Putin’s Syria Gamble: Middle East Déjà Vu?

BY TREVOR GILLUM – When asked directly whom the Russian air strikes inside Syria were targeting, Russian foreign minister Sergey V. Lavrov responded tersely, “If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist, right?”[1]

Under the pretext of fighting the Islamic State, Russia began conducting airstrikes within Syrian territory on September 30th, marking that country’s first major military action beyond former Soviet Union borders since the Cold War.[2] Moscow’s foray into the Syrian civil war adds a new level of complexity to the four-year old war that has claimed at least 200,000 lives and triggered one of the greatest refugee crises in modern history.[3]

Syria joins Ukraine as the second country in less than two years Vladimir Putin has intervened in militarily,[4] leaving many to question Mr. Putin’s true intentions. Western and Gulf nations have disputed Russia’s claim that airstrikes were targeting Islamic State militants, asserting instead that a majority of Russian sorties have targeted rebel groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, including some backed by the West.[5] Within days of the first Russian strikes, the United States issued a joint statement with France, Germany, the U.K., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar condemning the Russian air strikes and calling on Russia to “immediately cease its attack on the Syrian Opposition and civilians.”[6]

It appears increasingly likely that supporting President Bashar al-Assad is Russia’s primary objective, despite Western and Gulf state demands that Assad step down.[7] French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian criticized Russia’s involvement in Syria claiming, “80 to 90 per cent” of Russian strikes were in support of al-Assad’s regime, a longtime ally of President Putin.[8]

History can help illustrate why Mr. Putin’s strategy may inevitably fail. Moscow’s decision to intervene militarily to prop-up the collapsing Assad regime evokes memories of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.[9] In 1979, when it became clear that a protracted and bloody civil war threatened the future of Afghanistan’s communist-aligned government, the Soviet Union intervened militarily in order to prop-up the existing regime.[10] After ten years, thousands of lives lost, and billions of dollars spent, the Soviet Union withdrew and left Afghanistan in tatters, as well as the Soviet economy back home.[11]

Fast-forward three decades and a different Russian ally in the Middle East is gripped by a bloody civil war. Over four years of fighting have taken a significant toll on President Assad’s government, and his regime showed recent signs of weakening as rebel groups gained additional territory.[12] Putin’s attempt to “stop the rot”[13] and prop-up another collapsing ally in the Middle East risks repeating the past.

Russia, however, is not alone in the pantheon of failed Middle East military interventions. The current indecisiveness of U.S. Syria policy can be, at least partially, attributed to the disastrous consequences of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Those military incursions left behind widespread devastation and will end up costing U.S. taxpayers between $4 and $6 trillion.[14]

Ironically, Mr. Putin need only to look to Ukraine for examples of ballooning costs connected to prolonged foreign military interventions. Indeed, many have suggested that Mr. Putin’s actions in Syria are a means of diverting domestic attention away from the faltering Russian economy.[15] Russia’s annexation of Crimea and action in eastern Ukraine has led to 17% inflation, $80 billion in economic sanctions, and GDP contraction of 4% this year alone.[16] Meanwhile, 3 million additional Russians have fallen into poverty since the beginning of this year, bringing the total to 22.9 million, or more than one in every five adult Russians.[17]

Cloaked in sectarian tumult, shifting rebel factions, and the emergence of ISIS, the Syrian war cannot be resolved through Russian bombing (nor Western bombing for that matter). As witnessed in Afghanistan, Iraq, eastern-Ukraine, and Crimea, to name only a few, military incursions cost significantly more money and lives than a government ever anticipates.

Make no mistake, the situation in Syria is complex and there is no single answer to resolving the broader conflict. When reflecting on his experience during peace negotiations for Northern Ireland, U.S. Senator George Mitchell explained, “[N]o two conflicts are the same. Much as we would like it, there is no magic formula that, once discovered, can be used to end all conflicts.”[18]

Mr. Putin’s military foray in support of President Assad’s regime is a significant gamble with minimal upside. However, if there is one certainty to be derived from Russia’s actions it is that the Syrian people will see no reprieve from death and destruction any time soon.


[1] Somini Sengupta, Russian Foreign Minister Defends Airstrikes in Syria, The New York Times (Oct. 1, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/02/world/europe/russia-airstrikes-syria-assad.html.

[2] Andrew Osborn & Phil Stewart, Russia Begins Syria Air Strikes in Its Biggest Mideast Intervention in Decades, Reuters (Oct. 1, 2015, 5:47 AM), http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/01/us-mideast-crisis-russia-idUSKCN0RU0MG20151001.

[3] Id.

[4] Edward Delman, The Link Between Putin’s Military Campaigns in Syria and Ukraine, The Atlantic (Oct. 2, 2015), http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/navy-base-syria-crimea-putin/408694/.

[5] Geoffrey Smith, West, Gulf States Call on Russia to Stop Airstrikes in Syria, Fortune (Oct. 2, 2015, 6:22 AM), http://fortune.com/2015/10/02/west-calls-for-immediate-end-to-russian-airstrike-in-syria/.

[6] Id.

[7] Steven Erlanger, An Opportune Moment for Russia’s Foray Into Syria, The New York Times (Oct. 8, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/09/world/an-opportune-moment-for-russias-foray-into-syria.html?ref=world.

[8] Islamic State: France launches strikes in Syria, claims up to 90pc of Russian strikes designed to aid Assad forces, Australian Broad. Corp. (Oct. 9, 2015, 3:14 PM), http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-10-09/majority-russian-syria-air-strikes-are-to-support-assad-france/6843156.

[9] Office of the Historian, The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and the U.S. Response, 1978–1980 (2013), https://history.state.gov/milestones/1977-1980/soviet-invasion-afghanistan.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Erlanger, supra note 6.

[13] Id.

[14] Ernesto Londoño, Study: Iraq, Afghan War Costs to Top $4 trillion, The Washington Post (Mar. 28, 2013), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/study-iraq-afghan-war-costs-to-top-4-trillion/2013/03/28/b82a5dce-97ed-11e2-814b-063623d80a60_story.html.

[15] An Odd Way to Make Friends, The Economist (Oct. 10, 2015), http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21672295-intervention-syria-was-supposed-rebuild-relations-west-unsurprisingly-it-not.

[16] Richard Galpin, Russians Count The Cost a Year After Crimea Annexation, BBC News (Mar. 20, 2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31962156.

[17] Vladimir Ryzhkov, Putin’s Syrian Adventure Will Cost Russians Dearly, The Huffington Post (Oct. 6, 2015, 9:23 AM) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vladimir-ryzhkov/syria-cost-russia_b_8248026.html.

[18] George J. Mitchell, Toward Peace in Northern Ireland, 22 FORDHAM INT’L L.J. 1136, 1139 (1999).

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