For all his faults, Vladimir Putin has an undeniable flair for the dramatic. On September 30th, Russia’s leader once again seized international attention when he launched a series of air strikes against the enemies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which they claimed to be an attack against ISIS. In actuality Russia targeted the self-proclaimed caliphate’s rivals and enemies, including rebels that the CIA had funded and trained. As our readers are well aware, the Syrian civil war has raged unchecked for the past four years, killed more than 250,000 Syrians, has produced 4 million refugees, and has internally displaced a further 7 million people. As the conflict persists, various rebel groups, terrorist organizations, and ethnic militias have carved the nation into a patchwork quilt of shifting domains and ever-changing boundaries. Currently, Assad and his ally Hezbollah control approximately 25% of pre-war Syria, including the cities of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and the Mediterranean coastline. The Islamic State stretches across much of the northeast, while Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate, the Kurds, and a variety of other rebel groups maintain various strongholds and territories elsewhere.
So why has Russia plunged into this intractable quagmire thousands of miles away from its own borders? Putin himself justifies the airstrikes as an act of self-defense—an attempt “to fight and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories that they already occupied, not wait for them to come to our house.” Certainly, Islamic violent extremism in Chechnya and Dagestan has plagued Putin for years, so his concern that ISIS’ Russian recruits might someday return to their homeland to wage war against his government is understandable. However, ISIS’ viability as a national security threat does not explain why Russian planes have focused the majority of their attacks on other Islamist groups and even a few moderate, secular rebel movements. Putin’s intervention reflects his determination to restore Russia’s super-power status, not promote national security.
Russia’s relationship with the Assad government dates back to Soviet times, and it is one of the nation’s few surviving relics of its former regional influence. Assad’s government serves as a symbol of Russia’s continued relevance within the Middle East, proof that Moscow’s opinion still affects Syrian decision-making. Putin desperately wants to expand upon that influence and reestablish Russia to its pre-Cold War position. Intervening in the Syrian War offers Russia the potential opportunity to lead an international coalition against the universally despised ISIS, to rival the United States as a Middle Eastern power, and to regain some of its lost international reputation. Consequently, “it is the perceived threat from (and supremacy of) the West, not the genuine threat from ISIS, which is [Putin’s] number one concern,” according to a recent Chatham House Article.
In addition to stroking Putin’s ego, this intervention provides the Russian president with certain tangible benefits, both internal and external. Assad’s stranglehold on power assures Putin’s continued access to Tartus, Russia’s only remaining warm-water port and the last Russian military base outside the former Soviet Union. Moreover, Putin needs a flashy foreign intervention to distract the Russian people from their floundering economy and the consequences of the Ukraine fiasco. Many Russian citizens share their President’s dissatisfaction with their nation’s current geopolitical status, and Putin’s portrayal of Russia as the lone warrior in a battle against ISIS provides Russians with a productive channel for their frustrations. For this reason, Putin has doubled his nation’s defense budget over the past ten years, an increase which has reflected growing Russian nationalism and anti-Western rhetoric. The airstrikes appeal to a popular narrative and temporarily relieve domestic pressures.
If Russia were targeting ISIS for reasons of status, power, or propaganda, then this article would end here. Instead, Putin has decided to play a far more dangerous game—eliminating ISIS’ competitors in order to bolster Assad’s future negotiating power. Every story needs a villain, and the Putin narrative needs an Islamic state to justify his support for the Assad regime. ISIS’ existence lends weight to Putin’s insistence that the world must choose between Assad’s totalitarian regime and a bloodthirsty terrorist movement. When asked why Russia had chosen to target ISIS’ rivals, Russian foreign minister Sergey V. Lavrov gave a telling response: “If it looks like a terrorist, walks like a terrorist, acts like a terrorist, fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist.” The statement reflects Putin’s primary goal—to frame the Syrian conflict as a choice between Assad and the terrorists, between Assad and violent Islamic extremism, between Assad and a launching pad for future attacks against the West, between Assad and ‘Death to America’, between Assad and another 9/11, and between Assad and ISIS.
As Putin eliminates the more moderate, more appealing rebel choices, he simultaneously empowers both Assad and the Islamic State. Already, Islamic State has benefited from the air strikes, expanding its territory in the Aleppo province, which Russia’s airstrikes have forcibly vacated of their former inhabitants. Putin hopes that the threat of ISIS will soon supersede all other considerations and facilitate an alliance between Assad, the international community, and those rebels who survive the Russian airstrikes. His plan undermines all the hopes of the Syrian people; it’s cruel, it’s self-serving, and it just might work.
So, what can the international community expect over the next few months of Russian intervention? Putin’s involvement will almost certainly instigate a violent backlash, potentially motivating new recruits to join the ranks of ISIS. More than fifty Saudi clerics have already called for jihad against the Russian invaders, condemning the airstrikes as an allied Shia-Christian crusade against Syria’s Sunni population. Saudi Arabia and Turkey, two of Assad’s staunchest critics, will not endure Russia’s interference for long, especially after a Russian plane intentionally violated Turkish airspace. If both countries successfully paint the Russian intervention as the newest outrage in a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia, religious violence will spike, attracting thousands of new jihadists while creating millions of refuges.
As tensions across the Middle East escalate, Russia’s intervention has also prompted renewed consternation within the Obama administration. All things considered, the US and Russia will probably not clash militarily, as both countries have signed an agreement defining their respective areas of operation, a deal Moscow insists remain classified. Nonetheless, if the US and Russia continue to operate in tandem, with the US targeting ISIS and Russia targeting everyone else, they will further polarize the Syrian conflict and guarantee its indefinite continuation. Ultimately, Putin’s strategy will empower both ISIS and Assad, laying the groundwork for a future alliance while entrenching the sectarian conflicts which will inspire future chaos. If the US means to facilitate Assad’s downfall, stem the tide of refugees, and prevent ISIS from recruiting more Syrian rebels, then the Obama administration must develop a long-term strategy for confronting the Syrian crisis which accounts for and addresses the reasoning behind Russia’s actions.