Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts What Russia Wants in Syria
What Russia Wants in Syria

What Russia Wants in Syria

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army War College, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.  Col. Hamilton served as the Russia policy advisor in the U.S. delegation to the International Syria Support Group in the summer of 2016.

The recent U.S. cruise missile attack in Syria disrupted—at least for the near term—any prospect of a “reset” in the U.S.-Russia relationship and brought into sharp focus the incompatibility of Washington’s interests in Syria with those of Moscow. For Russia, Syria represents one of two pillars of its strategy in the Middle East, the other being Iran. Moscow has staked its regional strategy on an alliance with these two states as counterweights to the U.S.-aligned Sunni regimes that dominate most of the region. Syria is of particular importance in this strategy because it hosts naval and air bases that enable a Russian military presence in the Levant and the Mediterranean. This presence is important to Russia for military reasons and because it demonstrates Moscow’s revival as an important player on the global stage.

Additionally, Russia’s bitter experience with the Sunni insurgency in Chechnya leads it to view the Sunni-led uprising against the Alawite Shia—but largely secular—Assad regime as another case of Sunni terrorism that directly threatens Russian interests. To Russians, the U.S. insistence that some of the Sunni groups fighting the Syrian regime are moderate opposition—and therefore deserve to be differentiated from the terrorist groups ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham[1]—rings hollow. Despite the fact that these groups are signatories to the February 2016 cessation of hostilities in Syria, Russian official statements rarely refer to them as moderate opposition, instead often labelling them terrorists or “so-called moderate opposition.”[2]

Syria also figures prominently in Russia’s geopolitical calculus for what it represents: a chance for Russia to take a stand against what it sees as a U.S.-engineered series of regime changes that target the stability of Russia itself. From the “Color Revolutions” in the former Soviet Union to the Arab Spring uprisings, many Russians believe the U.S. is carrying out a deliberate and comprehensive program of enforced democratization, with Russia as its ultimate target. Reflecting this belief, Russian representatives to the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) in Geneva remarked to their U.S. counterparts on multiple occasions in 2016 that Russians are not fond of the “Iraq model.”

References to the “Iraq model” convey two Russian concerns about the potential outcome in Syria, both of which revolve around the UN plan for political transition there. In the Russian view, this plan, which calls for “fresh elections” 14-18 months after the achievement of a durable cease-fire, is a recipe for chaos and renewed civil war. This fear is not unreasonable. After all, voters in a country that has experienced a six-year conflict that morphed into a bitter ethnic and sectarian civil war with considerable interference by outside powers can hardly be expected to have sufficient trust in the democratic process to refrain from casting their votes along those same ethnic and sectarian lines.[3] And the political institutions of a country riven by such ethnic and sectarian violence can hardly be expected to contain the grievances this violence has stoked, especially if those institutions themselves are divided along ethnic and sectarian lines. So the first Russian concern with the “Iraq model”—that is, democratization imposed from without, in a country with deep divisions in identities—is its potential to plunge the country into renewed civil war.

A second Russian concern, not expressed openly but deeply held, is that if a democratically elected government in Syria does manage to hold itself and the country together, it will turn Syria from a strategic partner of Russia into an adversary. This is because any democratically elected government in Syria, a country with a 74% Sunni majority, is likely to align itself with the other Sunni regimes in the region and against Russia. In this case, Russia stands to lose one of the two pillars of its regional strategy, along with its air base at Latakia (Hmeymim) and its naval base at Tartus. Since it sees renewed civil war or an adversarial regime as the two most likely outcomes of the UN transition plan for Syria, Russia routinely works to undermine this plan while supporting it officially.

So Russian objectives in Syria can be summarized as preserving a Russia-friendly regime, striking a blow against what it sees as Sunni terrorism, and ending the string of what it believes are U.S.-inspired regime changes in states friendly to Russia. Prior to the chemical attack at Khan Shaykhun on April 4, these objectives were not fundamentally incompatible with those of the U.S. under the Trump administration. Even the Obama administration, which had earlier taken a much harder line on the Assad regime, had near the end of its tenure signaled a willingness to consider an extended transition period that preserved a privileged position for the Alawites, if not Assad himself. Since taking office, the Trump administration had prioritized the defeat of ISIS over all other goals in Syria, including that of free elections in accordance with the UN transition plan. So there appeared to be room for an agreement in Syria that met the minimum acceptable outcome for both the U.S. and Russia.

The murder of some 85 people in Khan Shaykhun changed the U.S. position almost overnight and removed the possibility of any agreement over Syria in the near term. We may never know whether Russia was complicit in the Syrian regime’s chemical attack. But we do know that Russian diplomatic and military support for the regime emboldened it and may have encouraged it to take drastic action in an effort to accelerate the military victory it is pursuing. One thing that has become clear since the beginning of the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015 is that, whereas the U.S. and the UN are trying to end the war in Syria, Russia and the Syrian regime are trying to win the war there. Even before Khan Shaykhun, in the pursuit of a military victory over the insurgency, Russia and the regime had withheld humanitarian aid to opposition-held areas and bombed civilian infrastructure, including hospitals. But Khan Shaykhun was an even more obvious violation of international law and left the new U.S. administration, which had come into office explicitly rejecting many traditional U.S. foreign policy ideals based in international law and the liberal world order, repulsed by the carnage and driven to military action in response.

It remains to be seen whether the U.S. strike will deter further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. It also remains to be seen whether the strike signals a change in the level of U.S. involvement in Syria. What is clear is that although U.S. and Russian objectives in Syria were not fundamentally incompatible before April 4, any space for a deal over Syria has vanished for the time being, and many more people will die before the prospect of another deal re-emerges, if it ever does.


[1] This group was formerly named Jabhat al-Nusra and was the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. In the summer of 2016, it changed its name and allegedly cut ties with Al Qaeda, but remains classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the UN.

[2] The Russian Ministry of Defense website’s Syria page (https://syria.mil.ru/en/index/syria.htm) has numerous examples of this tendency. In direct conversations with U.S. officials, the tendency for Russians to refer to these groups as “terrorists” is even more pronounced.

[3] Elections in these conditions contain many of the aspects of a “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” In other words, if one ethnic or sectarian group refrains from casting its votes along ethnic or sectarian lines, but the others do not, the group that refrained from ethnic or sectarian voting will be deprived of representation, while its competitor groups will not. The incentive for every group in this type of environment is therefore to vote along ethnic or sectarian lines, which ensures the election of a divided government.

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