September 30, Baghdad, Iraq. A Russian official delivers a message to US embassy personnel—Russia is about to start operating military aircraft over Syria. He warns the Americans to “avoid Syrian airspace during these missions”. Within hours Russian jets—having snuck into Syria in the weeks prior—have flown a dozen sorties and have begun attacking America's allies on the ground.
The reaction is surprise. The Russian Federation has commenced its first military action outside of former Soviet states. The last comparable act—the USSR’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan—is remembered with disdain by Russian citizens. So why now has Putin decided to escalate in Syria and double-down on his support for embattled dictator Bashar al-Assad?
Let us examine a few of the reasons why Putin is in Syria, in no particular order.
1. To support Assad.
While the West can’t agree on whether ISIL or Assad must go first, Russia is a proponent of political stability first, under the continued tenure of Assad. Cynical framing suggests Putin plans to prop up a dictator for life who has already bled too much legitimacy by bleeding too much of his population, but in rhetoric at least, the Russians are not married to Assad. Putin talks openly about a political transition “that involves all political forces, ethnic and religious groups” and Russia has been central to mapping a path towards Syrian peace and free elections. Putin’s timely support of Assad has clearly won him a seat at the table—whether he uses this influence to help shape a Syrian future without Assad, or to derail one, will have to be seen.
2. For Russia’s strategic interests.
The Russian Federation inherited a strong military-to-military relationship and a number of strategic assets inside Syria as the result of decades-long cooperation between Syria and the USSR. Of most significance is the Russian naval base of Tartus, considered “essential” due to its status as Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean.
Framing Putin’s action around the imperative to retain access to the Mediterranean adds context to Putin’s other recent expedition, his annexation of the Crimean peninsula, which hosts a Russian naval base that is home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Annexing Crimea has decoupled Russian naval influence from Ukraine’s future.
The Black Sea is contiguous to the Mediterranean, but to Russia passage is unreliable, requiring transit of the Turkish Straits; territory of Turkey, a NATO member and US ally. While Turkey guarantees free passage of civilian vessels, navigation of warships is entirely at their discretion.
By venturing into Syria, Putin sends a message of support to Assad; but importantly, the renewed military commitment serves to strengthen ties to Syrian generals, who will without doubt play a central role in any future where Syria wishes to lose Assad, but retain her state institutions. These relationships may be key to the continuation of Russian control over their strategic assets within Syria, and with them, their ability to project into the Mediterranean.
3. To stand on equal footing with the US.
The war in Syria holds the world’s attention. The great and powerful United States are flexing their muscles and it makes for great television.
Russia’s bold entry makes her appear just as “competent” and deadly as the US, one could be forgiven for mistaking the two as equals when it comes to war-fighting ability. To be fair, some of the Russian action is impressive—firing cruise missiles from the Caspian sea, across two nations and into a third is a feat—even if a few do fall short, on innocent Iranian sheep.
But this parity is an illusion. While America is demonstrating its ability to project force halfway across our planet, Russia is fighting in their proverbial backyard. Tensions have begun to rise as the Russian foreign minister Lavrov claims a lack of “concrete results” from the US air mission, comparing the US to “a cat that wants to eat a fish but doesn’t want to wet its feet.” Washington of course fired back, with a defense department spokesperson highlighting Moscow’s use of “old fashioned . . . antiquated tactics . . . needed only if you don’t possess the technology, the skills and the capabilities to conduct the type of precision strikes that our coalition conducts.”
4. To negotiate sanction relief.
The West is attempting to cripple Russia through the use of sanctions in retaliation for the annexation of Crimea. Putin’s increased influence in Syria strengthens his position while complicating issues for Western countries that may be forced to work closely with Russia.
Becoming Assad’s proxy for negotiations with Western powers has created the opportunity to conflate the issues of sanctions and Syria’s future, while Putin’s military activities in Syria have the capacity to subvert and hamper Western efforts. Putin can employ both the carrot and the stick; bluntly, he now has things the West wants, ways to make life difficult, and a willingness to negotiate.
5. To degrade and destroy ISIS.
Suggesting this a month ago would have been a joke. Although radical Islam is viewed as a persistent threat to Russia—Putin’s opening salvos were targeted not at ISIL, but rather at the various factions opposing Assad. November’s downing of a Russian passenger jet, claimed by the ISIL affiliated Sinai Province, appears to have stirred the bear. In response, Putin has vowed to “punish” ISIL. This has manifested so far in the bombing of ISIL’s proclaimed capital Raqqa, with strategic bombers.