Understanding Russia’s Involvement in Syria

By Yaakov Amidror

Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy

January 8, 2016

Russia's engagement in the Syrian Civil War is nothing new. Since the very beginning of the conflict, Russian experts have been present on the ground and advanced Russian weaponry, including SA-17 and SA-22 surface-to-air missiles, has been flowing into the country. Russia has also provided the Assad regime with light arms and ammunition. Without this support, Assad would already have fallen.

So what sparked even greater Russian involvement in Syria? Why did the Russians change their strategy, to include such major undertakings like deploying their air force and using submarine-launched cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea?

There are four factors.

The most important factor was Assad's dire situation. Russia has invested heavily in the regime and was deeply concerned that Assad would fall. With rebel forces in control of Idlib, they would have been well positioned to target the port city of Latakia, which is vital to the survival of the Assad regime.

If the rebels advanced southwest towards the Alawite heartland of Qardaha, Assad and his forces would have been forced to choose between defending Damascus or the Latakia-Tartus theater. Even if Assad chose the former, many of his troops would have disobeyed in order to defend their homes and families in the Alawite heartland. Such a development would have precipitated the collapse of the regime in Damascus 

This dire situation was likely the most important trigger for Russian action. Russia feared repeating the mistake it made in Libya, namely allowing the West to destroy the state, which in turn led to the loss of significant Russian assets and triggered a regional security catastrophe. Therefore, Russia's military efforts were not directed at the Islamic State (IS) specifically (at least not until IS downed the Russian civilian jet in Sinai), but rather towards all of the rebels threatening the viability of its Syrian client.

The second factor is Russia's fear of radical Islam proliferating in the wake of Assad's fall. At least 2,000 Russians are currently fighting for Islamist groups in Syria, which President Putin considers a major threat. As the downing of the Russian jet in Sinai and recent terror attacks in Paris show, Moscow's fears of Syria becoming the next hub of anti-Russian terrorism are not unfounded.

The third factor is the opportunity to prove Russia's loyalty to its allies. Putin wanted to demonstrate that Russia will not desert its allies in their time of need, and to highlight how this differs from U.S. behavior toward its own partners. As a result, the entire Middle East is comparing U.S. policy regarding Mubarak with Russian policy regarding Assad. Highlighting this contrast was very important for Putin.

The fourth factor is Russia's desire to show the world it is back as a superpower that can influence global events. Accordingly, Russia has sought to use Syria as a proving ground for its latest technological achievements. For example, there is no military logic in launching new long-range cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea when the targets are only 100 kilometers from Russian air forces in Syria. Furthermore, airpower would have been more effective than cruise missiles for attacking these targets. By displaying these new capabilities, it also saw an opportunity to improve deterrence against the West - especially since Russia views Western actions over the conflicts in Ukraine and elsewhere as a continuation of NATO's efforts during the Cold War.

After studying U.S. behavior in Syria, Iraq and the negotiations with Iran, Russia felt sufficiently emboldened to operate in Syria in collaboration with Iran, and to do so without coordinating with the United States. Indeed, these patterns of U.S. policy convinced Russia that the United States would do nothing significant to oppose any increased Russian involvement in Syria.

Russia will now try to take advantage of this situation by establishing itself more deeply in Syria. It will bolster its air forces, expand port installations at Tartus (and perhaps even enter Latakia), reactivate intelligence-gathering stations and deploy weapons systems to defend its troops. Russia is in Syria to stay, and will remain until and unless it is assured the regime - and with it, Russian interests - will survive. If necessary, it will not hesitate to sacrifice Assad in service of this goal. 

At the same time, Russia will not restrain Hezbollah, nor will it restrict Israel from carrying out pinpoint strikes against the organization, provided Israel does not endanger Russian forces. In spite of the recent downing of one of its fighter jets by Turkey, Russia can also be expected to increase its operations against rebel groups with ties to Turkey (some of whom also have ties to the United States). 

Russia's objectives are reflected in its negotiating position. It wants a resolution to the Syria conflict that grants legitimacy to the Assad regime (if not to Assad himself). However, this ignores the demographic disadvantage of Russia's ally on the ground, which in turn inhibits Russia from shifting the ultimate outcome of the war in its favor: before the Syrian refugee crisis, 12 percent of the population was Alawite, compared to 80 percent Sunni.

Despite this, President Putin is willing to invest great amounts of Russian power in Syria. His investments likely will benefit from the West's ongoing focus on IS at the expense of effective action against the Assad regime. Success for either side is far from guaranteed, but Syria's future - and with it the national security interests of the United States and its allies - currently depends on Russia to a very high degree.