Putin’s Syria intervention saved Assad. But is he ready for what comes next? If Russia wants to play the great-powers game, it has to face the consequences that come with it, writes Alina Polyakova. This piece originally appeared in The Atlantic.
In December, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed victory over the Islamic State in Syria. This, of course, was the objective the Kremlin announced in 2015, when Russia first intervened in the country. Yet from the outset, the Russian air campaign primarily hit non-ISIS targets. It soon became clear that Putin’s chief goal was to ensure the future of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator. With Russian military backing, Assad, whose demise was once the ostensible focus of U.S. policy in Syria, has secured his regime’s survival and taken back swathes of territory previously held by U.S.-backed rebels.
Earlier this month, Russian mercenaries and pro-regime forces attacked a well-known base housing U.S.-backed forces near the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzour. The United States swiftly launched an airstrike, killing hundreds of Russians, according to independent reports. The initial attack, carried out by Russian-contracted fighters, seemed to be an attempt to either test the United States or intimidate it into pulling out its remaining forces. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis called Russia’s move on the base “perplexing.”
While the full details of the attack remain unclear, there’s nothing perplexing about Putin’s desired endgame in Syria. Putin’s true geopolitical victory has been the successful undermining of U.S. interests in the Middle East, while establishing Russia as a major power broker across the region.
Fighting ISIS has never been Russia’s primary concern in Syria. Moscow made this crystal clear in 2016 with its brutal assault on Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city and industrial center. The Russia-led aerial campaign deliberately targeted dense civilian areas, including hospitals, and U.S.-backed opposition forces. (Russian officials predictably denied any wrongdoing.) At the time, Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, called Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of Aleppo, which killed thousands, “our generation’s shame.” During the months-long assault, Russia blocked two UN security council resolutions on Syria and broke multiple ceasefires.
As the onslaught on eastern Ghouta continues, Assad, whose ousting once formed the bedrock of Barack Obama’s policy in Syria, has tightened his grip. For Moscow, preserving Assad’s rule was always less about Assad, and more about safeguarding what Putin saw as another domino in a series of U.S.-orchestrated revolutions in Russia’s backyard. The fall of the Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi disturbed Putin. According to multiple reports, he was obsessed with the gruesome video of Qaddafi’s murder and blamed the United States—in particular, then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. For Putin, the U.S.-led intervention in Libya was a “case study in Western interventionism,” as The New Yorker put it: a policy of regime change draped in the rhetoric of support for human rights.
In the summer of 2011, Putin watched as the Arab Spring reached Syria, embroiling the country in a civil war. As he was prime minister at the time, his ability to act unilaterally was limited. By 2013, when popular protests broke out in Ukraine—a former Soviet state that many Russians considered to be a little brother—Putin, once again the president, could not sit by and allow what he saw as another U.S.-led coup to topple a regime loyal to the Kremlin.
The underwhelming U.S. response to Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine emboldened Russia’s intervention in Syria. From Ukraine, Putin learned that the Obama administration would only go so far to support its allies. He saw that hybrid war, which emphasizes the use of asymmetric measures to buttress complementary military operations, was a useful tool for confusing the West while preserving maximum plausible deniability of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and elsewhere. This strategy includes the use of proxy fighters, unmarked soldiers (so-called little green men), and disinformation to deflect and distract from the reality on the ground. It should come as no surprise, then, that Moscow has tried to cover up Russian deaths in Syria while Putin purports to act as a mediator in the conflict.
Putin’s intervention in Syria, like most of his foreign-policy decisions, was a risky gamble, one that could have pitted Russian and U.S. forces against each other. But the gamble paid off: From the Kremlin’s point of view, Russia’s relatively low-cost adventure has eliminated the threat of further regime change. More than that, it has placed Russia back in the game of great-power competition. It was Putin, not President Donald Trump, who called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to ask him not to escalate after the Israelis bombarded Syrian and Iranian targets in retaliation for an Iranian drone incursion. It was Putin who called Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to discuss his offensive against U.S.-backed Kurdish militias in northern Syria in January. And it was Russia, not the United States, that hosted the (unsuccessful) Syrian peace talks that same month.
As the war in Syria continues to rage after seven years, Russia may well stumble into the fog of war, as it seeks to navigate complex regional tensions. Indeed, it is difficult to see a clean Russian exit from Syria that doesn’t leave Assad vulnerable. But Putin has been reluctant to commit more Russian aid and military support to Assad, especially as Russia’s economy continues to stagnate. If old patterns hold, and once the remaining rebel enclaves are destroyed, Putin will likely seek an international plan for Syrian reconstruction.
If that happens, the international community should not allow itself to be duped: Responsibility for the destruction of Syria falls squarely on Putin’s shoulders. If Russia wants to play the great-powers game, it has to face the consequences that come with it.