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Lately the Russian Federation is showing increasing involvement in the Syrian civil war.

  • They are moving troops to Syria to support Assad.
  • During the 70th UN general assembly they demanded an international coalition to support the Syrian regime.

What could Russia want to accomplish by supporting Assad?

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The alliance between Syria and Russia dated back to the Cold War when they both became enemies of the United States. After the Iranian revolution and the peace between Egypt and Israel, Iran became a natural ally of Syria and the center of a Shiite block against USA, Israel and Iraq.

Given this durable alliance Russia has developed many interests in Syria. One of them is navy base in Tartus, which is quite modest but is the only Russian base in the Mediterranean Sea. A more practical reason is money: Russian banks have supported the financial system of Syria since the start of the civil war and its companies have invested 20 billion dollars in the extractive industry1.

Russia has another specific reason to support Assad in the current civil war: islamic terrorism, because it is also an internal Russian problem. They believe that the Assad government and the Kurds are the only reliable forces that are fighting against ISIS2.

[1] Siria: Stivali russi per Assad (it)
[2] Putin’s U.N. General Assembly speech

  • No mention of Saudi-Qatari pipelines that are planned to run through Syria and onward to the EU? – David Lerner Sep 28 '15 at 21:42
  • Not that I disagree with your answer, but can you specify an exact date for when Syria and Russia formed an alliance? The Cold War was a long time. – DrZ214 Sep 29 '15 at 3:02
  • @DavidZ.Lerner I didn't know that particular pipeline, but there are many other proposals and Russia usually can stop the ones that it doesn't like and support the ones that it prefer without taking part in a civil war. It may be an additional reason, but it isn't an important one according to the experts. – gabriele Sep 29 '15 at 7:43
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    "They believe that the Assad government and the Kurds are the only reliable forces that are fighting against ISIS." - not really. But they believe that the US-supported Islamic Front whose main part is the An-Nusra, an official subordinate of Al-Qaeda is not better than ISIS in terms of terrorism, may be much worse. – Anixx Sep 29 '15 at 21:18
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    @DavidLerner I am not saying that what you report isn't true. I am just saying that here in Europe you hear many proposals for new pipelines and many of them are shelved because opposition on one side or the other. It seems to me that to oppose or support a pipeline there is no need to resort to war. – gabriele Sep 30 '15 at 6:29
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Think of it as a grand chess game, with the U.S. and its allies controlling or destroying one country after another - Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Argentina (I'm referring to Team USA's latest assault on Argentina's economy) and on and on. The U.S. even leveled economic sanctions against Iran and China and has started a virtual war on Russia's border, in the Ukraine. And you can forget all those nuclear treaties as we mass troops anti-missile defenses along Russia's borders.

Loosely translated, what options do Russia, China and Iran have other than strike back? They can either sit on their butts while the U.S patiently erodes their power, or they can fight back.

If the U.S. and Israel succeed in Syria, it will be that much easier for them to take out Iran - and that would be an extraordinary disaster for the entire world. The U.S. and Israel pretty much own the Arabian Peninsula as it is. Putting Iran under the U.S./Israeli jackboot would simply be unthinkable.

In that spirit, it's remarkable and inspirational to see Syria's "coalition of the willing" - Russia, China, Syria, Iran and Cuba, with Iraq asking for help as well.

However, there's one caveat: Some conspiracy theorists think Putin is actually working for the New World Order. If that's true, then Russia's ultimate intentions are obviously very different.

We should have a much clearer picture of what's going on in the next few months.

EDIT

A few months later...

Israel and the United States attack Syria at will, and Putin doesn't respond. ISIS continues to attack Muslim countries but NOT Israel. Some say it's because Israel's so strong...yet Israel claims it's being attacked by Hamas.

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    If the US really wanted to bring Iran down as their main objective, they would not attack Saddam's Iraq in the first place, because Iraq was the main enemy of Iran. – Anixx Oct 20 '15 at 8:32
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    LOL - The U.S. supported Iraq precisely because it warred with Iran. But the U.S. obviously had other reasons for invading Iraq (not limited to those missing weapons of mass destruction). – David Blomstrom Oct 20 '15 at 22:15
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Qatar strives for constructing a pipe via this region to Turkey to supply EU with its own oil and gas from the giant North Gas Field. Syria blocks the way for two reasons:

1) Qatar's pipe would severely drop the EU dependency from Russian energy sources and the EU will be more independent from Moscow. 2) Qatar's pipe would harm Iranian interest in supplying EU with its own oil and gas.

That is why Russia supported sanctions-free Iran and strongly opposes the idea to overthrow Assad in Syria, the end of his personal reign or a sort of division of the solid state into several separate ones based on religious/ethnic majority/minority would open the way to Qatar's pipe and shrink Gazprom European influence. Saudi victory over Iran as a byproduct, by the way.

