Over the past week, Russia has mobilized a small but significant military force into Syria, compounding an already volatile regional situation with direct international intervention. Russian installations along Syria’s Mediterranean coast are far short of a full invasion force, but represent a meaningful escalation, potentially making Russia – for the first time – a direct participant in the war. Many wonder why Russia’s military is intervening in Syria now and how come the West accepts this intervention.
On the surface, Russia’s aim seems clear: in recent weeks, it looked like Bashar Assad – a longtime Russian ally – might be losing to the Islamic State (IS) forces. This would mean a setback to Russian strategic interests in the Middle East and on the Mediterranean Basin.
Iran, the regional power that stood by Assad’s side, seems to have taken a step back from that pledge in light of the recently reached Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, colloquially known as Iran’s nuclear deal. The coalition of western countries, which took it upon itself to fight terrorism in Syria, has been incapable of curbing the westward expansion of the IS forces; now at Lebanon’s borders and only tens of kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea. No one denies that both Russia and the West have no interest whatsoever in seeing the IS acquire seafront territory in Syria or access to the sea anywhere else – for as long as IS remains landlocked, it is easy to contain. On the other hand, the West alone is unwilling and unable to defend Assad for many reasons: 1) Politically, it would be against their declared position from Assad. Most western countries have made clear declarations in the past supporting Assad removal from power; foremost among those was Obama’s call for Assad to step down, back in 2011; 2) Countries that would normally intervene militarily lack the will and the power to deploy troops on the ground in Syria, this time around; and 3) Syria is still regarded as Russian strategic territory despite surreptitious attempts, by the West, at pulling it away.
But there’s a lot more going on here than might first meet the eye and not all of it has to do with Syria. First, creating Russian-protected “safe zones” for civilians in Syria offers a better chance of success than Turkish- or Arab-protected zones and is likely to curb the flux of migrant refugees into Europe. Over the past month, tension has risen in several European countries over controlling the number of refugees. Second, allowing the Islamist entity a victory in Syria poses a strategic threat to Russia and Europe if one is to assume that Turkey would naturally ally itself with such a state.
Therefore, both Russia and the West saw in Syria an opportunity for a common cause that would restore relations between them, after the stand-off in Ukraine: a Western-Russian coalition to fight IS.
Meanwhile, the pro-Islamist agenda will have to suffer another setback in Syria – much like it did in Egypt more than a year ago – and Bashar Assad is likely to outlast Barack Obama in power.