On Sept. 30, the Russian Parliament unanimously approved the use of military force in Syria to combat the Islamic State. Hours later, a senior U.S. military official revealed that Russia had carried out its first airstrikes in Syria.
But here’s what’s really controversial: Russia did not target areas held by the Islamic State. Rather, it is attacking the Free Syrian forces fighting against Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad. Why?
According to the vast majority of Western scholars and reports from the Russian state media, Vladimir Putin wants to keep Assad ruling at least part of Syria. Putin’s alliance with Assad often gets explained as being about strategic factors, such as Russia’s multi-billion dollar arms sales to Assad, Russia’s Tartus naval base in Syria, which gives Russia a port on the Mediterranean Sea, and Russia’s lack of other Middle East allies.
But is that accurate? Russia’s alignment with Assad has been very costly — both financially, as other Arab countries cancel Russian contracts, and, diplomatically, chilling relations with Sunni-majority countries in the Middle East.
Why is Putin backing Assad? Identity and power.
Here’s an alternative theory about the Putin-Assad alliance: identity. In bolstering Assad, the Kremlin’s escalated involvement in Syria is attempting to uphold two main principles central to Russia’s international identity.
The first principle is national sovereignty. Russia wants to prevent the United States from breaching Syrian sovereignty by toppling what it regards as Syria’s legitimate government. Putin regards the Assad regime as legitimate, because it still represents Syria in the United Nations and was elected, albeit in a seriously un-free manner.
The second principle is multilateralism. Russia wants to increase its soft power by building a coalition of European and Middle Eastern countries to vanquish the Islamic State by militarily strengthening Assad.
I’ll explore each of these below.
Russia to the U.S.: Who runs this country is none of your business.
Russia regards any attempt to remove Assad as an attempt to violate Syria’s sovereignty, its right to govern its own affairs. Russia’s concern about Syria’s sovereignty is closely related to its fear of U.S.-led regime-change missions, which the Kremlin regards as a means of expanding American influence rather than spreading genuine democracy.
As Russia’s power is maximized in a multipolar rather than a U.S.-dominated international system, Russia has a tremendous stake in countering overt U.S. power projection abroad. Putin also wants to resist what it regards as an American attempt to reshape the world in its own image.
Therefore, when political opinion in the West turned against Assad in 2011-12, Russia made clear that it would back Assad as the legitimate ruler of Syria, and became the main guarantor of Syrian sovereignty. Putin has consulted with Assad on resolving the Syrian conflict and on relinquishing chemical weapons. He has vetoed U.N. sanctions and pushed back against Western calls for Assad to resign.
The Assad regime no longer controls most of Syria’s territory — and yet Putin keeps supporting Assad as the nation’s legitimate president. Putin recently claimed that the Syrian national military controlled by Assad was Syria’s only legal militia force — in other words, that the Free Syria forces are illegitimate usurpers. Putin echoed Assad’s long-standing assertion that jihadists have infiltrated the Syrian opposition.
And if there are no credible opposition leaders, Assad gains credibility. Who will argue against Putin’s position that the choice is between Assad, on the one hand, and chaos, on the other?
The very fact that Assad is still in power at all after four-and-a-half years of civil war bolsters Putin’s position as Assad’s backer. Individual defections and military setbacks have not shaken the loyalty of the regime’s core militias. The Kremlin disagreed with many Western assessments that predicted Assad’s imminent demise in 2012, and now feels vindicated.
Russia to the West: We don’t trust you. We remember Libya.
Russia has dug its heels on Syria because it wants to avoid a repeat of the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya. Russia did not veto Resolution 1973, which allowed for a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians. The Kremlin then felt betrayed when the West extended this no-fly zone to a full-fledged mission to remove Moammar Gaddafi from power, as this expansion occurred without Russian consent and destroyed Russian business deals with the Libyan regime.
Vitali Naumkin, the Director of Moscow’s Institute of Oriental Studies and a leading expert on Russia-Middle East relations, said that Russia fears that if the West tries to topple Assad in the name of democracy, the result will not in fact be democratic. Democracy will instead be used as a front to serve broader American interests.
A sizable number of Syrians support Assad or regard him as the lesser evil, but Naumkin fears their views will be suppressed in the event of a U.S.-led regime change. Naumkin believes that Dmitri Medvedev, Russian president from 2008-2012, lost credibility by abstaining on the U.N. vote in Libya. Many Russians felt cheated by the unilateral Western response that extended beyond the U.N. mission. Putin will be keen to ensure he does not repeat that mistake.
Russia to other allies: Don’t worry, we’re here for you.
Putin’s willingness to escalate in Syria despite the high costs and public apathy, suggests that he wants to use his anti-Islamic State strategy to redefine Russia’s international identity as a power broker and central figure in the broad coalition of anti-Western nations. Backing Assad helps build toward that goal in two main ways.
First, Russia demonstrates to its current and potential allies and clients that Russian support is reliable. Russia wants to keep building arms contracts, alliances and energy deals — in a word, power — with a range of countries whose relations with the United States and the European Union are strained. These include Iran, Hungary, Greece, Turkey, Venezuela, and various authoritarian regimes in sub-Saharan Africa.
To appeal to these countries, Russia needs to demonstrate that it is a consistent patron, unlike the fickle United States, which during crises withdrew support for dictators, such as Indonesia’s Suharto and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Russia’s commitment to Assad shores up its credibility and underscores its anti-Western international identity.
Russia to the world: We will not be ignored.
Russia has felt excluded from Western-led international decision-making since the 1999 Kosovo crisis, when NATO bombed Serbia despite fierce Russian opposition. In Syria, Putin is trying to position Russia as the primary counterweight to reckless U.S. hegemony.
Toward this end, Russia wants to be the standard-bearer for an anti-Islamic State campaign that’s separate from that of the West — one that eviscerates the terror organization by shoring up support for Assad. Russia has extended its Middle East coalition beyond Iran, by sharing intelligence on the Islamic State with Iraq. Iraq has strongly supported Russia’s escalated involvement in Syria. The Iraqi prime minister recently claimed that he would welcome Russian airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, and the Iraqi Kurdish leader emphasized the need for U.S.-Russia cooperation in the struggle against the Islamic State.
Russia’s pro-Assad approach to opposing the Islamic State has gained some support in Europe. Turkey and Germany have softened their opposition to including Assad as leader of part of Syria, during the initial transition away from civil war. Dmitry Suslov, a professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, and a noted expert on Russia’s relationship with the West, said that Russia is using its Islamic State strategy to rebuild diplomatic trust that was frayed by incursions into Ukraine.
In particular, Suslov believes that Russia wants to win over France and Italy, both of which consider the Islamic State’s incursions to its south to be a bigger security threat than Russia’s occupation of Ukraine. Suslov pointed out that France’s former president Nicolas Sarkozy has called for Franco-Russian cooperation against the Islamic State, which he sees as a sign that Russia’s coalition-building strategy is working. He believes that current president Francois Hollande is also open to working with Russia despite the harsh anti-Kremlin rhetoric of his public statements.
Putin’s escalated military intervention in Syria should be seen as part of Russia’s efforts to become an independently powerful bargainer on the world stage. It follows Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s leadership of the pro-Assad camp during the 2014 Geneva II Conference to resolve the Syrian civil war, and Russia’s assistance in the destruction of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal. And it confirms Russia’s unwillingness to accept a solution to the Syrian conflict that does not include long-standing dictator Assad.
Samuel Ramani is an MPhil student in Russian and East European Studies at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford specializing in post-1991 Russian foreign policy.