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Why the Hell Did Russia Intervene in Syria?

Russia's reasons for military intervention in Syria are less than clear but probably involve geopolitics as much as fighting terrorism.

by Landon Shroder
Sep 28 2015, 8:36pm

Bashar al-Assad y Vladimir Putin en una reunión en el Kremlin, celebrada el 25 de enero de 2005. (Sergei Chirikov/AFP/Getty Images)

Speculation over Russian military activity in Syria has been building in recent weeks, with two main questions now remaining in the eyes of policy and defense wonks everywhere: What the hell is Russia going to do in Syria? And why do they think it is a good idea to intervene in one of the world's most interminable and bloody conflicts?

There is now little question that Russia is building up its forces inside of Syria to support beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad. US Central Command spokesperson, Major Genieve David, confirmed for VICE News that the Russian military deployment consists of "modular housing for personnel, fighter and attack jet aircraft, helicopters, anti-aircraft missile systems, tanks, armored personnel carriers, and support for airfield operations," all of which will be stationed at the Bassel al Assad International Airport in Latakia.

This escalation has some political and military observers bemoaning the loss of US influence in the region, even leading former General David Petraeus to claim that Vladimir Putin is "resurrect[ing] the Russian empire."

However, wading into a conflict defined by a myriad of competing factions, each of which is being manipulated by external actors such as the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, hardly seems like a sensible long-term strategy. Therefore, maybe the best way of looking at Russia's involvement in Syria is not necessarily as a projection of power, but an attempt to maintain what little strategic advantage they have left.

Related: More Bases, MIGs, and an IDP Camp: What Is Russia Up to in Syria?

"The tide of war is turning against Assad, and it is clear in the last several months that he has suffered some real reversals," Jeremy Shapiro, fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institute, told VICE News. "It is very important to Russia that the US does not take on the responsibility for overthrowing regimes. They want to be in on any settlement and protect their partner regimes."

This is where things start to get complicated, since Russia's intervention in Syria puts them in direct opposition to the US's policy of removing Assad from power. Although the US and Russia share the goal of defeating the Islamic State (IS), clearly achieving this objective means different things to each country.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner in a press briefing on September 18, elaborated on this position when he said, "We've been very clear that we don't by any stretch of the imagination accept Russia's premise that somehow Assad can be a credible partner in fighting ISIL [IS]."

But for Russia, defeating IS means supporting the Assad regime and its security apparatus, which they view as being the only legitimate state power that can successfully fight the forces of extremism in Syria.

"We reject that, in fact," Toner went on to say. "We still need to talk about a process moving forward that reaches a political resolution to the situation in Syria, but one that ultimately doesn't include Assad."

Yet neither the US nor Russia is likely to compromise on any kind of joint strategy, especially not in the short term. At best, what can be hoped for is a balancing of operations that does not put Russia and the US in direct conflict over military objectives.

"The US is willing to further discuss with Russia mechanisms for deconfliction of activities in Syria to further the goals of the counter-ISIL coalition and ensure the safe conduct of Coalition operations," said Centcom's Major Genieve David.

This kind of detente ultimately favors Russia's involvement, but only in the gradually-shrinking sphere of influence that is gradually shrinking around the Assad regime. The escalation of military involvement then becomes less about the projection of force within Syria than the ability to secure their position both domestically and internationally, should an agreement ever be reached to remove Assad from power.

Watch VICE News' Jihadists vs. the Assad Regime: Syria's Rebel Advance

According to Nick Heras, an associate fellow at the Jamestown Foundation and a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security, this is why Russia is providing support to the struggling regime.

"Russia can utilize an escalation of its military presence in Syria to ensure that [Russia] will have a powerful part to play in any transition from the current Assad regime," Heras noted.

This transition will also include securing access for their naval base in Tartus and the Bassel al Assad International Airport, which is reportedly being renovated to support the Russian military deployment.

Part of the Russian intervention also stems from a desire to avoid seeing the Syrian government dismantled (a la Iraq after the US invasion), which could lead to a power vacuum that would look mighty appealing to groups such as IS. And, according to Russia's federal security services (FSB), around 2,500 Russians have already joined IS in Syria and Iraq, mainly from the restive Caucasus region.

These militants, specifically those from Chechnya, are some of IS's most prized battlefield commanders and fighters, making Russian involvement in Syria just as much about counter-terrorism operations as it is about supporting the Assad regime.

Related: Russia May Have Big Plans for Syria — Regardless of Whether Assad Stays or Goes

"They are increasingly worried about the Islamist state problem," said Shapiro, who explained that the idea of an "Islamic State" is seen as a very bad outcome, in part because its appeal to certain groups from the Caucasus region would threaten domestic security in Russia.

Putin echoed this in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Monday.

"The global terrorist threat [is] increasing dramatically and engulfing new regions, especially given that IS camps train militants from many countries, including European countries," he said. "Unfortunately, dear colleagues, I have to put it frankly, Russia is not an exception."

There is still significant debate about whether or not Russia's intervention will alter the trajectory of the conflict. Much of this will depend on how Russia prioritizes military support for the regime. For Assad, the main concern may be less about IS and more about fighting groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which is consolidating positions in territories to the northwest and putting pressure on regime strongholds like Latakia.

Regardless of the outcome, supporting Assad is a long-term gamble that also requires a logistical and financial commitment, potentially for years to come. Yet it's a risk that Russia seems to think is well worth taking.

"From their [Russia's] point of view, they are cast as aggressors and expansionist, rebuilding the Soviet empire." Ian McCredie, CEO of Forbes Research Group, a company specializing in political risk in Washington DC, told VICE News. "But in reality they are hemmed into borders that are the most narrow since 1917 and are on the defensive using asymmetric methods to hold on to what they have."

With an economy in recession, international sanctions over Ukraine, and a devaluation of their currency, Russia's strategy seems less about restoring past glories than it does grasping onto what little influence it might have left. 

Follow Landon Shroder on Twitter: @LandonShroder

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