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 (http://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.

Tags: , , ,

Can We Break the “Cycle of Horror” over Syria?

Recent reports of a sarin gas attack against the Syrian civilian population in the rebel-held province of Idlib has the world, rightfully, horrified. With political leaders around the world loudly condemning the targeting of civilians and the reliance on internationally proscribed weapons, the international debate echoes the tones of the aftermath of the brutal August 2013 sarin attack against the opposition-controlled Ghouta suburb, in the outskirts of Damascus.

In addition to eliciting international condemnation over the use of chemical weapons, these two episodes represent moments of collective outrage in a war where systematic and brutal violations of international humanitarian law have been met with reactions ranging from mild indifference to embarrassed resignation.

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011, the international community has gone through a number of these moments of indignation in response to atrocities committed against the civilian population. These include, among others, the expression of outrage over the siege of the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk—aptly described as the “deepest circle of hell;” the horror elicited by reports of mass executions and systematic torture in the Syrian regime’s prisons; and the more recent horror sparked by the enclosure of eastern Aleppo and the humanitarian crisis that ensued. These are all moments of collective outrage in Syria’s recurrent “cycles of horror:” gruesome atrocities that are met by collective shock; followed by a feeble international response; and then by prolonged times of relative silence, until news of the next large-scale atrocity breaks out.

But these high-profile, highly visible and horrifying violations of international humanitarian law should not be regarded or analyzed as exceptions, but rather understood as integral expressions of a long and brutal war that has often been deliberately waged against the civilian population. Many of these tactics have been adopted by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad in the context of a broader counterinsurgency strategy aimed at separating the insurgents from the civilian population and at simultaneously preventing the rise of an alternative political order. To do so, civilians and civilian infrastructure have time and time again been targeted—often through air power—forcing civilians to flee rebel-held areas and, in turn, leading to the forced displacement of millions of Syrians. In addition, the regime relies upon the tactic of laying siege on opposition-held areas to force rebel factions into surrendering, while punishing the civilian population. Mass-based repression of opponents, through systematic and mass-scale incarceration for example, has also been employed to further weaken the rebellion. Of course, the regime is not the sole culprit here: as the conflict evolved, the list of perpetrators grew and the deliberate targeting of civilians became more and more widespread. Still, in terms of number, scale, and degree of systematic targeting, it is clear that to understand the process of erosion of basic norms with respect to the protection of civilians in conflict, one must focus attention to the Syrian government.

So, while collective indignation over especially heinous atrocities, such as the recently reported chemical weapons attack, is appropriate. it cannot be separated from a broader understanding that deliberately punishing civilians and slowly bleeding them into submission has been a core strategy of the regime throughout the war. That strategy should be considered as worthy of outrage and condemnation as the individual atrocities committed within its framework.

In this context, it is then appropriate to wonder: is the selective attention of the international community even helpful to the protection of civilians in conflict?

On the one hand, the answer could be, sadly, negative: with the international community only focusing their condemnation on the most visible violations against the civilian population, it is possible to argue that a dangerous and de facto erosion of international humanitarian law is occurring globally, linked to the abysmal record emerging from Syria. For example, the aftermath of the August 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta led to the brokering of an American-Russian agreement culminating in UN Security Council Resolution 2118, which established provisions for Syria’s elimination of its chemical weapons arsenal. The agreement was welcomed at the international level, but within Syria, more than one observer shared the grim view that the international community had de facto sanctioned the targeting of civilians by most means, including deadly barrel bombs, but excluding chemical weapons.

On the other hand, selective international condemnation can still have an important effect: for example, preserving the prohibition against the use of chemical weapons in the context of armed conflict is important at both the regional and global level and failing to respond to identified chemical attacks would send a terrible message and further erode the laws of war. By that same token, if the response is halfhearted or feeble—from a vaguely worded UN resolution to a one-off military strike on a tactical military target—then it may fall short of both upholding basic international law principles at the global level as well as deterring real violations on the ground.

Simply put, the Syrian civil war has not just been terrible for the civilian population in the war-torn country, but it has also poked deep holes in basic principles of civilian protection from the prohibition of deliberate targeting of civilians to the need for the preservation of a humanitarian space where international humanitarian assistance can be delivered to those in need. If the international community decides that these principles and norms are worth upholding, then concerted, coherent, and credible responses are needed, beyond the “cycle of horror.”

Tags: , , ,