Three Misconceptions About Russia’s Role in the Syrian Civil War

The absence of consistent policy goals has led to Western literature that fails to understand Russia’s goals with intervention in Syria.

The United States has lacked a clear strategy in the Syrian Civil War across three presidential administrations. Obama’s legacy in Syria is marked by a lack of engagement following his campaign promises of ending United States involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. The failure of NATO removal of Muammar Gaddafi to stabilize Libya contributed to skepticism over what direct military involvement could achieve in the North Africa and Middle East region. Trump’s foreign policy is Syria was characterized as erratic and ambiguous. For some time this was used as strategic ambiguity, as Frances Z. Brown explains in Foreign Affairs, “Intentional or not, lack of a coherent policy allowed the president to claim he was taking the fight to the Islamic State (ISIS) one day while promising to withdraw the United States from perpetual wars the next.” This policy then turned into a liability with “diminished U.S. leverage, a weakened counterterrorism campaign, frayed U.S. partnerships, and enormous human suffering.”

Biden has yet to counter political ambiguity with his only action in Syria being an airstrike against an Iranian-backed militia as a response to an attack in Iraq. His administration may define their Syrian strategy in July when the U.N.’s use of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing will be reviewed. According to Michael R. Gordon and Jessica Donati of The Wall Street Journal, Moscow is prepared to block the extension of the U.N. use of the border crossing.

This absence of consistent policy goals has led to Western literature that fails to understand Russia’s goals with intervention in Syria. With Russia being perhaps the most important actor in the conflict, an accurate understanding of the primary drivers behind Russian involvement could lead to a more comprehensive American approach. One that delineates between real incompatibility of US-Russia goals and areas of security convergence.

Russia is using Syria to achieve its superpower ambitions

A New York Times article from 2016 frames Russia’s goal in the Syrian conflict as an ambition to achieve superpower status with the headline: “In Syrian War, Russia Has Yet to Fulfill Superpower Ambitions.” This narrative choice misrepresents the ‘great power’ ambition of Russia. This ambition is not imperial in nature but rather a response to Russia’s “perceived exclusion from the post-Cold War European security order.” Angela Stent outlines the reality of Russia’s actions in the Middle East – a reality that the West has been slow to grasp. This lack of understanding is reflected in the West refusing to account for Russia as a global actor. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West has failed to create a security structure that does not threaten Russia. The enlargement of NATO poses the greatest perceived threat to Moscow. Russia’s role in Syria is not an opportunistic attempt to be a regional hegemon, but rather a crisis in the US-led world order.

Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria was a response to the NATO deposition of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. This action indicated to Russia that the United States was able and willing to act in a unilateral matter when it came to regime change. Military intervention in Syria sought to prevent this from happening again. The other external factor as Ekaterina Stepanova explains in “Russia and Conflicts in the Middle East: Regionalisation and Implications for the West” is, “t o use the Syria card to force the United States to talk to Russia again on security matters of mutual concern (such as anti-terrorism), following the 2014 breakup with the West over the crisis in Ukraine.”

Russia starves civilians on behalf of the Assad regime

Western media presents Moscow’s relationship with Bashar al-Assad as a polarity. On one side is a Russia that’s willing to starve millions of Syria on behalf of the regime, according to Josh Rogin for The Washington Post and Charles Lister and Jeffrey Feltman for Politico. The claim is that by vetoing a U.N. Security Council Resolution that sought to renew international authorization for cross-border routes in Syria, Russia is attempting to weaponize humanitarian aid as a method to assist the Assad regime in slaughtering “its way to victory on the ground in Syria.” Not only was Russia condemned for this by an onslaught of op-eds, but its actions were characterized as acting with China as a bloc. Neil MacFarquhar of The New York Times claims, “China and Russia are also increasingly allied in shutting down what they see as Western efforts to use sanctions and other economic measure to put the United Nations seal of approval on Western-friendly regime change.” This conflation of Russian and Chinese actions obscures assessments of Russia as a rational actor rather than a rogue state.

The official Russian position on vetoing this resolution was due to the West “linking the allocation of funds for the reconstruction in Syria with the so-called political transition.” The statement continues, “We firmly reject any attempts to politicize the humanitarian aspects of the Syrian conflict. Humanitarian assistance should only be provided in line with the UN guiding principles. We advocate rendering assistance to the reconstruction of the liberated areas and support the lifting of unilateral sanctions against Syria.” In this context, Russia is driven not by a desire to starve civilians but rather an attempt to preserve their own peace process initiative – the Astana format. A peace process that emerged out of the lack of progress made in the Geneva peace talks on Syria. The West attaching political preconditions to aid hinders this process.

Russia has turned against Assad

The other side of the polarity of Russia-Syria relations is one where Moscow is turning against Assad. Since the beginning of Russian intervention, the West has reported that Assad is going. This line has been continuously repeated, but does Russia really have the intention to remove the leader now?

Mark N. Katz writing for the Atlantic Council attempts to answer the question “Has Moscow really turned against Assad?” The critical Russian articles of Assad reflect not a desire to replace him but rather “a concerted Russian effort to get the Assad regime to change its ways.” The intransigent regime has impeded efforts that would enable Syrian reconstruction. Moscow alone cannot provide the funds to rebuild Syria and must entice partners in the West and the Gulf to invest, which can only occur if Assad is willing to share power. While Russia may be frustrated by Assad’s lack of willingness to do so, there is no clear replacement, and the corrupt elements of his regime may still remain in place even after his removal. As of now, Moscow is simply sending a message “that unless Assad embraces reform to some degree, he may make it too difficult to Putin to continue propping him up successfully.”

Katrina Kalamar is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC)