World·Analysis

Russia's expansion into Syria won't end anytime soon

Russia's military intervention in Syria has several goals — the urgently practical, the psychological and the long-term strategic — and none are so trivial that President Vladimir Putin will easily walk away from them.

Risks for Putin are very real, but potential gains are considerable

Russia's military intervention in Syria has several goals — the urgently practical, the psychological and the long-term strategic — and none are so trivial that President Vladimir Putin will easily walk away from them. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Reuters)

During the Cold War, Moscow's strategy of bold advance followed by only partial, diplomatic retreat was often called "two steps forward, one step back." President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin, though, is not so keen on the "step back."    

He seizes the Crimea, and stays; uses a proxy war to slice off part of Ukraine, and scoffs at Western attempts to force him back; all the while continuing to bat aside international demands that he give up the two separatist areas of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, that he firmly rolled into Russia's orbit back in 2008.

So don't expect Putin's expansion of Russian muscle in Syria is going to end anytime soon.  

The Kremlin has several goals — the urgently practical, the psychological and the long-term strategic — and none are so trivial that Putin will easily walk away from them.

The urgent objective, of course, is to pound rebel groups in closest proximity to the remaining territory of President Bashar al-Assad, in the country's west. The bombing, shelling and cruise missiles are needed to give the dictator's war-weary and losing forces a breather to regroup and rearm.

Russian airstrikes have hit some ISIS targets, though mainly in the east of Syria, removed from the central war zone. (Alexander Kots, Komsomolskaya Pravda/Associated Press)
Moscow initially claimed the strikes were aimed at the global menace, ISIS, and that the West should align itself with Russia and Assad to destroy the jihadist scourge (skirting objections that the Assad regime's war on the population set conditions for the early rise of ISIS).

Some ISIS targets have been hit, but as very secondary aiming points as they lie mainly in the east of Syria, fairly removed from the central war zone. 

By far, Putin's two priority targets are rebels directly confronting Assad — insurgent forces under the jihadist Nusra Front in the north around Aleppo and Adlib — and the hodge-podge of so-called moderate rebel groups supported by the U.S. coalition, around Homs and Hama.  

To Russia they are all "terroristic" and it seems this softening-up phase of attacks is meant to kick off a future counter-attack by revived Assad forces — bolstered not only by Russian air and artillery, but also by ground troops from Iran's special forces and Hezbollah guerrillas from Lebanon.   

Bizarre contradiction

It's one of the dark ironies of Syria today that the Western-backed anti-Assad rebels will bear the brunt of the new attacks mainly because Assad and his allies don't have to concern themselves with ISIS at the moment — since that force is being most conveniently bombed by Canada and fellow nations of the U.S.-led coalition.  

Putin seems confident that stop-the-war pressure will force the West to lean on those rebel groups it can influence to accept a negotiated piece. (Hamid Khatib/Reuters)
Reaction in the West suggests governments are stunned both by Russia's boldness and by this bizarre contradiction that the coalition bombing clearly aids both Russia's aims and Assad's survival. 

It all helps Putin's intended psychological bombshell that he intends real bombs will punctuate — crushing any remaining optimism that Western support for an "Assad Must Go" insurgency has even the remotest chance of success.

One can expect, as that already flimsy hope of Assad's downfall is obliterated by Russia's intervention, that the already ghastly horrors of the war will all seem increasingly unendurable to the outside world, as the mass deaths and the spreading refugee crisis continues month after month.

Putin seems confident such stop-the-war pressure will force the West to lean on those rebel groups it can influence to accept a negotiated peace, one that concedes Russia and Assad will be crucial participants in any transition. If Western-backed rebels fade from the combat picture Assad and Russia will concentrate on eliminating the extreme jihadists, while demanding Western collaboration as a joint objective.

The risks for Putin are very real, as numerous governments have now warned him, but the potential gains are also considerable. In shoring up Assad, Moscow keeps vital naval and air bases in Syria, while the regime this week promised him more bases to come. It also has a clear stake in any rebuilding of Syria whenever peace is attained.

Standing by allies

It's the long term geo-political gains, however, that the world should watch. By this action Putin has already boldly marked Russia's return as a serious strategic player in the Middle East — a position it largely lost in 1973 following Syria's defeat in the Yom Kippur War. Spreading influence in the Middle East greases Russia's return to superpower status so desired by Putin.

As the already flimsy hope of Assad's downfall is obliterated by Russia's intervention, one can expect the already ghastly horrors of the war and its refugee crisis will seem increasingly unendurable to the outside world. (Mohammed Zaatari/Associated Press)
Last month Putin told interviewers at the UN in New York that the solo-superpower era monopolized by the U.S. had not worked, and especially had flopped in the Mideast after the invasion of Iraq and overthrow of Libya.   

Russian diplomats, meanwhile have been contrasting Putin's reputation of standing by allies like Assad, in contrast to what they sneer at as the U.S. habit of ditching friends — like the Shah of Iran in the 1970s and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt during the Arab Spring — whenever Washington felt passing winds of change were more important than loyalty.  

Putin's well-calculated act as the steadfast one isn't going unnoticed. Despite warning that many anti-Assad and pro-Sunni regimes would turn on Russia, Moscow's influence seems to be spreading as Washington's appears increasingly fragile.  

"There is a bizarre kind of grudging respect in parts of the Arab world for what they see as Russian steadfastness and decisiveness in contrast to what they perceive as the dithering of the U.S.," Michael Hanna, Arab expert with the Century Foundation says.  

As evidence, Moscow has already played host to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi an eyebrow-raising four times since he came to power, while Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, formerly resentful of Russia's support for Assad, this year have demonstrably improved ties and new treaty links to Moscow.

It may be only fragile friendship in a very dangerous region, which the next American administration may counter in time. Perhaps it's Putin's quagmire to come, but to this point Putin's reputation for not taking those steps backwards is helping build Russia's influence in the very heart of the Middle East.  

About the Author

Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

One of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents, Brian Stewart is currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He also sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.

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