The Strategy Behind Russia’s Moves in Syria
When the Russian bombing campaign started in Syria last fall, one could assume that Moscow's actions would begin to reveal more about the country’s foreign policy. This assumption is proving to be correct now, after President Putin announced the withdrawal of Russia's main forces. Moscow’s actions in Syria over the last half year have clarified both the guidelines of Russian foreign policy and how they help in dealing with very complicated problems of the Middle East.
First, why did the Russian operation in Syria start? Answers abound, but there is a basic one: Russia started the operation in response to the official Syrian request. Again, one can argue about reasons for Russia’s actions, but Moscow followed the procedures of international and domestic law. It was logical, then, that the pullout announcement was followed by the news of President Assad thanking Russia for its support. Much has been written on how the principles of the Westphalian system have become increasingly irrelevant, and how states as major actors of international relations have significantly lost their relevance. But, in the Syrian conflict, as throughout the Middle East, states continue to be the dominating players. Russia's actions have shown that it is effective to deal with states according to the international law, rather than via slogans in editorial pages.
Second, Moscow proved that military power is far from obsolete in foreign affairs. The proponents of soft power and public diplomacy can argue their cases, but an effective military is essential for a power willing and able to have its say in world politics. President Obama famously said that Russia is a regional power, omitting to name the region where Russia acts. A significant stretch of imagination is needed to consider Russia a Middle Eastern regional power, but still, the Kremlin is able to meaningfully project its military power there. One can doubt that Russia reached all of its goals, but it is difficult to dispute that the Russian operation provided the circumstances for the current ceasefire. Is Russia then a multi-regional power?
Third, Russia's actions provide evidence that national interests matter, that the country can act based not on optimistic dreams of a better world with global consent and no conflicts, but rather on what is deemed necessary for a country within an intense international scramble. Again, one can argue that Russia is mistaken, but experts and diplomats in Moscow will easily provide a list of instances when Western “partners” (as President Putin often calls them) showed divergence in their own interests with Russia. Between political and ideological grandstanding and national interests, Russia has chosen the latter. When the Kremlin found it necessary, Russia stood by its ally Assad. However, when Moscow decided that enough support had been provided, it stopped the operation. The situation has changed and the interests have changed accordingly.
These three cornerstones (a state and international law centered view of international relations, a capacity to project military power and a consideration of national interests) are essential to Russia's strategy in the Middle East. What, then, is the environment for this strategy? Namely, what are the strategies of other major actors?
It is not accidental that the cessation of hostilities was decided with the participation of Russia and the United States and that it was President Putin who called President Obama to inform him about the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria. The United States continues to be a very significant, arguably dominating actor in the Middle East. But what is Washington’s strategy? This question is still waiting to be answered. The Republican criticism of Obama’s foreign policy is understandable, but the U.S. actions in Syria puzzle both America’s mostly liberal media and some of its European allies. Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria American rhetoric has been sympathetic to anti-Assad forces. But why did America not support these forces thoroughly before Russia’s involvement?
One can suppose that the examples of Iraq and Libya, where Washington toppled secular dictators only to encounter new and more serious security problems have been noted. However, it is still unclear what the American position is in Syria. Both Washington and Moscow were vital for the talks, which resulted in the cessation of hostilities in Syria. Obviously, Russia stands militarily and diplomatically by its ally Assad. But who are America’s allies in Syria? What happened with the previous American position that "Assad must go"? Washington's acknowledgement that the talks on Syria “would go nowhere unless you got Russia and Iran at the table” might be helpful to the immediate stabilization of the Middle East, but what is America's long-term game plan?
Without answering these questions it will be difficult for the United States to develop its policy in the Middle East. Other regional actors can see clear Russian moves, whether they like those actions or not. In many cases, the strategies of regional powers are also not too difficult to figure out, especially considering the fact that other powers are primarily interested in increasing their influence, improving strategic positions against opponents and curbing security threats. Against this background, lack of clarity in the American strategy in the region is not helpful either to the international standing of the United States or to the stability of international relations in general.
Meanwhile, the clarity of Moscow’s moves, whether one can agree with them or not, has accelerated Russian interactions, if not cooperation, with the countries in the Middle East. Major regional actors are aware of Russian motives, interests, capabilities and goals and they can act accordingly.
The closeness of Russian and Iranian positions in Syria and other places is well known. However, for example, the Kurds were considered the chief American ally against ISIS. After the launch of Russia’s campaign, the relations of Syrian Kurds with Moscow have significantly improved, as both sides understand the other side’s motives and are ready to bargain and make deals. Russia’s support to Assad notwithstanding, Moscow continues to be a strong proponent of Kurdish participation in the Geneva talks.
It is possible to point to another result of Russia’s actions in the Middle East, one threatening American positions in the region even more significantly: Russia might prove to be a very good partner for Israel in developing its offshore natural gas fields. According to several experts and observers, a deepening Israeli partnership with Russia could substantially increase the security of Israeli natural gas production and transit facilities. If Hezbollah and Iran present a serious security threat to this infrastructure, Russia’s participation may go a long way in reducing this risk. For Russia, this partnership may significantly improve strategic standing on international gas markets, especially, in relations with the EU and Turkey.
Russia's clear-cut approach to goals and interests keeps many channels of international communication open. One can suppose that Saudi Arabia is very far from supporting either President Assad or Russia’s actions to help him, but President Putin and King Salman are discussing the situation in Syria. According to the Kremlin, the two countries can put aside their differences, while King Salman expressed his readiness to work together with Russia to implement the cease-fire plan. After withdrawal of its forces, Russia will cease to be a combatant in the war, which will help its diplomatic efforts further.
There is no doubt that the Middle East remains a turbulent and dangerous place. It is too early to declare the losers and the winners of the war in Syria. (The chances are high that, eventually, there will be no winners at all.) But Russia’s actions during the crises in Syria show both that the vigor and timing of these actions are effective and that the recipes of classical, realist diplomacy work in the twenty-first century. Announcing the withdrawal of Russian forces, President Putin has shown, again, that he still calls the shots.
Nikolay Pakhomov is a political analyst and consultant in New York City. He is a Russian International Affairs Council expert. You can follow him on Twitter @nik_pakhomov.