Editor’s Note: The following is an exclusive excerpt from the 2022 publication The Russian Military Intervention in Syria by Ohannes Geukjian, PhD. Published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, the book examines Russia’s assertive foreign policy and its attempts to protect its geostrategic interests in the Middle East and former Soviet territory.
This article examines Russian policy in Syria in light of American and Russian divergent interests in the Middle East (ME), regional dynamics, fight against terrorism, and attempts to regime change in the ME. We argue that as Russian national and security interests were threatened, Moscow embarked on a confrontational course with the U.S. In 2012, Moscow’s support of the Syrian regime complicated Russia’s relations with regional players, which supported the Syrian opposition by sending arms and money.
We also argue that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, took advantage of America’s lack of clear policy in the ME to allow Russia to “gain a non-American door to the region and to international recognition as a player on the global theater.”1 After NATO’s military intervention in Libya in 2011 and the fall of the Muammar Qadhafi’s authoritarian regime, another regime change in the ME could lead to a catastrophe in the region. Moscow’s permissive posture concerning Western intervention in Libya “provoked a much more anti-Western position, taken by the Russian diplomacy in blocking outside humanitarian intervention in Syria.”2
Russian, American and Regional diplomacy in 2011-2012
In 2011, Putin believed that Moscow was betrayed when NATO interpreted the 1973 Resolution as a mandate to pursue regime change in Libya. Putin would not allow the “Libyan scenario to be reproduced in Syria.”3 According to Maria Zakharova, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, another regime change in the ME could be a catastrophe that “could simply turn the whole region into a black hole.”4 The U.S. and the West along with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey supported insurgents battling to topple the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, whose external diplomatic, military and financial backing had so far come from Russia, Iran and its Lebanese ally Hizbullah (Party of God).
After President Barack Obama’s Arab Spring speech in May 2011, the new U.S. policy was articulated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s blunt statement on 11 July that al-Assad had “lost legitimacy” and that “our goal is…a democratic transition.”5 The Obama Administration wanted to encourage the Syrian opposition inside the country to unite, develop a clear political agenda, and build an inclusive leadership.
For its part, Iran vowed to help Syria and not allow the U.S. to interfere in regional affairs and “accused Washington of trying to destabilize the Iranian ally.”6 Damascus appeared suspicious of Turkey’s intentions that was advocating reforms and ruled out Ankara’s meddling in Syria’s internal affairs. The Syrian authorities continued to ignore the calls to reform and blamed the unrest on extremist and terrorist groups who sought to destabilize the country.7
Joost Hiltermann convincingly argued that “at the core of the Syrian war, inexorably internationalization stands the fundamental disagreement between the U.S. and Russia over the fate of the regime.”8 Although Obama had little intention of following up with military action, Russia and Iran saw the U.S. weighing in against their ally and added their determination to support the regime. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, who were hostile to the regime, would proceed to take action in Syria on the assumption that eventually the U.S. would intervene and enforce regime change. This positioning of the external actors not only reflected the regional dimension of the war, but also served to escalate the sectarian divisions within Syria.
Syria was a key pillar of Iran’s regional policy and a key land bridge through which Iran provided money and weapons to Hizbullah to resist Israel. From Iran’s perspective, the “resistance axis” of Iran-Syria-Hizbullah against Israel had given the Syrian regime domestic and regional legitimacy.9 To counter the Iranian influence, Saudi Arabia pumped money to Sunni fighters in Syria. David Ignatius described Syria “as the fault line for Sunni-Shiite tensions, and for the confrontation between Iran and the U.S. and Israel.”10 For its part, the Kremlin believed that “if the Syrian government was unable to hold on to power, there was a high probability that radicals and representatives of terrorist organizations would become entrenched.”11
Russian Policy Goals
The Kremlin considered protests and calls for regime change schemes to destabilize society. Meanwhile, Obama called for the formation of an international coalition to coordinate aid to the Syrian opposition to further squeeze the al-Assad regime, similar but not identical to the Contact Group on Libya, which oversaw international help. Still, the French President, Nikolas Sarkozy proposed the creation of a “group of friends” of the Syrian people.12 Such calls were the result of the collapse of diplomatic efforts at the UN to find a solution to the Syrian crisis.
Russia wanted to advance its national interests and assert its authority at the global level. Authority mattered for Russia because Moscow advocated multilateralism and rejected the past domination of the U.S. Russia also wanted to wield authority over states and regions within its respective sphere of influence. The crisis in Syria and the failure of Western attempts to punish the al-Assad regime was an excuse and opportunity for Moscow to display its displeasure with U.S. and NATO policies in Libya and Iraq.
