What Does Russia Really Want in Syria?

By demonstrating boldness, Moscow is forcing the rest of the Middle East to act decisively.

International analysis of Russia’s military action in Syria has been mostly focused on the main goals of the campaign. Reporters, politicians, experts and pundits have argued whether Russia is trying to rescue Assad or whether it is fighting ISIS and other terror groups in the area. These debates are often politically significant, but tend to be quite divisive and do not contribute much to understanding the background, broader context or consequences of the Russian operation. It seems that there could be a more promising analytical approach. Experts can spend years studying doctrines of foreign policy and speeches of decision makers, yet remain unable to decipher how the country in question would act in various circumstances. In this regard, Russia’s actions towards Syrian crisis speak volumes, providing significant amount of food for thought for those trying to understand Russian foreign policy.

Whether one thinks that Russia is rescuing Assad, which tends to be the Western perception, or fighting ISIS, several things are very difficult to argue with.

First of all, Syria is considered Russia’s ally in the Middle East: President Assad asked Moscow for help, and Russia has stood by its ally in very difficult circumstances. American pundits and politicians, especially Republicans, during the last month have often mentioned that the Russian military campaign represents Moscow’s return to the Middle East. According to these statements, Moscow has been absent in the area since Anwar Sadat switched Egypt’s loyalty from the Soviet Union to the United States. It is far from the truth.

Further, we must look at the current state of Russia’s relationships in the Middle East. Russia is not returning to the Middle East: Syria was a Soviet ally during the Cold War and so it was very logical for Bashar al-Assad to ask for Russia’s help.

Many observers have argued that the Russian military operation in Syria is a bold challenge to the United States in the region. In this regard, Russia’s decision to stand with its ally is especially important. Obama’s administration abandoned Mubarak, a long-time American ally, yet the Kremlin, in even more complicated circumstances, is helping Assad. This situation gives regional leaders something to think about.

Second, military involvement in Syria is a very serious test for Russia’s ties in the region. Middle Eastern affairs are in a state of constant flux, and grow even more so every year. It is very difficult in this situation to pretend that there are sustainable alliances or long-time friends that an outside power can rely on in the Middle East. To form the coalitions necessary for varied goals and changing crises, one of the most important things for an outside power is the breadth its connections in the region. It is hard not to notice that despite various amounts of criticism and concerns from regional capitals regarding Russia’s operation, Moscow is talking to almost all of them. During the last month, Russia held channels of communication wide open with Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Russia’s position on Syria is very close to that of Iran. Iraqi officials also demonstrated a strong interest to cooperate with Russia in fighting with ISIS. One cannot be wrong to suggest that some of these talks are difficult, but their continuation significantly strengthens Russia’s strategic stance in the region. Here we can again compare the Russian and American positions: for example, it is rather hard for Washington to deal with many issues in the region without talking to Tehran—yet the latter is difficult in terms of domestic U.S. politics.

The decision to intervene in Syria allows us to make several conclusions about Russian foreign policy beyond the Middle East. The most important of them is that Moscow is not afraid of making bold decisions. One may argue that the decision to intervene in Syria was too risky, but in the current age of global public scrutiny, information overload and universal political procrastination, in the fast-changing and perplexing environment of the Middle East the Kremlin made a bold choice for action. The jury is still out on what Moscow is trying to achieve and how its decision to intervene in Syria will be executed, but the strategic courage of Russian foreign policy is beyond doubt. And by demonstrating this kind of boldness Moscow, whatever its goals, forces other players in the Middle East to react—whether or not they are ready. Even some American pundits have noticed that Obama’s decision to send fifty U.S. special forces to Syria could be considered a response to Russia’s actions.