Russia's priority is the survival of Assad's regime

2015-11-18 13:09
Syrian President Bashar Assad. (File, AP)

Syrian President Bashar Assad. (File, AP)

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As part of the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774, Russian forces under the leadership of Count Alexei Grigoryevich Orlov attacked the Syrian coastline and even briefly occupied Beirut. Russia's goal was to support the local strongman Zahir al-Umar with his uprising against the Ottoman Empire.

Today, more than 240 years later, Russia is back in the region.

In 1772, Russia's intervention in the Levant was about religion. One of the concessions Catherine the Great received from her victory over the Turks was the status of protector of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire.

Today, Moscow's intervention in Syria is not about religion, but about Vladimir Putin's grand strategy for Russia's role in the world.

No major change

In the same way Russia is only an Asian power and not a European power without exerting influence in Eastern Europe, Russia is only a regional power and not a global power if it is not an actor in the Middle East.  

Russia's commitment to fighting ISIS has always been second to Putin's desire to keep Bashar Assad in power. Russia maintains an important naval base in the Alawite-dominated region of Tartus in Syria and Putin wants to maintain this base at all cost.

Also read: Could Syria be Putin's Afghanistan?

Even if the rest of Syria burns and ISIS controls vast swaths of territory, but Assad (or someone friendly to the Russians) remains in power in the Alawite heartland, Putin will be happy.

This is why the announcement that the Russian airliner blown up last month over the Sinai Peninsula was brought down by a homemade bomb will not change Moscow's Syrian policy of supporting Assad first and fighting terrorism second.

A lot of talk

Like him or not, Putin is a man of action and he will need to be seen as doing something in response to the bombing of the airliner. But anyone thinking Russia is going back into the Levant a la 1772 will be sorely disappointed.

Russia's response will likely follow the recent French response to the Paris attacks: a lot of tough talk followed by dropping a few extra bombs in Raqqa on targets that have already been hit multiple times in the past.

Russia might follow up with a couple of high profile Special Forces raids on ISIS targets. However, make no mistake: Russia's first priority is, and remains, the survival of a sympathetic regime in Damascus that will be an ally of Russia.

Russian forces are stretched

Anyway, it is unlikely that Russia could do a whole lot more in Syria militarily even if it wanted to, especially if it decided to simultaneously keep Assad in power and take on ISIS in any meaningful way.

The Russian military is stretched and Moscow's state finances are dwindling.

A vast majority of the Russian military has been maintained at a very high level of readiness since the war in Ukraine started almost two years ago. This has placed a huge strain on a military force notoriously known for low morale.  

Hundreds of troops and dozens of aircraft, armoured vehicles, artillery pieces, and anti-aircraft missiles are already supporting Assad in Syria and this mission has no end in sight.

In addition to the thousands of troops in Crimea and the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, Russia maintains a large military presence outside its national borders in Belarus, parts of occupied Georgia, the breakaway enclave of Transnistria in Moldova, Armenia, and Tajikistan (the borders of the former Imperial Russian Empire). Russia has also expanded its military presence in the Arctic.

Also read: Analysis: A reluctant Russia in the Middle East? 

All of this has occurred while oil revenues have collapsed and international economic sanctions are hurting.

Putin is already close to biting off more than he can chew and a large scale military intervention in Syria to confront ISIS could be the straw that breaks the camel's back. He knows this.

Putin is focused

For Moscow, keeping Assad in power is more important than defeating ISIS. Putin is too focused on his strategic aim of making Russia a global power than to let the downing of a civilian airliner change his strategy in Syria.

As the West focuses its energy on ISIS, it is less focused on Russia's designs on Eastern Europe or Iran's nuclear programme. This benefits Russia.

There might be hints of cooperation between Russia and the West coming from the Kremlin, the White House, and the Elysee Palace to confront ISIS, but do not be fooled.

The long term strategic goals of the West and Moscow are too different to be reconciled by the downing of a Russian commercial aircraft or the attacks in Paris, even with the enormous loss of life resulting from those attacks.

Frankly speaking, the West and Russia share the same common interests in Syria in the same way a customer and a robber share the same common interests in a bank.

Do not expect this to change in the near future.

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC-based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States Army.

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

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