Russian President Vladimir Putin is well on the way to achieving several objectives of his military intervention in Syria.
Russia has ensured the survival of the Assad regime, its only Arab partner, without loss of Russian personnel to the rebels or becoming mired in a ground conflict. In doing so, it has helped reduce the reach of Islamic State and thus Islamic State’s attractiveness to potential jihadists in Russia’s Muslim-majority regions.
It has also preserved access to its naval facility in Tartus, on Syria’s western coast; its only military port outside the former Soviet Union.
Just as importantly, Putin has maintained Russia’s status as a significant player in the region, which would have been threatened if Assad had fallen (as seemed possible in mid-2015). His decisive action impressed traditionally pro-US regional states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey, which now see Moscow as the go-to foreign capital.
Putin can claim a seat at the international table when Middle East issues are on the agenda. He has no solution to regional problems, but can block initiatives he doesn’t like. Excluding him would risk imperilling any outcomes of such discussions.
A side benefit for Russia is that the refugee outflow (accelerated by Russia’s often indiscriminate bombing) puts strains on the European Union, which Russia would like to see weakened and thus less attractive to former Soviet Union states. One dividend already is how refugee numbers affected the Brexit vote.
So where does Putin take Russia’s Syria campaign from here? Though the Russian involvement in Syria is largely limited to air support, his decision on when the Assad regime might be strong enough to manage without this support will be made carefully.
Putin is aware of the importance of keeping Russia’s involvement limited in order to restrict his own military casualties. He is also conscious of the need to reassure the Russian population that Syria won’t be a long-term military commitment. He has already announced that a drawdown of Russian forces has started, though Russia's air campaign in support of regime, Iranian, Hizballah and now Turkish ground forces has continued unabated. He has agreed, perhaps cynically, to several short-lived ceasefires.
We can be confident that Russia’s military presence in Syria won’t be increased, and small, periodic drawdowns will probably continue, though not to the point of seriously impacting on the air campaign. A Russian military presence will remain until regime and Iranian forces can manage without it.
The key to understanding what Russia is doing in Syria and the wider Middle East is that Putin is not trying to supplant US primacy there. A major Russian play for the Middle East would not make sense, even taking into account the many errors and missteps the United States has made in the region in the past 15 years.
Putin is canny enough to know that pro-US Arab states such as Israel and Turkey are using their Moscow diplomacy to send messages of dissatisfaction to the United States. That would be satisfying to him, but he would know that those states are unlikely to abandon their primary relationship with the United States for one with Russia.
Those states are unhappy with Obama, but have reasonable expectations that their relations with the United States will return to normal under the next US president. Polls suggest that will be Clinton, whose hawkish learnings would suit them.
More broadly, there’s scant evidence that Putin is trying to recreate the global foreign policy of the Soviet Union, whereby the Soviets and the US vied with each other in cultivating rival clients across the world. With negative GDP growth last year and so far this year, Russia simply cannot afford that. Everything Putin has done in his 16 years in power shows he has a realistic appreciation of Russian capabilities.
That argues that Putin’s actions in Syria and the broader Middle East are tactical, not strategic. Rather, he has a 'methodology': seeking to sniff out and exploit opportunities as they arise.
He has two primary aims in the Middle East:
- To counter US objectives there when he disagrees with them, as part of his broader opposition to US global strategy.
- To prevent the region’s turmoil infecting Russia’s Muslim majority regions where it could constitute a domestic security problem for Russia.
The Middle East itself is a second-order priority for Russia in geopolitical terms. The US, the West broadly and China form Moscow's main geostrategic focus.
Putin's behaviour shows he thinks before acting. He will bide his time and look for opportunities to advance Russia’s interests. Western policy-makers who were surprised when Putin sent forces into Syria should prepare to be surprised again.