The Strategy Behind Russia’s Moves in Syria

Moscow is beginning to withdraw forces from the war-torn country.

When the Russian bombing campaign started in Syria last fall, one could assume that Moscow's actions would begin to reveal more about the country’s foreign policy. This assumption is proving to be correct now, after President Putin announced the withdrawal of Russia's main forces. Moscow’s actions in Syria over the last half year have clarified both the guidelines of Russian foreign policy and how they help in dealing with very complicated problems of the Middle East.

First, why did the Russian operation in Syria start? Answers abound, but there is a basic one: Russia started the operation in response to the official Syrian request. Again, one can argue about reasons for Russia’s actions, but Moscow followed the procedures of international and domestic law. It was logical, then, that the pullout announcement was followed by the news of President Assad thanking Russia for its support. Much has been written on how the principles of the Westphalian system have become increasingly irrelevant, and how states as major actors of international relations have significantly lost their relevance. But, in the Syrian conflict, as throughout the Middle East, states continue to be the dominating players. Russia's actions have shown that it is effective to deal with states according to the international law, rather than via slogans in editorial pages.

Second, Moscow proved that military power is far from obsolete in foreign affairs. The proponents of soft power and public diplomacy can argue their cases, but an effective military is essential for a power willing and able to have its say in world politics. President Obama famously said that Russia is a regional power, omitting to name the region where Russia acts. A significant stretch of imagination is needed to consider Russia a Middle Eastern regional power, but still, the Kremlin is able to meaningfully project its military power there. One can doubt that Russia reached all of its goals, but it is difficult to dispute that the Russian operation provided the circumstances for the current ceasefire. Is Russia then a multi-regional power?

Third, Russia's actions provide evidence that national interests matter, that the country can act based not on optimistic dreams of a better world with global consent and no conflicts, but  rather on what is deemed necessary for a country within an intense international scramble. Again, one can argue that Russia is mistaken, but experts and diplomats in Moscow will easily provide a list of instances when Western “partners” (as President Putin often calls them) showed divergence in their own interests with Russia. Between political and ideological grandstanding and national interests, Russia has chosen the latter. When the Kremlin found it necessary, Russia stood by its ally Assad. However, when Moscow decided that enough support had been provided, it stopped the operation. The situation has changed and the interests have changed accordingly.

These three cornerstones (a state and international law centered view of international relations, a capacity to project military power and a consideration of national interests) are essential to Russia's strategy in the Middle East. What, then, is the environment for this strategy? Namely, what are the strategies of other major actors?

It is not accidental that the cessation of hostilities was decided with the participation of Russia and the United States and that it was President Putin who called President Obama to inform him about the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria. The United States continues to be a very significant, arguably dominating actor in the Middle East. But what is Washington’s strategy? This question is still waiting to be answered. The Republican criticism of Obama’s foreign policy is understandable, but the U.S. actions in Syria puzzle both America’s mostly liberal media and some of its European allies. Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria American rhetoric has been sympathetic to anti-Assad forces. But why did America not support these forces thoroughly before Russia’s involvement?