Putin, in May 2012, would take a harder line and project distrust and disdain, and would publicly blame Washington for inciting protests against him in Moscow. On 18 June 2012, Obama and Putin met on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Mexico to try to resolve their differences over the solution to the Syrian conflict. For Russia, the Syrian regime was engaged in a war with Islamist radicals like its own against the Chechens.
On 19 July 2012, Russia and China, for the third time, vetoed a draft UNSC Resolution that sought to threaten sanctions under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter unless al-Assad implemented a peace plan.13 Russia and China argued that imposing sanctions could lead to regime change. Russia also rejected military intervention without a UNSC mandate. Dmitri Trenin noted that from a Russian policy perspective, Syria “was primarily about the world order. It was about who would decide” at the global stage.14
Regional and International Dynamics
Iran viewed the conflict in Syria as the extension of a sectarian power struggle with its regional rival Saudi Arabia, as well as the U.S.-led campaign to halt its nuclear ambitions by imposing sanctions. Iran sought a diplomatic role and offered to host talks between the Syrian government and the opposition. However, the U.S. ruled out Iranian mediation, because Iran was part of the problem in Syria and the broader ME. Although Washington viewed Turkey as the key player in supporting the opposition, but, like Ankara, it was worried about the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the al-Qaeda terrorism.
After Obama’s reelection in November 2012, U.S-Russian tensions over Syria increased. Washington sought to increase the pressure on Moscow not to support the regime although both, the U.S. and Russia had shared interests in Syria, mainly to avoid extremism and a sectarian war that could spill over through the ME and Central Asia. However, both great powers were still far apart on their positions about what the transition in Syria should look like.
Backing down could mean that Russia had given in to the West and the U.S. in particular. This was not the image that “Putin wanted to convey either to Russians or to his country’s allies.” In addition to Russia’s geopolitical interests, supporting al-Assad had been “rooted in a strong belief that secular regimes were the best way to stem extremism in a volatile region.”15 Still, protecting the principle of national sovereignty was a Russian foreign policy priority.
Russian, American and Regional Interests in Syria 2013-2014
Russian deep involvement in Syria aimed to balance the destabilization of the political situation in the ME, and more globally in Eurasia.16 For Putin, Russian national interests would be protected by supporting Damascus, establishing close relations with Tehran and rapprochement with Egypt. The Kremlin thus sought to demonstrate to the U.S. and the EU that Moscow’s mediation in the conflicts in the ME would play a crucial role in the settlement of existing international issues.
During an icy encounter at a G8 summit in Northern Ireland on June 17, Obama and Putin disagreed over how to end the Syrian conflict. A U.S.-Russia dialogue on Syria and other global issues, such as missile defense in Europe, disarmament, Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, and emerging cyber security threats, was urgent. Until now, Washington approached negotiations with Moscow by pushing to abandon its support to al-Assad, while Moscow expressed a justified concern that the U.S. had no alternative strategy. Russian foreign policy aimed to support state survival from extremist and Islamist groups because Russia’s domestic stability required strong leaders, who could keep extremists and terrorists in check. Hence, Putin’s ME policy rested on close relations with the al-Assad regime, Iran and Israel.
