin’s original ascension to the presidency in 2000. According to polls at the time, the Russian people ranked returning Russia to its former global influence as their highest priority, above even economic recovery.
This public desire for a more dominant global presence lends itself well to manipulation by Putin—a man who has built a presidency on public displays of strength. When other realms of his performance are not going well, such as the economy, he can pivot to his people and point to Russian decisiveness in Syria — a success that is strikingly juxtaposed with America’s failed attempt at enforcing what can mockingly be known as the world’s faintest red line. When his people are frustrated with high food prices or low wages, he can point to a major airstrike against IS or another US-backed rebel group. While times may be difficult, Putin’s supporters can cling to their belief that he has restored, or at the very least is restoring, Russia to its former greatness. This is not a new strategy, either: between 2011-2013 Putin was met with wide scale protests originating from a regression in his approval dating back to the 2008 economic crisis. Only his actions in Crimea in 2014 allayed his people, rather than any true attempt to address the demands of the protests.
But this distraction of the Russian people is difficult to sustain, as it necessitates constant, successful, and widely-publicized military action. Consider the extent the Kremlin went to hide a few deaths in Ukraine for that very reason, coupled with the necessary limitations of Putin’s public reassurances. Similarly, the misdirection is limited by the bounds of its own fragile success. Sooner or later, the bubble will burst and an exercise of Russian strength will be seen as strategic blunder that will only pile on to a poor economy. This trend explains Moscow’s recent partial withdrawal from Syria, despite much being left to do in terms of guaranteeing Assad’s continued rule—something many claimed was the chief motive behind the Russian entrance into Syria.The longer Russia actively stayed in the conflict, the higher the chances rise of unacceptable casualties. Indeed, it seems Putin could not have picked a more perfect time to draw back his forces: Russian public support for the move sits at 82%.
Gaining Global Influence by Becoming a Key Player in the Middle East
Syria presented itself as a golden opportunity for Putin: a largely uncontested arena to demonstrate Russia’s global leadership. With America’s refusal to truly enter the fray, as well as that of most of its NATO allies, no global power stepped up to take leadership of the situation. This allowed for Russia, which has perpetually claimed that Syria (and just about every American military intervention) is evidence of western encouragement of irresponsible regime change, to present itself as the conflict’s authoritative power broker. Moreover, with the absence of any competition of influence from other global powers, the Kremlin was largely able to manipulate the dynamics of the Syrian conflict in ways that best fit its interests. While claiming to be conducting airstrikes against Islamists, for example, Russian troops were often hitting US-allied opposition groups to the Assad regime. By significantly weakening all moderate anti-Assad opposition forces, the strategy was to leave the world a false binary: either Assad or IS. In a larger context, this fit the Russian narrative that constant meddling from the West created this beast and, moreover, that the US and its allies were wrong to encourage the overthrow of established governments in an effort to ‘promote democracy,’ enabling the rise of extremism. So while propping the Assad regime was certainly an objective, it was only acted upon insofar as it fit the larger scheme.
So far this strategy has worked, with Russia emerging as a key player in the region. The best evidence of this is Russia’s co-sponsorship of the International Syria Support Group, an international conglomeration of non-regional forces involved in the conflict working toward a peaceful resolution. The ISSG, however fragile, has emerged as the best chance at achieving a diplomatic option. Indeed, it is the group that worked out the current cessation in hostilities at a summit in Geneva. While even optimists admit that the long term success of a peaceful agreement is unlikely, Moscow has taken credit for bringing the parties to the table. More importantly, this has likely insured that any future agreements will also involve Russia and will thus only proceed by maintaining Russian interests. Additionally, while Putin has publicly claimed that Russia has largely concluded its campaign in Syria and the remaining military presence is only there for defensive and anti-IS purposes, the fact is that the Kremlin continues to operate well-manned and strategically-located bases across the region, such as the Tartus naval base. While the changes in long term regional influence resulting from the Syrian conflict are yet to be determined, this continued presence could be the first step in casting the net of Russian influence more widely over the Middle East.
Perhaps the greatest geopolitical consequence of the Syrian conflict has been the widespread displacement of Syrian nationals into what has become an international refugee crisis. This phenomenon has taken new life with accusations of Putin “weaponizing” refugees as a means to disrupt Europe. The most notable of these claims have come from General Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe and head of the US European Command of NATO, who quipped, “Together, Russia and the Assad regime are deliberately weaponizing migration in an attempt to overwhelm European structures and break European resolve.” While the refugee crisis has indeed destabilized Europe, too much credit is given to Putin’s clairvoyance to suggest that it was planned.
This is not to suggest that Moscow has not played a part in intensifying the refugee crisis, however this mass migration was more likely a byproduct than a goal. It is the internal weaknesses of the EU—the rise of nationalist parties, several democratic crises, rising racial and class division, debt concerns etc.— moreso than Russian airstrikes that has made the refugee crisis particularly toxic to Europe. A better explanation came from US Senator John McCain, who said Russia “wants to exacerbate the refugee crisis and use it as a weapon to divide the transatlantic alliance and undermine the European project.” While theories range from Sunni ethnic cleansing in support of Assad to distracting NATO, perhaps the most compelling reason is that the refugee crisis offers Russia, which has long been frustrated with its exclusion from the European decision-making process, leverage over its European counterparts. Indeed, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently wrote what was summarized by the Guardian as, “Russia wanting nothing short of fundamental change: a formal, treaty-based say on Europe’s political and security architecture.” Additionally, this leverage could be particularly useful over the response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. June will see a EU vote on the sanctions on Russia in reaction to the annexation of Crimea. It will become increasingly difficult for the EU to renew sanctions if it has to negotiate with the Kremlin about the refugee crisis.
Russia’s actions in Syria have generated a multifaceted victory. The Kremlin has successfully maneuvered itself as a major player in the Middle East, or at the very least, Syria. It has propped a withering ally and presented itself as a responsible power broker. Finally, Russia has also given itself leverage over its European neighbors by exacerbating the refugee crisis and contributing to Europe’s rising instability. Many of these victories came from the misunderstanding of Putin’s intents—military advancements in Syria had little to do with Syria and everything to do with Russia’s own internal political strife and external geopolitical goals. While President Obama warned about entering the Syrian “quagmire,” he made the mistake of thinking Putin was entering the game to win in Syria. In doing so Putin not only claimed a Syrian victory, he may very well have made strides in a larger geopolitical scheme.
Tanvir Faisal is a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University, where he studied International Relations.