Russia has a new agenda when it comes to policies on the civil war in Syria. For economic, military and political reasons Moscow has positioned itself as an imperative backer of the Assad regime.
Conflict within Syria began in 2011 when anti-government protests known collectively as the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East and Northern Africa. The demonstrations in Syria were met by a violent military response sanctioned by the current dictator, Bashar al-Assad (1). His actions lead to a civil war, which tallied a death toll of 470,000 people as of early 2016, and gave rise to the world’s largest refugee crisis since WWII (2,3).
The war has become so problematic that major nations have joined the conflict supporting opposing sides and providing aid. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States support the removal of Assad from power, and the US specifically backs the national coalition, or moderate rebels, by providing military aid. However, Russia chosen a very different strategy (4).
Under Assad’s command Russia began a series of air strikes in September of 2015 which Putin claimed targeted only ISIS and other jihadist groups. Despite Russia’s assertions American backed troops and civilians were killed in the airstrikes and appeared to be directly targeted (5). Currently, the city of Aleppo is Russia’s main target.
Assad wants control of the city which used to be Syria’s largest commercial center and, prior to the attacks, was one of the most strategic holdings of the rebels. As the bombing continues and the rebels begin to lose control of the city; bitterness between Russia and America grows as they are unable to come to an agreement for a ceasefire to save the civilians (6). For Putin’s strategic reasons he has refused to be cooperative with other nations seeing this as a chance to display Russia’s power. As America’s presidential election looms closer, new decisions will be made on Syrian and Russian foreign policy that may change the course of the war.
Putin and Assad have been close allies since the Cold War. The strength of their loyalty to one another was revealed in 2009 when Assad refused to sign off on a pipeline that would pass through Syria and bring oil from Saudi Arabia to Turkey (7). Completing this pipeline would have hurt Russia’s oil business drastically as Europe would have access to lower cost fuel. Europe accounts for 80% of Russia’s oil market, so Moscow would’ve faced grim conditions if Europe were to turn to other fuel sources (8). This has been one of Russia’s main financial concerns throughout the Syrian civil war and may be the central reason behind Russia’s support of Assad.
This was not the only pipeline proposal that Syria was approached with. In 2012 Syria signed off on Iran’s pipeline proposal which received Russia’s blessing. The pipeline was projected to be completed by 2016 however the civil war in Syria has brought a halt to its construction (9). If we are to take a step back and look at the civil war in Syria and other nations’ involvement it becomes evident that the major nations involved have something to gain or lose from the completion of the pipeline. Russia understands this and is making every effort to remain in Assad’s good graces.
The relationship between Assad and Putin is currently more important than ever for Russia as its economy struggles and it looks to establish world military leadership. Oil prices are falling because Saudi Arabia is able to pump at a fast rate, making it difficult for Russia to compete with their prices (10).
Western sanctions over Ukraine have also contributed to a difficult oil market for Russia. Gas and oil production account for over half of Russia’s revenues and their slide has contributed to GDP shrinking a whopping 3.7% in 2015. It is predicted that 2016 will also be a rough year for Russia’s economy as their reliance on the oil markets and lack of diversification contribute to the decline (11). Russia will hope Assad remains in power as Syria’s strategic positioning is crucial to Russia’s monopoly of oil in Europe (12).
Not only is Russia’s economic prosperity in jeopardy if Assad is removed, but Russia’s military power will also suffer. Russia has only one naval base in the Mediterranean, which is located in the Syrian port of Tartous (13). It would be unlikely as well as costly for Russia to develop another base in the Mediterranean if Assad fell largely because of their poor relationships with many NATO countries.
(1) "Syria: The Story of the Conflict." BBC News. BBC, 11 Mar. 2016. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
(2) Boghani, Priyanka. "A Stagering New Death Toll for Syrian War." Frontline. PBS, 11 Feb. 2016. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
(3) Foroohar, Kambiz. "West Slams Russia for Aleppo Bombings at UN Security Council." Bloomberg. Bloomberg, 25 Sept. 2016. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
(4) "Syria Crisis: Where Key Countries Stand." BBC News. BBC, 30 Oct. 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
(6) Foroohar, Kambiz. "West Slams Russia for Aleppo Bombings at UN Security Council." Bloomberg. Bloomberg, 25 Sept. 2016. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
(7) Lynch, Colum. "Why Putin Is So Committed to Keeping Assad in Power." Foreign Policy Comments. N.p., 7 Oct. 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
(8) Ahmed, Nafeez. "The US-Russia Gas Pipeline War in Syria Could Destabilize Putin." Middle East Eye. N.p., 30 Oct. 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
(9) Lynch, Colum. "Why Putin Is So Committed to Keeping Assad in Power." Foreign Policy Comments. N.p., 7 Oct. 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
(10) Ahmed, Nafeez. "The US-Russia Gas Pipeline War in Syria Could Destabilize Putin." Middle East Eye. N.p., 30 Oct. 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
(11) Chance, Mathew. "Syria: 5 Things Russia Wants in War." CNN. Cable News Network, 8 Feb. 2016. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
(12) Butter, David. "Russia's Syria Intervention Is Not All About Gas." Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. N.p., 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2016
(13) "Syria Crisis: Where Key Countries Stand." BBC News. BBC, 30 Oct. 2015. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
Image: © Vicspacewalker | Dreamstime.com - Syrian Protesters In Moscow Photo