On 12 September the U.S Secretary of State, John Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, met in Geneva to discuss the Syrian conflict. The survival of the regime was a red line for Russia. In addition, keeping U.S. military power at bay was crucial for Putin’s effort to reassert Russian influence, particularly in the ME. Seizing the opportunity to promote Russia’s position in front of a world-wide audience, Putin took an unusual step by publishing an op-ed in The New York Times on 11 September. He warned that an American strike on Syria “would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.” He added: “we are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law.”17
The continuing bloodshed and the West’s disastrous foreign policy toward Syria were starting to threaten the political stability of Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. Still, the over 40,000 foreign jihadists fighting in Syria on the side of ISIS posed a potential threat to the national security of the U.S. and Europe. The U.S. and the U.K. shifted their focus from Syria to Iraq by arming the “fervently pro-Iranian and pro-al-Assad regime,” of Iraqi Shiite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, as his government struggled to fight the Sunni al-Qaeda-linked militias. The main concern now seemed to be defeating al-Qaeda rather than al-Assad. That said, the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Syria, Ryan Crocker, wrote that “the West should engage al-Assad on counterterrorism.”18
With the spread of radical Islamist ideology in the region and worldwide, Syria became a problem for global security. In January 2014, Lavrov, expected that “all external players would be encouraging the Syrians to reach agreement, would refrain from attempts to prejudge the final agreements. The threat of turning Syria into a hotbed for international terrorism had become the most serious problem.”19
On 28 May, Obama delivered a key foreign policy address at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. He laid out his approach to foreign affairs for the rest of his presidency built on a commitment to act in concert with other nations, and shifted the fight against terrorism from Afghanistan to more “decentralized al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists” around the world. Obama said: America must lead on the world stage, but “U.S. military action cannot be the only-or even primary-component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” About Syria, he reiterated that the U.S. should help the Syrian people and “stand up against a dictator who bombs and starves his people.”20 Yet, Washington was struggling to formulate an approach based on fighting terrorism as diplomatic options stalled. According to Joshua Landis, Obama’s overarching goal in the ME was counterterrorism to fight the jihadists.21 Daniel Byman noted, “by fixating on counterterrorism, the U.S. overlooked opportunities to prevent or mitigate civil wars and regional conflicts.”22
On 26 June, Kerry met with the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan and Israel to ease their fears about the potential convergence of U.S., Iranian and Syrian policies to defeat ISIS. Obama’s request to Congress to provide $500 million in equipment and training to “appropriately vetted” moderate Syrian opposition forces was the most significant U.S. move so far to support those fighting against al-Assad.23 Yet, creating a moderate opposition could be too late to influence events in Syria.
In early August, the U.S. embarked on a long-term mission to defeat ISIS in Iraq. On 15 August, the UNSC voted unanimously on a resolution aimed at weakening extremist groups in Iraq and Syria. Although Syria’s Ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, insisted that the government “had been fighting terrorists for the past three years, Jordan’s representative, Ambassador Mahmoud Hmoud, maintained that “terrorism in Syria had been exacerbated by Syria’s marginalization of moderate opposition groups.”24 Although Syria and the U.S. found themselves on the same side of the battle against ISIS, a common enemy was unlikely to mean collaboration.
Russia, in its turn, urged Western and Arab nations to overcome their distaste for the Syrian government and engage with it to fight the jihadists. Lavrov noted that the West would “have to choose what is more important: to change the regime and satisfy personal antipathies with the risk that the situation will crumble, or find pragmatic ways to join efforts against the common threat, which is the same for all of us: terrorism.”25
The situation in Iraq, the role and mission of NATO, the crisis in Ukraine and the relationship with Russia were priorities during the discussions of the NATO summit that took place in Wales on 4-5 September 2014. Obama declared that several NATO states were forming a “new coalition of the willing” to combat ISIS in Iraq.26 To avoid further tension with Russia, Ukraine was not admitted into NATO as a member. Yet, NATO members approved of an action plan to form a “very high readiness force,” which would be deployed in the Baltic countries with permanent detachments of 300-600 soldiers.27
After Obama met ministers from 10 European nations on the sidelines of the NATO summit, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel unveiled what he called the “core coalition” to fight ISIS militants.28 On 7 September, Arab foreign ministers, who met in Cairo, “agreed to take the necessary measures to confront terrorist groups including” ISIS.29 After one day of Obama’s decision to strike both sides of the Syrian Iraqi border, Kerry, who met the Saudi King, Abdullah in Jeddah on 11 September, won the backing from 10 Arab countries –Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and six Gulf States – for a coordinated military campaign against ISIS.30 Obama’s decision to confront ISIS militarily in both Syria and Iraq marked a “major victory” for Saudi diplomacy. The Saudi’s agreed to allow the U.S. training of 5,000 Syrian rebels inside the kingdom and participated in the U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS targets inside Syria. For the Saudis, the overriding goal remained the removal of al-Assad, while Obama’s goal was to “degrade and destroy” ISIS in Iraq and Syria.31
The U.S. emerging strategies was to work through partners and allies and having them do the fighting on the ground. Meanwhile, the U.S. had opened a back channel to Iran to de-conflict potential clashes as both countries used air power to attack ISIS targets. Russia should have been engaged too because the West and Russia did not want a sanctuary for Islamist fanatics in the heart of the ME. Joseph Nye rightly argued while the West must resist Putin’s challenge to the liberal order and “the norm of not claiming territory by force, it must not completely isolate Russia, a country with which the West has overlapping interests concerning nuclear security, non-proliferation, anti-terrorism, the Arctic region, and regional issues such as Iran and Afghanistan.”32 Defeating ISIS was a bigger challenge than al-Qaeda.
