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Why is Russia sending troops to Syria?

Geopolitical opportunism alone cannot account for Putin’s latest move

September 18, 2015 2:00AM ET

The most recent season of the Netflix series “House of Cards” features a plotline in which a fictional Russian president named Viktor Petrov deploys peacekeepers to the Middle East.

When the series came out in February, the premise was widely ridiculed for being far-fetched. But now, just seven months later, Petrov’s real-world inspiration, Vladimir Putin, has taken on a major new security commitment by beginning a major military deployment near the Syrian port of Latakia.  And on Thursday, Reuters reported that the Syrian army had begun using Russian-supplied weapons in their fight against rebels attempting to topple president Bashar al-Assad.

Putin is intervening in Syria even as the Kremlin continues to give (officially-denied) military support to separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, and in spite of the significant damage Russia’s economy has suffered as a result of retaliatory Western sanctions and falling global energy prices. So far Russia has deployed “about half a dozen T-90 tanks, 15 howitzers, 35 armored personnel carriers, 200 marines and housing for as many as 1,500 personnel,” according to The New York Times.

This has prompted alarm in Western capitals. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has warned Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov against an expanded Russian role in Syria’s horrific civil war, and governments ranging from Canada to Israel have also expressed concern. Under U.S. pressure, Bulgaria has blocked Russia from flying military supplies through its airspace, so Russia is routing its deliveries through Iran and Iraq instead—the latter of which, of course, is ostensibly a U.S. ally.

Many Western observers see these deployments as evidence of a resurgent Russia expanding its influence as the U.S. retreats from the Middle East. The timing of Russia’s deployments does line up neatly with Putin’s planned appearance at the United Nations General Assembly later this month, where he may convene with U.S. President Barack Obama. But geopolitical opportunism alone cannot account for Russia’s policy in Syria and Putin’s commitment to Syria’s embattled president.

In the West, Assad is widely and rightly regarded as an abusive dictator. His brutal crackdown on demonstrators in the spring of 2011 led to an all-out civil war that has killed more than 200,000 Syrians, displaced millions, and triggered the worst international refugee crisis in decades. Almost from the start, the U.S. and other Western governments have called for Assad to be removed from power, while Russia has provided Damascus with military aid and blocked the U.N. from taking action against the Syrian government.

Russia’s callous obstructionism in defense of Assad’s atrocities isn’t taking place in a vacuum. Putin sees the recent history of the Middle East as a series of incidents in which the U.S. overthrows stable, albeit tyrannical, governments, and leaves chaos in their wake. This includes the 2003 Iraq invasion, which toppled Saddam Hussein and unleashed a sectarian civil war that rages to this day, and the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, which saw Muammar Gaddafi murdered and the collapse of the Libyan state into warring militias.

Because U.S. foreign policy is theoretically guided by a commitment to human rights, policymakers have a hard time taking sides in a conflict defined by atrocities on all sides.

Russia vetoed the Iraq invasion in the U.N. Security Council, to no avail. In the case of Libya, Putin is said to have been furious that Russia’s then-President Dmitry Medvedev abstained rather than vetoed intervention. Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, has speculated that Gaddafi’s fall was the moment when Putin began to rein in Medvedev in preparation for his return to the presidency.

Ukraine presented yet another instance of Putin’s nightmare scenario when President Viktor Yanukovych, another Russian client, fled the country early last year in the face of mass protests. In Russia, the pro-European Maidan demonstrations in Kiev were widely interpreted as a Western-backed coup intended to push NATO deeper into former Soviet territory; Putin, who witnessed similar demonstrations on the streets of Moscow when he announced his return to the presidency, has been determined to avoid facing a similar fate to Yanukovych, or worse, Gaddafi.

These anxieties help account for Russia’s increasingly bold support for Assad. The Russian-Syrian relationship dates to the Cold War and provides, among other things, Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean. Nonetheless, The Guardian reported this week that in 2012, Russia was willing to arrange for Assad to step down as part of a negotiated settlement to Syria’s war, which the U.S. and its allies rejected in favor of a forced regime change. But now, at a time when Assad’s forces are on the ropes, Russia is stepping up to confront the Syrian regime’s enemies directly.

Even critics of Russia’s Syria policy must admit it has the virtue of coherence. In Washington, on the other hand, no one knows quite what to do. Obama called for Assad to step down as early as 2011, but has been reluctant to use military power to enforce this, even after the regime used chemical weapons in violation of a U.S.-declared “red line.” The more recent rise and well-publicized atrocities of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have further complicated U.S. strategy.

In theory, the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend, but the U.S. isn’t prepared to formally ally with Assad or his Iranian patrons, who represent the front line against ISIL. The situation is so absurd that former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus recently mulled arming al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, a strategy few U.S. politicians would feel comfortable pursuing. Indeed, Syria is so divisive in Washington that former Secretary of State and current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has publicly criticized Obama, her former boss, for not taking her advice and arming Syrian rebels in 2011.

Because U.S. foreign policy is theoretically guided by a commitment to human rights and democracy, American policymakers have a hard time taking firm sides in a conflict defined by atrocities on all sides. Meanwhile, Russia’s unsentimental approach rests on the uncomfortable premise that a state run by Assad is better than no state at all.

At this point, the U.S. can’t openly work with Assad without losing face. But an internationally brokered cease-fire agreement, with Assad remaining in power in the parts of Syria he still controls, remains the best hope of containing ISIL and stemming the refugee crisis, both of which are higher priorities than regime change.

Putin will necessarily be a key player in any such agreement. Few in Washington are eager to work with him, but U.S. strategy in the Middle East would be better served by cooperating with Russia, and therefore indirectly with Assad, in the interest of regional stability. 

David Klion is a writer and editor focusing on Russia and the former Soviet Union. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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