What is Russia Doing in Syria?

16 November 2015
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When Russian airstrikes started in Syria on 30th of September the IR community began debating what the real aims of Moscow might be. World leaders and IR scholars have offered a range of political explanations for Russia’s recent intervention in Syria. The first reason for Russia’s recent involvement is connected to Putin’s direct concern about the current standing of the Assad regime given its recent set-back against the opposition forces on the battle field, immediately before the initiation of the air strikes. The government in Moscow recently came to the conclusion that unless Russian support was provided to Assad he was certain to lose against the opposition, especially in places like Homs, Hama and Ibid. Consequently, Russia moved into Syria, launching airstrikes with the clear aim of bolstering the Assad regime within the highly complex calculus of Syria. Secondly, Russian president Putin has officially announced that the aim of the Russian airstrikes was the result of Moscow’s determination to fight a war against the terrorist forces present in Syria. Moreover, Putin has justified Moscow’s recent air operation as a legitimate act as Moscow had received a request from the Assad government in this regard. Russia’s description of terrorism is substantially divergent from the US-led coalition forces definition, and therefore they are conducting their anti-ISIS operations in Syria through divergent perspectives. It is not only ISIS that Moscow has identified as terrorists, but also any other groups who are fighting against the Assad regime.  Hence, Putin’s statement does not make a distinction between moderates or extremists when referring to terrorists. The third reason for Russia’s newfound determination to fight ISIS in Syria is related to its own 20 million domestic Muslim residents and the Russian citizens that have joined ISIS to fight in Syria. The general view in IR circles is that Russia wants to fight against ISIS in Syria to prevent this terrorist threat before it reaches Russian territory. Moscow sees the ISIS presence in Syria not only as a potential threat that has the capacity to expand further in the region but as one that could extend its reach far beyond, and even potentially to the Caucasus. Critics of the Russian air strikes in Syria have focused on the dual political ambitions of the Putin regime. According to one explanation, this latest Russian move is on the one hand aimed at bolstering the Assad regime, while on the other hand; it is also aimed at providing Moscow with a stronger voice in any future political settlement negotiations, especially after the failures of Geneva I and II. Many scholars argue that Moscow is also, by introducing massive Russian military equipment to Syria, hoping to bolster its overall influence in the Middle East. This open Soviet intervention, which took the form of air strikes in Syria, was the first extensive intervention of Russians since the 1970s.



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