What is Putin up to in Syria?

First let’s get one thing clear, Putin is not making a principled, humanitarian intervention against Islamic State.

Assad is Russia’s ally in the region. The major disagreement between Russia and the West is Assad’s place in the post-civil war Syria. Putin thinks it’s Damascus, the west thinks Assad belongs in The Hague. Failure by the west to intervene left a power Vacuum into which Putin waded with his military. This served a number of purposes.

  1. It put Vladimir Putin centre stage in negotiations which allows him to present himself as someone who’s made Russia a force once more in world affairs. Those handshakes with the American president are extremely important in the Russian Media.
  2. By deploying credible forces to the region Putin gains a seat at the table and earns a bargaining chip, potentially in return for the easing of Sanctions. This should be resisted.
  3. Helps secure Russia’s southern flank, itself vulnerable to Jihadists 
  4. It’s a show of military strength – a rapid expeditionary deployment of forces at short notice. In doing so he’s made a virtue of necessity: you cannot hide such a deployment 70 miles from the British listening station on Cyprus, so use it to distract from the ongoing destabilisation of Ukraine and demonstrate capability.
  5. Finally, most refugees aren’t fleeing the theatrical murderers of Islamic State, but the desperate Assad regime, which is killing seven times as many Syrians as the “Caliphate”. The refugees are therefore fleeing a war which Assad is at present losing, and probably would have already lost by now were it not for Russian support. The resultant refugee crisis weakens the EU, another Putin bugbear, so he’s perfectly happy to prolong the Syrian slaughter.

The fact is Assad isn’t fighting IS all that much, but is instead losing ground to moderate rebel groups in the south, Jabat al Nusra (the official Al Qaeda franchise in the region)  and many others in the west. He’s even ceded some ground to Hezbollah, in return for their military support. The Kurds, Hezbollah and JAN Islamists are the main opposition to IS. Most Russian actions appear to be against non-IS rebels too. The main purpose is to support Assad.

The main function of bombing IS is for Putin to further play to his supporters in the west’s belief that “here is a man of action and a man of principle”. Assad’s regime is propped up. The refugees continue to split Europe, and western inaction exposed as weakness.

For the west’s part, there’s nothing that would solve many of our Foreign policy problems more than Russia getting sucked into an unwinnable war in the Middle East. By taking the best kit south, it would take pressure off Central Europe and Ukraine. It would cost Russia money it doesn’t have, weakening them in the long run.

It’s all breathtakingly cynical. We should not be persuaded by any of it. The Western powers had an opportunity to intervene in 2013 and earlier. Now it’s too late. The Russians have made their play, and we (and above all the Syrians) must live with the consequences. If you take “Iraq” as a cautionary tale of going to action, Syria is a cautionary tale against inaction. Of the two, Iraq was basically a draw, and Syria is a catastrophic cluster-fuck that’s strengthened one of the worst people in the world. Inaction appears to be worse.

9 replies
  1. Corvid
    Corvid says:

    Fair – but it is possible that the first part of Putin's strategy is to shore up Assad; once that is done, strikes against IS might actually have some effect. Russian bombs and Syrian boots on the ground would be workable; IS can't be defeated without troops being placed against them, as you need someone to hold any territory that IS are driven out of. Having Syrian troops do that removes the problem of what happens when the troops leave.

  2. Malcolm Bracken
    Malcolm Bracken says:

    Yes, Putin wants to defeat IS. It's just not his main reason to be there. Syria is huge failure of Western Foreign policy. But at the moment Putin's Bombing non AQ, Non-IS rebels, I.E. the people the West would rather like to win.

  3. John M
    John M says:

    Onw wonders how many of Obama's sanctions are also being quietly given up in exchange for Putin's "assistance"

    We have to face it – Putin has danced around the West on this one, and it's in his interests to stoke ISIS further to maintain his leverage. Suck it up, Barack…

  4. Alex K
    Alex K says:

    What's more interesting is Putin's maximum set of objectives. The minimum is apparently to prop up Assad and, possibly, help the Alawites hold on to coastal Syria and as much of the hinterland as possible, in anticipation of a de-facto partition. It's not all bad, since it would protect the Alawites from getting massacred by the rebels.

    But if opportunities present themselves, I suspect Moscow will not stop there. It might try to spread instability to parts of the Middle East where it would matter, that is, it would affect the oil price. Consider Saudi Arabia with a succession tussle looming and a Shi'a minority next to the oilfields. Iran has not been that good at helping the Shi'a so perhaps Russia will exploit that.

  5. Seo Sea
    Seo Sea says:

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  6. Cuffleyburgers
    Cuffleyburgers says:

    Sorry Jackart, but I don't agree with your position that the West should have intervened in Syria.

    Unpleasant as these dictators and local civil wars are, Western military intervention has not to date, made anywhere better. There is no reason to suppose it would have worked in Syria.

    Especially since it would inevitably have been half arsed, led by a US president more concerned about his image and his legacy than with any difficult question of principle, and by Cameron, an apparently decent enough fellow but not burdened by any great intellectual baggage and certainly incapable of independent opinions or action on anything important.

  7. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    There has to be a greater long term plan. Intervention can work, but only if it is long term. Everything would look different today if UK and US forces had stayed in Iraq and intervened earlier in Syria. You can't just go in, kick asses and turn around and leave. As an American I can tell you our current President is "completely" out of his depth as an actor on the world stage.

  8. perdix
    perdix says:

    It's difficult for liberal democracies to counter people like Putin. We should take as an example the strong posture of the Reagan/Thatcher years and let the Putins of this world implode on account of their inherent contradictions.


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