Russia’s Syrian escalation

Friday 25/09/2015
What exactly does Russia want?

There are a number of different objectives behind the Russian escalation in Syria. Moscow is clearly more than happy for everyone to know that it is sending arms and “humanitarian assistance” to the Syrian regime and even deploying soldiers to the country, to confirm that it is playing a primary role, alongside Iran of course, to guarantee the survival of the Syrian regime.
There has long been a Russian desire to ensure the survival of the regime in Syria that is currently led by President Bashar Assad and which is closer to being an Iranian hostage than a sovereign government. Despite all this, questions remain: What exactly does Russia want? Does its backing for the Syrian regime necessarily mean that Assad must remain at the helm? Could Moscow accept the regime remaining but under the control of another party?
Could a senior Alawite military figure take over, particularly given that most are graduates of Russian military institutions? In that way one could say that even if Assad were to step down, nothing would change in Syria, at least from the Kremlin’s standpoint.
Russia’s stance on Syria is perplexing. This is either the result of Moscow simply not understanding Syria or an actual desire on the part of the Russians to see Syria become a theatre for constant and endless wars. If the latter is true, and it may well be, then there are a number of reasons for this intransigent stance. Moscow is glad to see foreign Islamists — Chechens, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen — die in Syria, so long as they are not actually able to secure a victory over the Assad regime. At a time when Russia is afraid of the spectre of Islamist extremism and terrorism in the Islamic republics closest to it, Moscow is more than happy to see Syria become a quagmire for these Islamist fighters.
Ultimately, Russia wants to be able to say that Syria, as we knew it, is over. While a desire to ensure that Syrian territory will never be used to transport gas from the Gulf to Europe might also be a consideration.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Russia wants to confirm that it remains a major player in the Middle East, regardless of Assad’s eventual fate.
In any case, it is clear from Syrian-Russian relations throughout history that Moscow has no compunction with using Syria and its regime to sabotage the region.
In fact, the modern Russian Federation, and before that the Soviet Union, has done everything in its power to incite chaos in the Middle East. The Kremlin’s de facto strategy in the region has always been to weaken Arab states. That was true in the Soviet era, and it is true today.
While in the past, the Soviet Union pursued this policy to strengthen its position in the region. Today, Moscow is doing this to revitalise its flagging presence in the Middle East, seeking to portray itself as a vital partner in the war against terror and particularly the Islamic State (ISIS). In the past, the Soviet Union’s policy in the Middle East was absurd. Russia’s policy in the Middle East today is similarly absurd. This has not changed.
For Moscow, the Arabs are nothing more than a tool that can be used to serve its own interests. So a fragmented Syria will prevent Gulf gas from being transported to Europe. A divided Syria and its never-ending wars will be a sink for Islamist fighters, keeping them out of Russia. A war-torn and ruined Syria will allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to show that he is the leader able to return Russia to its global role.