World·Analysis

Russian airstrikes in Syria about regaining global status

Analysts say Moscow has entered the war in Syria to protect its interests in the Mediterranean, while gaining further status on the world stage. But it also raises the chance that Russia and the U.S. might end up shooting at each other.

But hitting rebels while the U.S. attacks ISIS raises the chance the rivals will hit each other

Keeping Russian warplanes in fighting shape

6 years ago
1:00
Technicians work on Sukhoi fighter jets at an airbase in Syria 1:00

Whenever a conversation turns towards Russia and its plans, those involved are usually only seconds away from hearing someone quote Winston Churchill. 

The British PM's famous line that Russia is "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" has, over the decades, often been presented as the last word on Moscow's foreign policy. 

It's a good line from a good speech. But Churchill hadn't finished his thought. 

There is, he added, perhaps a key to understanding Russia's actions. 

"That key is Russian national interest." 

And some analysts say that's exactly why Russian President Vladimir Putin sent the Russian air force into Syria this week — not so much to protect his ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but to maintain Moscow's presence in the region and rebuild its status on the international stage. 

"This goes way beyond Syria," says Sim Tack, a military analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence and adviser firm based in Austin, Texas. 

Russia sometimes shoots things down they shouldn't.— Analyst Jeffrey White

"Russia is actually playing a much bigger game, which relates to Russia's position in the Middle East, which has been decreasing. They've been losing influence," he says. 

"This is a way to come back table as a player ... and also on the international level." 

The crisis in Syria and the broader region "has been incredibly frustrating" for Russia, agrees Aram Nerguizian, an analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

Rebel snipers aim at Syrian army positions on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria. The presence of both Russian and U.S. forces in the prolonged conflict presents the possibility they might accidentally fire on each other. (Khalil Hamra/The Associated Press)
"So many different players have been shaping the battle in Syria and [Russia] has interests it wants to protect," he says. 

"It's not a matter of who's running Syria. What they want is to maintain strategic access in the Mediterranean." 

Moscow would likely lose its naval base in Syria — its only one in the Mediterranean — if the Syrian regime fell. It might also possibly lose whatever other military or intelligence assets it has in the country.

Jeffrey White, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Russia has good reason to support the Assad regime.

Stability for Assad gives Moscow "the ability to influence decision-making in Damascus and it gives them military access to a number of facilities in Syria," says White. 

Unforeseen consequences

But how far will Russia go to protect those interests? Is the arrival of its air force the first step towards a larger military presence? Or is this as far as Putin is willing to go? 

Supporters of the Syrian government hold a pro-Russian banner in 2011, after Moscow helped block a UN Security Council resolution condemning a crackdown in Damascus. (Muzaffar Salman/Associated Press)
Putting boots on the ground in a chaotic civil war could have unforeseen consequences. Observers note the Russian people still remember their bloody wars in Afghanistan and in Chechnya and might not be eager to get involved in another brutal conflict in the Muslim world.

One recent Russian press report, cited by the news agency Reuters, claimed that Russian soldiers about to go to Syria complained to their superiors and the country's human-rights council about the deployment and indicated they do not want to go. 

One soldier, speaking anonymously to a reporter, said, "We don't want to go to Syria. We do not want to go die there."

If this report is true, the Kremlin should be worried, say experts. Russians generally support the recent annexation of Crimea — even though the war in eastern Ukraine is not going well — but recent polling suggests they are against interventions abroad, with 77 per cent reportedly opposing Russian boots on the ground in Syria.

Stray bullets

There's also the consideration that Russia and the U.S. could — however inadvertently — end up shooting at each other; friendly fire being a risk when even the best of friends are on, or near, the same battlefield. 

Can the U.S. and its allies continue to make airstrikes against ISIS, while Russia and pro-Assad forces are simultaneously exchanging fire with the Syrian rebels, and ISIS, without a stray bullet eventually hitting the wrong target? 

Wednesday morning's attack by Russia on Homs was reportedly preceded by a warning to the U.S.-led coalition, though there were unconfirmed reports it didn't come through the usual channels or in enough time to be helpful. 

Analysts say the risk is low, but should be taken seriously.

"Neither side wants to get caught in a shooting war, on the ground or in the air," Nerguizian says, and it's expected the Russian and U.S.-led forces will be flying their missions in different parts of the country.  

That said, White notes dryly, "Russia sometimes shoots things down they shouldn't." 

With files from Reuters

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now