Following Russia’s rotation into the monthly presidency position at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) on September 1st, where Russia’s main stated goal is to counter international terrorism, President Vladimir Putin has announced that Russia has indeed been involved militarily in the Syrian Civil War.
President Putin was careful to say that direct military intervention has not yet happened — going so far as to call it “premature” — but rather he confirmed what many knew already: Russia has been supplying arms and helping train pro-Assad soldiers. “Moscow and Damascus have certain military contracts and they are being fulfilled,” RIA Novosti and Russia Today quoted him as saying. He then directed the focus to Russia being “ready to contribute to internal dialogue in Syria” because, according to the Russian president, refugees are fleeing Syria because of ISIS and not because of Assad – a bit strange considering many Syrian refugees’ cite Assad and “the war” for their reason of fleeing their homeland.
For the past four and a half years, Russia has used its United Nations veto to support the Assad regime and has promoted diplomatic talks over military intervention to resolve the Syrian conflict. President Putin even had an article published in The New York Times in 2013 calling on Americans to understand the Russian position.
Now, as ISIS poses a direct threat to Russia and has targeted top Putin alliesand even Putin himself, Russia is taking necessary measures to thwart any more ISIS advances. This includes talking to and partnering with the United States, one of the main nations placing sanctions upon Russia, which has spiraled the Russian economy into a deep recession.
President Putin denounced US airstrikes in Syria in the press conference, calling the efficacy of them “poor” yet announced his desire for the creation of an anti-ISIS coalition, which would involve leaders from the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, amongst other willing states.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, also reiterated the importance of the Syrian army to combat the rebels and called again for Syria’s role to be strengthened internationally. “The international coalition against the terrorist organization ISIS will not be effective without Syria being part of it,” he said in a speech at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. “President Assad was elected by his people and is thus the completely legitimate president of Syria, regardless of the statements from the West.”
Can Putin maintain the Assad regime and therefore maintain the longstanding Russo-Syrian alliance — which has lost Russia credit in the eyes of certain Middle Eastern and Western nations within the past few years — while fighting ISIS alongside Middle Eastern and Western nations?
The Putin-Assad Tango
Russia’s alliance with Syria began in the 1950s Soviet era well before Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad were in power. The Communists in the Soviet Union and Syria found common ground in anti-Israeli, anti-American, and some anti-Arab sentiments, and maintained decently close throughout the latter half of the twenty-first century. As the decades passed on and leaders passed on, it wasn’t until 2005 that Syria and Russia truly began to deepen the alliance – under both Putin and Assad. One step forward, two steps back, repeat.
Numerous articles discuss theories that Putin is afraid of Assad losing power for a variety of reasons: Russia has interests in Syria, such as the exporting of arms and the Tartus naval base; the fear surrounding the Chechen-Russian conflict of the ‘90s and the almost-Yugoslavization of Russia; the failure of the USSR in 1991; the US failure of pulling out of Afghanistan in 2014, following the ongoing war that resulted after 9/11; and the general sense that if Assad can lose power after an uprising, so could Putin just as easily.
However, Syria is not Russia’s primary arms importer. That’s been India for years now. The Tartus naval base theory is interesting but the Cyprus port deal gave Russia an alternative naval base in the region. There could be “fear” still lingering in Putin after the fall of the USSR and the memories of the Chechen Wars and the US Invasion of Afghanistan, but Putin brought Russia out of the rubble of the Yeltsin administration and into a whole new era of conservative, traditional nationalism, which is clearly working in his favour as his approval rating hovers around 89 per cent in Russia. Why would he fear the collapse of his presidency when he is so loved by Russians?
The real reason is as simple as this: Syria is more useful to Russia as an ally than an enemy, and right now, Russia needs all the allies it can maintain. By locking arms (in a sense both literally and metaphorically) with Assad, Putin is ensuring his own survival as well as that of his nation in a world that Russia believes is trying to eliminate Moscow from being a part of. If Putin can support the Assad regime, squash the rebels in Syria (including those in ISIS), Putin will come out on top and give this new, more hardened Russia more global credibility.
The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Europe
Syrian refugees are seeking asylum in Europe from the Syrian Civil War in mass numbers that far exceed the refugee situation during and post-World War II. Many are dying on the way to Europe, and if they do make it to Europe, certain European Union leaders are blocking their entrance into the countries they’d like to settle in. Russia is, of course, roped in to this as well. Some refugees are routing via Moscow and Saint Petersburg to get to Norway and other Scandinavian countries, others have chosen to stay within Russian borders. According to Russian news agency Interfax, 12,000 Syrian refugees are currently in Russia. President Putin say it was all “absolutely expected.”
This crisis puts Russia in a difficult position as it further demonstrates the weakness of the Assad regime and Assad’s inability to crack down on the rebels and maintain the people in his land, which is not a quality the current Russian government cares to endorse. It also conversely puts more pressure on Russian leaders to explain why Russia is still backing a failing dictator, especially at a moment when they are chairing the UNSC with a focus on fighting international terrorism.
As the Putin-Assad tango continues masking the more serious issues at hand (such as the chemical weapon usage by the Assad regime in the past), the world will have to predict the next steps in this complicated geopolitical dance. Indeed a deeper understanding of this choreography of power could eventually boost hopes for a more manageable solution to this conflict.
*This article was originally published on Conflict News.