Tensions are high around Syria right now, and the conflict seems to grow shadier and more complicated every day. If not for Russia, a UN-backed force likely would have removed Assad from power years ago.
Why then, is Russia so invested in keeping a war criminal in power? The answer is as complicated as the rest of the Middle East, and it doesn’t condemn Russia as clearly as you might hope.
Russian-Syrian ties go back to the peak of the Cold War. In the 70s, Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, became the country’s ruler. He was combat trained in the Soviet Union where he flew MiGs, and that connection led him to seek Soviet support amidst all of the Cold War posturing.
In 1971, the countries signed a treaty that gave the Soviets control of a Syrian Mediterranean naval base in Tartus. It is controlled by Russia to this day. Ultimately, the Soviet Union saw Syria as a doorway into the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and it provided a second potential front to deter U.S. backed aggression out of Turkey.
Despite that close relationship, when the Berlin Wall fell, Russia’s influence and cooperation in Syria also dwindled. It wasn’t until Putin and Bashar Assad came into power in the early 2000s that things took a swing back towards today’s relationship.
When Putin took over Russia, he made it a clear goal to try to restore the might of the USSR. This is reflected in his annexation of Crimea and his general buildup of military assets. In line with that policy, he needed a better presence in the Middle East, and since the treaty with Syria was in tact, it represented an obvious target.
By and large, Putin backed Bashar Assad simply for the strategic benefit to Russia. This was legitimized when Assad agreed to expand Russia’s access to Tartus, thereby increasing the country’s influence in the region.
Putin’s reliance in Syria was increased during the Arab Spring. The surge of revolutions and uprisings overturned several governments, and Russia was heavily invested in Libya. They had supplied Gaddafi with stores of weapons and trainings, and they lost all of that investment when he was overthrown. Syria quickly became Russia’s last bastion in the Middle East, and Putin doubled down accordingly.
For all of the talk of Russian interventionism, there is some legitimacy behind their positions. Russia borders the Middle East, and that proximity puts them in much greater danger of terrorism than Western Europe or the United States. The turmoil in the Middle East is a very real threat to Russian security, and in that respect their desire to intervene is understandable.
To further support that truth, Putin has used Russian military to good effect against terrorists in the region. While there is no doubt he has exploited the situation to help Assad, Russia’s efforts against ISIS and Al Qaeda have contributed marginally to the success of campaigns against both groups.
This is a major part of why it is so difficult for Western powers to fully condemn Putin’s actions, and his successes against terrorism have acted as a bit of a political shield.
Boosting the Military
The last primary reason Putin continues to back Assad comes down to military gains. Outside of the strategic value of it all, the conflict is a chance for Russia’s military to get active and public combat time. This grants experience to troops and builds confidence. It also demonstrates on a global stage that Russia is a significant military power and serves to deter hostile actions against the country.
Perhaps most importantly, it lets the world see the power of Russian weapons. As one of the largest sellers of arms on the planet, Putin is absolutely exploiting the Syrian situation to show off items that countries like China and India may want to purchase.
The potential economic value of Russia’s support of Assad is hard to quantify, but there is no question that arm sales benefit from the displays.
The situation in Syria is beyond complicated, and it is why Trump hoped to avoid direct conflict. Despite how things have escalated recently, he has done America and the world a service by trailing away from Obama’s underhanded tactics and simplifying the equation.
At this point, there is no more hiding behind antiterrorism and other political maneuvers. Issues are in the open, and the powers can talk openly and honestly for the first time about potential paths to resolution.
Putin still has many strong reasons to back Assad, but if Trump can understand these motivations, he can potentially negotiate a truce that satisfies Russia without abandoning innocent civilians to the whims of Assad.
~ American Liberty Report