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Middle East and Africa

Syria, the Stage for Russia's Renewed Protagonism

A Russian airplane in the Latakia airport. Photo: Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation

Moscow's intervention is the last in a series of actions aimed at ensuring Putin a new role in the international arena. Ambitions of power, historical alliances and geopolitical priorities, the internal situation and maintaining the oligarchical status quo are the reasons behind his latest steps

Russia is seeking to maintain and strengthen its gravitas on the international stage through its latest military intervention in Syria. Vladimir Putin and Bashar Al-Assad have never made a secret of their strong alliance, but the link between the two countries dates back to the days of the Soviet Union. Lately, however, the Russian presence in Syria has become even more invasive, with transport planes shuttling between bases in Southern Russia and Latakia Airport. After strengthening the Russian presence, President Putin launched his airforce against the "terrorist threat" in Syria. His stated objectives are the terrorists of the self-proclaimed Islamic State and the Al-Nusra Front, though Moscow's interests go beyond immediate military outcomes.



The Soviet era



According to Alessandro Vitale, an expert on Russia and professor of Foreign Policy Analysis at the State University in Milan, "Russian interests in Syria date back to ties established during the Soviet era" and are rooted in a desire to have again a decisive role in international politics. Syria is therefore "a crutch, or rather, a springboard" for the ambitions of Putin's Russia. Syria is the card that allows the President to express the "assertive character of Russian foreign policy in a much more pronounced manner. Without Syria, Russia would be perceived as a country with far limited choices."


From a political perspective, the long-standing ties between "some Russian officials and Assad's entourage, which have been consolidating since the time of Hafez," the former President and father of Bashar, are still valuable to the Russian plan, providing guarantee of access to the upper echelons of the Syrian system. From a strategic point of view, however, the Russians are interested in a "reliable base in the Mediterranean," thus Putin's entry in the Syrian war "is not surprising: Russian naval policy is long-standing, the question of the access to warm seas has always been there, and in the Kremlin's current phase of restoration the maritime strength is crucial. There is no doubt that the ability to rely on some support for the navy in the Mediterranean is fundamental."


The naval base caters for this need, although at certain times it has been reduced to a mere garrison. The Russians have preserved it since the Soviet era in Tartus, in the Alawite coastal area most loyal to the Assad regime. Moscow cannot afford to lose a longtime ally which can provide Russia with a strategic presence in the Mediterranean. This is why Russia did not hesitate in its first raids "to hit the forces opposing Damascus" in the Alawite area, "rather than the Caliphate militias."



A capable diplomacy



This is not just a show of Russian strength. In order to play again a significant role in the Middle East, the Russian military presence is supported -- as we have seen in the case of the decisive mediation during the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group -- by a diplomacy that, as professor Vitale confirms, "shows a very smart approach, thanks in part to the Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. He has proved to be cut above his U.S. expert counterparts." In fact, certain decisions "serve to highlight the proficiency of Russian foreign policy; the ability to act as mediators, facilitators of agreements and solutions to avoid conflicts. For this, Russian officials are highly skilled and trained at special schools. In the case of the nuclear pact, Lavrov has managed to combine the clout of mediation with resolving long-standing tensions." These are actions that testify to the intricate relationship between foreign and domestic policy: "In an almost textbook case, in seeking to regain lost international stature with this assertive foreign policy, Putin manages to reap the benefits for his domestic policy," stressed Professor Vitale. "There is a clear relationship between external intervention, an assertive foreign policy and the growth of internal consensus, by stirring Russian national sentiment" that strengthens the regime.



The Turkish variable



A perfect virtuous circle? Not exactly, firstly because it is not really a game that can go on forever: "Sooner or later, internal factors may influence foreign policy decisions. For example, the economic crisis -- cleverly concealed by the government -- might bring about a certain amount of exhaustion in the population," and secondly because Russian foreign policy risks rekindling old rivalries, with Turkey for instance. And it is precisely this tension with Turkey, rather than the possibility of a direct intervention on the ground, "an option that will probably be cast aside," which renders Russian action in Syria particularly dangerous. An incident, the accidental downing of a plane, an errant missile ending up in Turkish territory could have devastating effects: "Turkey is a member of NATO, and in accordance with Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, an incident could result in an allied intervention. It is an extremely dangerous situation."