On 28 September, Lavrov, rejecting American hegemony, reiterated that Washington “could no longer act as the prosecutor, the judge and the executioner in every part of the world.” Lavrov added: despite Western sanctions, Russia did not feel isolated. On the U.S.-led air campaign in Syria against ISIS, he accused Washington of a “double standard for refusing to cooperate with the regime.”33 It is probable that Lavrov signaled that Russia wanted a gradual resumption of dialogue with the U.S. Yet, his remarks showed that the era of American pre-eminence had ended ushering in a multipolar international system that could be tense and less orderly. What was also becoming apparent was the collapse of the region’s old order too, which had existed unchanged since the end of World War I.
The U.S. had gone into battle in Iraq and Syria. On 24 September 2014, the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2178 on stemming the flow of foreign jihadists to Iraq and Syria.34 After talks between Kerry and Lavrov on 26 September, U.S.-led coalition, that expanded by Belgium, Denmark and Britain, hit the ISIS’s infrastructure in Syria. Damascus welcomed the U.S.-led airstrikes, because on the sidelines of an international conference on Iraq, in Paris, that took place on 15 September, Kerry conveyed a message to Lavrov that regime officials and the military would not be targeted.35 Russia could gain from the U.S-led airstrikes against ISIS that had been joined by Chechen fighters from the north Caucasus.
It is plausible to argue that Washington was moving closer to Russia’s position on the Syrian conflict. Rossiiskaya gazeta wrote that “Russia and the U.S. agreed to exchange intelligence on the actions of extremists.” After a three hour meeting in Paris on 14 October between Kerry and Lavrov, it became clear that Russia was helping the Iraqi forces “by providing arms and training.”36 Cooperation between Moscow and Washington was important to address global security issues, including terrorism. Both Russian news agencies, RIA Novosti and Tass, quoted Dmitri Medvedev as saying that Washington was already not insisting that al-Assad stepped down.
Knowing well the ME’s “treacherous divides,” Russia “transformed itself into a paragon of pragmatism.”37 Despite acknowledging their differences over the Syrian conflict, Putin and the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, agreed in their meeting in Ankara on 1 December to fight ISIS. Both leaders “managed to compartmentalize their relations.”38 That was down to realpolitik. The issue of energy was on top of their agenda. Turkey was Russia’s second-largest European importer of natural gas after Germany, and its importance as customer grew further given the political tensions with the EU and the U.S. over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Putin and Erdogan signed a protocol on energy cooperation and hoped that both countries could “reach $100 billion in annual bilateral trade by 2020.”39 Traditionally, Russia kept its economic, political and military relations in the region. Russia’s foreign policy aimed to meet with all sides to assert Moscow’s position in the ME.
In this article we examined and analyzed the regional and international dimensions of the Syrian conflict and the postures of the external actors who took sides with the regime and the opposition. The war in Syria became a proxy war between the supporters of the opposition and the Syrian regime backed by Russia and Iran. We also argued that Russia’s diplomatic and military support to the regime were associated with Moscow’s strategic vision in the ME. Through Syria, Russia would reassert its role and position in the ME and FSS and protect its national interests.
Although fighting terrorism and preventing the foreign fighters, who joined ISIS, to return to their home countries was a common policy goal between Russia and the U.S., both powers disagreed over the solution in Syria. Russian foreign policy was against regime change by force and military intervention outside the UNSC authorization. Fighting terrorism and safeguarding the principle of national sovereignty remained constants in Russian foreign policy.
At the regional level, we also pinpointed that a regional balance required new global security architecture between the U.S. and Russia. In addition, in a changing world order, the Kremlin believed that it possessed the right and duty to play a role in determining the outcome of the Syrian conflict that affected the peace and security of the international system as a whole. With a greater say on global security issues, Russia would be able to protect its national interests.
- Samir Altaqi and Esam Aziz, “Putin’s Game Plan in the Middle East,” Middle East Briefing 130, no. III (9 June 2016): 2
- Andrey Makarychev, Russia and the EU in a Multipolar World; Discourses, Identities, Norms (Stuttgart: Ididem-Verlag, 2014), 187.
- Christopher Phillips, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016), 92.
- Quoted in “Russia, Iran Diverge on Assad Stance,” The Daily Star, 4 November 2015, 1.
- Quoted in David Ignatius, “As the Assad Ship Sinks, Washington Changes Gears,” The Daily Star, 21 July, 2011, 7.