However, freezing the conflict for several years will block Qatar's project and then Iran's energy sources will flow freely to EU via Turkey ending Qatar's efforts finally forever. As Iran is a puppet of Russia, the EU dependency will only strengthen and the US influence in Europe will wither. A catastrophe.

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    This seems to be correct in general, but can you please edit your answer by providing with some prooflinks from credible sources? There are plenty of those, indeed. – bytebuster Sep 30 '15 at 16:21
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    Iran is a client of Russia, but not a puppet. – Jasper Sep 30 '15 at 19:25
  • Would this not imply that Russia had an interest in preventing the Iraq war as the west had ten years to by-past Syria if they were at all interested? – PStag Apr 15 '18 at 7:00
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In addition to the points mentioned by Gabriele, one also has to consider the longstanding Russian and Chinese doctrine of respecting the sovereignty of nations. The only exceptions allowed is when Article 51 of the UN charter can be invoked for self-defense or if the UNSC has passed a resolution under Chapter 7 authorizing an intervention. So, Russia does not accept the Western logic that under certain other circumstances one can also intervene, declare that a president of a nation should no longer be recognized as such, etc..

It is then that Russia does not take the actions that the West has taken w.r.t. Syria (e.g. oil embargo, weapons embargo etc.), that makes it look like Russia has actively supported the Assad regime all along and is now doubling down on that. But while Russia has now started to engage a bit more with Syria to protect its interests in Latakia, it's this false perspective of the Russian engagement with Syria that makes it look like a lot more than there is to it.

If Russia were to send a few divisions of its army to Syria then that would be a different matter. But a few dozen aircraft there that have not launched any attacks, that's not a big deal. They may never see any action, Putin could just ask Obama to tell the rebels in Idlib to stay out of Latakia or else they'll be attacked there.

One can compare this to the longstanding US policy of "supporting Israel". Here one also has to make the remark that Israel being a sovereign nation can have military ties with any other nation of its choosing. When the US sells arms to Israel, that in itself does not per se constitute "support for Israel" in all of the conflict Israel is engaged in (the US is critical of Israel on some issues). But because many do take that perspective, that causes any other more active support for Israel in a conflict to be construed as much more than it actually is.

So, we shouldn't be surprised if Russia ends up supporting a political transition leading to Assad's departure as part of a negotiated peace plan with all the parties involved, despite the current military moves in the region. The bottom line is that what Russia is doing isn't really "support for Assad", it's much more continuing the status quo w.r.t. to Syrian and Russian relations, and these are motivated by the points mentioned in Gabriele's answer. Russia won't change this just because the West decided that time is up for Assad.

Let me clarify the issue about the "doctrine of respecting the sovereignty of nations" which has been raised in the comment here. The whole point of this doctrine is to prevent chaos. While the Russians have not always strictly obeyed this principle themselves, the general idea is that a bad leadership is better than undermining it and getting into a chaotic situation. The Russian will point to e.g. Libya and Iraq to point out that getting rid of bad dictators isn't always the best way forward.

So, you can't argue that because Russia is supporting Assad, that Russia must have some huge stakes in Assad remaining in power. This reasoning would only be valid if you don't support the Russian doctrine about intervention. In that case, the threshold needed to support the overthrow of a regime is much lower. And if that support would then not be forthcoming, then one has to ask what are the enormous stakes that country has to prevent them from giving their support here.

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    How many Ukrainians (or Poles, Hungarians, Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Afghans, etc, etc.) would agree that there is a "longstanding Russian doctrine respecting the sovereignty of nations"? – jalynn2 Sep 29 '15 at 17:26
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    @jalynn2 What matters is if one can explain all of that from within that doctrine, even if we don't accept that doctrine ourselves. So, Russia is denying that it has forces in the ground in eastern Ukraine, and Crimea wanted to join Russia, after the what they say was an illegal coup and Crimea was given away to Ukraine an an illegal move anyway. And, of course, this doctrine does not favor democratic rights of a population, a communist government allied with the Soviet Union was seen as the best guarantee to keep the Imperialist West at bay. – Count Iblis Sep 29 '15 at 19:17
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    @Count Iblis well with Crimea Russia in fact broke their priinciples and this move was heavily criticized in Russia itself. Many say "look, now Putin acted as the Americans usually do, this is a bad move, playing according the rules written by the enemy". You can also check the reaction of Russian allies, Balarus, Kazakhstan, China: nobody of them supported the annexation of Crimea exactly because they continue to hold towards the principle you mentioned. – Anixx Sep 29 '15 at 21:31
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    @jalynn2 It's USA who invaded Afghanistan, not Russia. – Matt Sep 30 '15 at 17:01
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    In absolute terms, nothing can ever always be true in politics. So, the fact that exceptions do exist does not by itself make the claim of sticking to a doctrine, a lie. One has to consider the entire system and demonstrate that the country really does not fundamentally believe in it at all, that it is only invoked in debates with adversaries as some tactical ploy. I don't think that's the case. – Count Iblis Oct 1 '15 at 15:59

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