According to Western media, Vladimir Putin is many things – an authoritarian, an election meddler, even a ‘new tsar.’ Due to the ongoing investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, plenty of news coverage has been devoted to Putin meddling in US affairs. Less has been directed toward his involvement in Syria, a country in which Putin is fighting a proxy war to extend Russia’s geopolitical influence. But what, exactly, does Putin have to gain in Syria? Why are the Russians in Syria in the first place?
Since its beginning in 2011, the Syrian Civil War has increasingly attracted outside attention and intervention. The United States and Russia were drawn into the conflict in 2013 and 2015, respectively, and their involvement has raised the stakes for potential military confrontation while promulgating the kind of devastation wrought by proxy warfare. These international political ambitions compete at the expense of Syrian lives, and humanitarian devastation is incomprehensibly widespread.
Russia is hardly a fresh face in Syria, or in the Middle East in general. Once upon a time, the Soviet Union spread its influence through the ‘third world’ by peddling military support and arms sales to sympathetic nations – a paradigm repeated by the US in Nicaragua. Syria was one such country that accepted Soviet arms as an effective foreign policy instrument of influence. In the 1970s and 80s, Soviet arms accounted for 90% of Syrian arms imports.
This partnership has continued in the post-Soviet period – Moscow canceled approximately 70% of Syria’s Soviet-era debt in 2005, renewing military and economic ties. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that 48% of Syrian arms imports between 2006 and 2010 came from Russia. During the Arab Spring in 2011, Moscow sent the Syrian government arms to use against rebels, and recently, the Russians have provided personnel training to Syrian soldiers alongside equipment and armaments.
What’s more, in 1971, with the express consent of then-President Hafez al-Assad, the Soviets christened Tartus, a naval base on the Syrian coast of the Mediterranean. Due to its strategic location as a Western, warm water port, maintaining Tartus as a stronghold in Syria is still part of Russia’s long-term geopolitical strategy. At present, there is no end in sight for Russian military involvement – President Putin recently announced a plan to revamp the Russian presence at Tartus and at Hmeimim air base, both in Western Syria.
Russian bases in Syria have housed a myriad of state-of-the-art aircraft since Russian air support began in 2015. Su-34s (“fullbacks” in NATO speak), deployed in 2015, were the most advanced Russian aircraft in Syria, capable of carrying short- and long-range guided missiles and “cluster bombs.” The updated Su-35S was deployed shortly thereafter in January 2016. In September 2017, the Russian Air Force deployed MiG-29SMT multirole aircraft, capable of carrying air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles, as well as SU-30SMs with similar capabilities. This February, Israeli satellite imagery revealed two Su-57s at Hmeimim.
Moscow has proudly touted the success of its equipment, showcasing the willingness of other countries to purchase Su-34s after “successful” use in Syria. Chris Harmer, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told Foreign Policy in 2015: “There is no tactical reason for Russia to fire a cruise missile. They are using these to show the world that they can.” A 2017 Chatham House report corroborates the following claims, pointing to a resurgence of Russian ventures in the Middle Eastern arms market.
Despite Russia’s claims that these arms are purely defensive, Russian weaponry is indisputably used by the Syrian military to attack civilians.
Despite Russia’s claims that these arms are purely defensive, Russian weaponry is indisputably used by the Syrian military to attack civilians. Though Putin claimed that Russian troops intervened only to stop ISIS, Russian manpower bombed anti-Assad rebels, including those backed by the United States. In September 2016, then-US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov brokered a peace deal aimed at advancing peace in Syria, though just months later Russian manpower helped Assad reclaim Aleppo, the anti-government rebels’ metropolitan stronghold.
But arms sales and military presence are hardly the extent of Russian involvement in Syria. Russia has continually stymied UN Security Council Resolutions condemning chemical attacks by the Assad regime and urged the US not to take unilateral military action in Syria. Additionally, Syria is a metaphorical battleground for Putin’s long-held vision of a resurgent Russia – one that, after significant recovery from the post-Soviet economic collapse, is emerging from the ashes as a global political and military giant.
Aside from maintaining an offensive foothold in the Mediterranean, President Putin’s legitimacy is on the line. Putin has long maintained that he is tough on terror, especially in his own country – notably in Chechnya and more recently in Dagestan, majority-Muslim provinces in the southernmost tip of Russia. Though primarily for a domestic audience, Putin’s great power antics bolster the carefully crafted image of an ambitious and aggressive foreign policy agenda.
Additionally, Putin’s paranoia of mass uprisings has fueled crackdowns on dissenters in Russia and informed his use of hard power abroad. The Arab Spring had a notable effect on Putin, particularly the US intervention in Libya, which confirmed his disdain for interventionist US foreign policy, an opinion he made sure to mention in his 2015 interview with CBS’s Charlie Rose.
Backlash against the US for supporting so-called ‘color revolutions’ in neighboring states is just one of many mounting diplomatic tensions between the US and Russia. In July 2017, Putin expelled hundreds of US diplomats from Moscow, and in September, the State Department ordered the closing of a Russian consulate in San Francisco. In January 2018, the Treasury Department released the ‘Putin List,’ naming 210 Russian oligarchs who rose to prominence under Putin. Issues related to meddling and collusion are being investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller, whose indictments have hit thirteen Russian oligarchs and twelve Russian intelligence officers. And, most recently, the fallout from the Helsinki summit and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has kept the Syria ‘question’ opaque. It is unclear what was discussed or agreed to in the one-on-one meeting, and arguably, Trump’s personal comments about the US Intelligence Community and his performance at the NATO summit have shifted US-Russian dialogue vis-à-vis Syria onto the back burner.
Tensions between Russia and the United States expand well beyond the diplomatic sphere – this spring, a US airstrike killed Russians in Syria, exemplifying the inevitable outcome of proxy warfare. Just how many soldiers were killed remains unknown – estimates range from a handful to two hundred, depending on the news source. The Russian government has maintained that these soldiers are impassioned ‘mercenaries’ fighting of their own accord, though how they arrived in Syria remains murky. They were likely hired by a Russian paramilitary organization with loose ties to the Defense Ministry, which begs the question – why is such an organization operating in Syria?
Whereas US airstrikes in Syria have been sporadic – the Obama and Trump Administrations have been rightly criticized as kicking the can down the road – Moscow shows no sign of scaling back its Syrian operations. Maintaining a strong presence in Syria not only promulgates Putin’s ‘tough on terror’ stance, but also guarantees that Bashar al-Assad will remain loyal to Russia. Russia has been fiercely loyal to Assad, cooperating in a tenuous quasi-alliance with other parties who have interests in Syria.
Putin’s strongman politics do not bode well for Syria. The conflict is more than a testing ground for Russian arms – it is a full-blown proxy war fanned by the flames of geopolitical rivalries and Putin’s own political agenda. Putin’s Syria strategy is the most fatal frontier of Russian foreign policy – one that, at the end of the day, comes at the inordinate expense of Syrian civilians.
Grace Vedock is an intern at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, DC and a student at Middlebury College pursuing degrees in Russian and Political Science.