- Joseph Logan, “Saudi Arabia’s Calculated Risk on Syria Poses a Major Blow to Iran,” The Daily Star, 10 August 2011, 6.
- See, As-Safir, 10 August 2011, 1 and 17.
- Joost Hiltermann, “Russia a Reluctant Driver in the Syria War,” International Crisis Group, 26 February 2018, 1.
- Phillips, The Battle for Syria, 31.
- David Ignatius, “In Syria, the U.S. can Pursue Interests and Values,” The Daily Star, 20 August 2011, 7.
- See, Nicholas Blanford, “Russia Banks in Assad’s Survival as Billions in Arms Deals Hang in Balance,” The Daily Star, 21 September 2011, 9.
- See, “West Seeks World Coalition on Syria,” The Daily Star, 6 February 2012, 1.
- UNSC Draft Resolution on Syria that Threatened Sanctions (SC/10714), at its 6810th Meeting, 19 July 2012. Posted at, https://www.un.org/press/en/2012/sc10714.doc.htm.
- Dmitri Trenin, “For Russia, Syria is not about Syria,” The Daily Star, 3 July, 2012, 7.
- Commentary, “Russia and Syria,” Financial Times, 17 December 2012, 8.
- Alexander Sergunin, Explaining Russian Foreign Policy Behavior, Theory and Practice (Stuttgart: Ibidem-Verlag, 2016), 99.
- Vladimir V. Putin, “A Plea for Caution from Russia,” The New York Times, 11 September 2013.
- Quoted in Michael Glackin, “The West May Pay for its Inaction in Syria,” The Daily Star, 17 January 2014, 7.
- See As-Safir, 23 January 2014, 10.
- See “Obama West Point Speech in full with Analysis,” 29 May 2014. Posted at, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-27606537, accessed 21 February 2019.
- Quoted in Marlin Dick, “U.S. Mulls War on Syria Terror Approach,” The Daily Star, 6 June 2014, 8.
- Daniel Byman, “Beyond Counterterrorism, Washington Needs a Real Middle East Policy,” Foreign Affairs 94, no. 6 (November/December 2015): 12.
- See, “Syrian Rebels can Play a Role in Iraq: Kerry,” The Daily Star, 28-29 June 2014, 1.
- UN Security Council Resolution 2170, S/RES/2170, 15 August 2014.
- See, “Syria Offers to Help Fight ISIS but Warns Against Unilateral Air Strikes,” The Guardian, 26 August 2014.
- “Report from NATO Summit in Newport, Wales, 4-5 September 2014.” Posted at, http://www.no-to-nato.org/2014/09/16/report-from-nato-summit-in-newport-wales-4-5-sept-2014, accessed 23 February 2019.
- “Report from NATO Summit.”
- Helene Cooper, “Obama Enlists 9 Allies to Help in the Battle Against ISIS,” The New York Times, 5 September 2014.
- “Arabs Vow all Needed Measures Against ISIS,” 8 September 2014. Posted at, http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2014/09/07/Arab-League-moves-against-ISIS.html, accessed 23 February 2019.
- See, “Kerry Enlists Saudi King in War of Ideas Against ISIS,” 11 September 2014. Posted at, http://time.com/3379004/kerry-isis-saudi, accessed 25 February 2019.
- David B. Ottaway, “A New Chapter in the Tangled U.S.-Saudi Relationship,” Viewpoints, no. 62, Wilson Center Middle East Program, September 2014.
- Joseph S. Nye, “Devise a Strategy in Order to Manage Russia’s Likely Decline,” The Daily Star, 10 September 2014, P. 7.
- Quoted in Gabriela Baczynska, “Lavrov: Ties with Washington Need Reset 2.0,” The Daily Star, 29 September 2014, 11.
- UN Security Council Resolution 2178, S/RES/2178, 24 September 2014.
- Lasley Wroughton and Matt Spetalnick, “Russian Suspicions of U.S. Motives in Syria,” The Daily Star, 29 September 2014, 9.
- Joana Paraszczuk, “Hints Emerge that Fight Against IS Moving U.S., Russia Closer on Syria,” RFE/RL Russia Report, 15 October 2014, 1.
- Dmitri Trenin, What is Russia up to in the Middle East (Cambridge, Polity Press: 2018), 111-12.
- Ishaan Tharoor, “How Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan were Made for Each Other,” The Washington Post, 2 December 2014.
- Tharoor, “How Russia’s Putin”, 2 December 2014.