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Bolstering Russia’s Military Interaction with Syria: Necessities and Considerations

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Alireza Noori
Ph.D. Candidate, Saint Petersburg State University & Expert on Russian Affairs

Although there is nothing new about Russia’s military assistance to Syria, raising the level of this assistance under present circumstances has elicited a host of reactions and sensitivities, and some people have even described it as a measure, which can turn Moscow from “part of the solution” to Syria’s problem to “part of the problem.” In the meantime, the Kremlin has confirmed its decision to transfer new military equipment and trainers to Syria though it is “very unlikely” that Moscow would conduct real military operations on the ground in the Arab country. Basically, bolstering Moscow’s military interaction with Damascus takes place in line with the Kremlin’s unwavering policy of recent years to support the Syrian government, and is also a result of the necessities that stem from Syria’s special importance for Russia. This issue has caused Moscow to take the “risk” of bolstering Damascus’ military stamina while being aware of regional and international sensitivities that such a measure may cause.

The first aspect of this importance is to preserve the sole “geopolitical positioning point” of Russia in the Middle East and along the shores of the Mediterranean. Apart from Syria, Russia has no secure geopolitical foothold in any other regional country, and in view of changing conditions in the region, Moscow is trying to remind the world of the importance of this issue by boosting military assistance to Damascus. By preserving this position, Russia is trying to prevent geopolitical balance in the region to tilt in favor of the West. Therefore, Syria plays a very important role as the country hosting the sole “geopolitical positioning point” of Russia in the region and as a major balancing weight in geopolitical equations between Moscow and the West, and this is why the Kremlin is ready to incur “high-risk costs” in order to preserve this point.

On the other hand, Russia pursues direct resistance against the West in Syria as part of its strategy for opposing the West’s aggressive expansionist approach in international arena. By doing this, Moscow is showing that it is opposed to the Western idea of “dominating everything even by force,” and does not accept the West’s destabilizing expansionism. From the viewpoint of leaders in the Kremlin, if Russia “backed down” in such arena as Syria, the West would not suffice to that, but would adopt an even “more aggressive” approach and Moscow would be forced to give concessions in other arenas as well. This is why Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has noted that the reason for increasing military assistance to Syria is to prevent repetition of the “Libya scenario,” which in fact is an effort to block further advance of the West’s hegemonic ambitions.

Due to this reason, Moscow does not believe that its “innovative resistance” in Syria is totally a “cost,” and even by increasing military assistance to the Arab country it is trying to not only maintain the value of the “Syria trump card” in the face of the West’s various games in Syria, across the region, and with regard to other issues, but also increase the value of this card. Under these circumstances, the West and its regional allies cannot ignore Russia’s “role” when designing new plots in these spheres and will have to incur a “cost” and give more “concessions” in order to defuse attempts made by this actor or enter into a deal with it.

It goes without saying that the most important reason that has prompted Damascus to turn to Moscow is “lack of choice” and “bottlenecks” that this country is facing for dealing with domestic and foreign threats. Syria has done its best to prove itself as a stable host for the sole “geopolitical positioning point” of Russia in the Middle East and along the shores of the Mediterranean in order to avail itself of Russia’s political and military support. It seems that this deal has been so far profitable for both sides. Under present circumstances, Damascus by emphasizing its willingness to host this point, on the one side, and Moscow by continuing its military assistance to Damascus, on the other side, are assuring themselves as well as regional and international actors that they are still committed to this “deal” and consider it as mutually beneficial.

In the meantime, ISIS terrorist group has been playing a role as a secondary factor, which has prompted Moscow to boost its military assistance to Damascus in order to tackle this group in a more effective manner. Moscow has frequently declared its concern about further strengthening of ISIS and possible spread of its asymmetrical measures into the Russian soil while, at the same time, emphasizing inefficiency of the Western anti-ISIS coalition and introducing the Syrian army as the most effective force to fight this group. Therefore, although the main reason for military interactions between Russia and Syria should be sought among geopolitical goals pursued by Moscow, weakening ISIS and reducing the risk of the spread of its threat to Russian territory can be also considered as secondary goals of these interactions.

Under these conditions, although some people believe that the measure taken by Moscow is a “mistake,” and US President Barack Obama has also opined that it is “doomed to failure,” it seems that Kremlin believes through its own calculations that bolstering military cooperation with Syria, including by sending more arms to the Arab country – and not through military operations on the ground – would entail more “advantages” than “disadvantages” under “present conditions.” However, given the ever-changing conditions in Syria and across the region, Moscow will not give up caution when expanding military cooperation with Syria and also when assessing objective outcomes of this cooperation. Current trends attest to domination of a pragmatic approach in Russia’s policy in the Middle East and in Syria, which means that this country may change its tactics as a function of change in other variables.

Within framework of its “conservative pragmatism,” and despite theoretical and practical differences with the West and its regional allies on Syria, Moscow has always tried to avoid further escalation of the existing situation and has kept the door open to cooperation through topical differentiation among various issues. Kremlin is well aware of the risks that uncalculated development of military cooperation with Syria, especially when it comes to field operations, will have for its troops, which will be viewed with high sensitivity not only by the Syrian opposition, but also by the West and regional countries. Moscow knows that due to complicated relations that it has with regional countries and the West, any uncalculated measure can cause Moscow suffer unnecessary costs not only in Syria, but also in other places.

Therefore, the scope of military interactions between Moscow and Damascus should not be unduly overstated and change in these interactions is quite possible as a function of change in other variables. As a result, despite speculations about possible military operations by Russia in Syria, it is “very unlikely” that Moscow would put this option on its agenda. This is true because under the existing conditions, Russia can move toward realization of its goals by continuing and increasing military assistance to the government in Damascus, taking into account that there is basically no need for Russian military personnel to engage in operations on the ground in Syria.

Key Words: Russia, Military Interaction, Syria, Conservative Pragmatism, Middle East, ISIS, Syrian Opposition, West, Anti-ISIS Coalition, Barack Obama, Aggressive Expansionist Approach, Geopolitical Positioning Point, Noori

More by Alireza Noori:

*Iran's Nuclear Deal, a “Desirable” Option for Russia: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Iran-s-Comprehensive-Nuclear-Agreement-a-Desirable-Option-for-Russia.htm

*Iran-Russia “Cautiously” Interacting within SCO: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Iran-Russia-Cautiously-Interacting-within-SCO.htm

*Changes in Russia-Saudi Relations Nothing More than Tactical Maneuvering: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Changes-in-Russia-Saudi-Relations-Nothing-More-than-Tactical-Maneuvering.htm

*Photo Credit: Aljazeera, World Bulletin

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