Russia’s mounting military campaign in Syria is all about three things, according to geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer.
Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, notes that Putin’s Syrian intervention is intended to bring about resonating results across the world stage.
1) Shore up Assad
The most basic reason for Russia’s interventionism in Syria is to shore up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Assad is a stalwart ally of Putin, and Syria contains Russia’s sole naval base on the Mediterranean Sea.
The Tartus base allows Russia to have greater strategic depth and operational ability in the entire eastern Mediterranean.
“A big part of [Russia’s] continued interest in Syria and in Assad has to do with” the Tartus base, Russia expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies Jeffrey Mankoff told The Atlantic. “I think Russia does have a bigger geopolitical view of the world, regards the eastern Mediterranean as an area of importance, and wants to be sure that it can secure its interests there.”
Before intervening directly in the 55-month civil war, Russia provided the Assad regime with supplies including guns, grenades, tank parts, fighter jets, advanced anti-ship cruise missiles, long-range air defense missiles, military officers as advisers, diplomatic cover, and lots of cash.
Russia has now begun to conduct airstrikes aimed primarily at moderate rebels and rebel factions affiliated with al-Qaeda at the expense of targeting ISIS.
The rebel groups that Moscow has so far bombed are closer to threatening Assad’s heartland of support in Latakia province – which also happens to be close to Russia’s Tartus naval base.
2) Embarrass President Obama
A second main goal of Putin’s Syrian adventure is to embarrass President Obama and diminish the US’ role as the leading world power. The more that Putin can cause Obama to look weak and ineffectual, whether in Ukraine or in Syria, the better.
Already, Russia’s role in Syria and the Kremlin’s bombing of rebels – including rebels reportedly linked to the US – has caused a question of leadership throughout the Middle East.
Faisal Al Yafai, the chief commentator for the UAE-based newspaper The National, told Reuters that “America and its allies now look like the only group without a plan [in Syria].”
And, as stock in US leadership falls, Russia has moved into the void in an attempt to supplant US influence. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told PBS NewsHour that he would welcome any cooperation with the Russian military against ISIS in Iraq.
“Our message to the Russians – I met with Putin – please join this fight against Daesh,” Abadi said.
- Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Domestically, Obama’s foreign policy chops have also come under additional scrutiny following Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria.
“I think the president’s been a foreign policy disaster,” Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) said at the Washington Ideas Forum on September 30.
“You may love the president for a lot of reasons. His rhetoric is soaring, but the results have been terribly disappointing, and in terms of foreign policy, disastrous.”
3) Turn the European focus away from Ukraine
Russia’s third goal in intervening in Syria is to steer Europe’s attention away from its role in having destabilized Ukraine. By unilaterally seizing and annexing Crimea, as well as helping to foment a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine between the national government and Russian-backed separatists, Moscow has brought war back to the European continent.
Europe and the US responded to the Ukraine conflict by imposing punishing sanctions and visa travel bans on Russia. The sanctions, which are time limited, were just extended for an additional six months in September.
The sanctions, in addition to slumping energy prices, has had an outsized effect on the Russian economy. The International Monetary Fund predicts that the combination of factors could reduce Russia’s GDP by 9%.
This pressure both assaults Putin’s image as a strong leader of Russia as well as undermining his political promise of a less representative government in return for consistent improvements in living standards for ordinary Russians.
But, by shifting both Europe and Russia’s attention towards Syria and the unfolding refugee crisis that the confolict is driving, Putin can attempt to solidify the frozen conflict in Ukraine and have Europe accept the situation as the new normal.
- BI Graphics
In addition, as the world’s focus is removed from Ukraine, Putin can ensure that his supported rebels in the east can solidify their hold on Ukrainian territory. In the beginning of October, for instance, a new Russian rocket system capable of destroying city blocks in a single strike was spotted in the separatist arsenal for the first time.
Additional reporting by Michael B Kelley.