There has been widespread confusion among analysts about Russian motives in Syria, confusion that has led to flawed expectations. Russia never sought a 'winner-takes-all' victory. Rather, its entry into the conflict reflected its view that the West was a key obstacle in the way of a political settlement in Syria, hence its aim to weaken all armed groups and coerce a compromise.
Moscow’s surprise announcement this week that it will begin immediately to wind down its presence in Syria suggests its limited military objective has been achieved. This was outlined, along with an implicit exit strategy, by Putin on 11 October 2015. 'Our objective is to stabilise the legitimate authorities and create conditions for a political compromise', he said.
Moscow’s aim in Syria (and Ukraine) has been to constrain what it considers unilateralism and promote multilateral solutions that incorporate Russian security interests, an aim that flows from what Moscow views as a lack of acceptable representation of Russia in international security issues.
Besides preventing the spread of Islamic extremism to the post-Soviet space and shoring up Syria as an ally in a strategic region, it is widely recognised that Russia’s overarching motivation has been to reassert itself as a great power. The obsession with great power status is, however, persistently misconstrued in the West as either representing nationalist sentiments to augment the legitimacy of the leadership, or as simply reflecting the Russian mindset in which vanity or nostalgia for the past is prominent.
A typical mistake that strategists commit is to fight wars of the past. This is evident in the continuity of Cold War logic, which holds that Russia competes for dominance and expanding spheres of influence. In fact, Moscow appears to have neither the intention nor the capacity for such grand objectives.
Moscow challenges the post-Cold War security system simply because it was never adequately part of it. A mutually acceptable political settlement was not reached following the demise of the Soviet Union. Russia believes its initial weakness was exploited by the West when Gorbachev’s vision of an inclusive 'Common European Home' was abandoned in favour of an 'exclusive Europe' represented by an expanded NATO and EU. This left no space for Russia’s legitimate security interests. The reliance on NATO and the EU meant international security became an exclusive prerogative of the West.
Moscow consistently expresses its derision for the West’s ‘monopoly on security’, ‘bloc-politics’, ‘unilateralism’, and disregard for the primacy of the UN. It maintains international security unravelled as the West pursued regime change in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, and now in Syria.
Russia’s abrupt emergence as the principal power in Syria was a deliberate reminder that its exclusion from the main security institutions did not permanently diminish its voice in international affairs but, rather, made it more reliant on hard power.
William Perry, defence secretary to President Bill Clinton from 1994 to 1997, has recently argued that Russia’s aversion to NATO expansion and missile defence was not discussed or dismissed on the basis of its merit. Rather, the mindset was 'Who cares what they think? They’re a third-rate power'. Perry notes: ‘that point of view got across to the Russians'. Moscow realised that without hard power its security interests would be ignored.
Ample evidence suggests that great power status was initially rejected by Moscow and only re-emerged after it became evident that Russia would not be part of the new ‘Europe’. As warned by Andrei Kozyrev, the profoundly pro-Western first Foreign Minister of Russia under Yeltsin, the reluctance of the US to accept Russia as an equal stakeholder in the international system ‘doomed’ Russia to remain a Great Power. By definition, a great power wields power globally and must be included in order to resolve the world’s most pressing security challenges. In a similar vein, Kissinger argued last year that 'if we treat Russia seriously as a great power, we need at an early stage to determine whether their concerns can be reconciled with our necessities'.
Did Russia achieve these objectives in Syria?
While initially marginalised in the decision-making and belittled by Obama as a ‘regional power’, Russia is now a dominant stakeholder among those who will chart the future of Syria. Washington has switched from precluding compromise and discouraging militants to lay down their arms before Assad steps down, to conceding that Assad will maintain some presence. This was achieved by turning the tide of the Syrian war, reversing the momentum of ISIS and Western-backed armed groups. The cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea, transiting Iran and Iraq before striking targets in Syria, was ostentatiously orchestrated to display Russia’s advanced weaponry and its aptitude to develop alliances in defiance of Washington.
Moscow has demonstrated, to both the region and the West, the value of accommodating Russia as an ally, and the costs it can inflict if its security interests are ignored.
The Russian military mission has reached the stage where the benefits of leaving Syria outweigh the costs. Russia has balanced what it considered to be unilateral Western actions and facilitated multilateralism and compromise. The partial withdrawal dispels the narrative of Russia seeking a complete victory over the West. As Putin stated: ‘I hope today’s decision will be a good signal for all conflicting parties. I hope it will sizeably increase trust of all participants in the process’.
Dispelling the illusion of unconditional support for Damascus is not only a concession to the West. It is also intended to put pressure on Assad, who has displayed a willingness to contest the conditions of the ceasefire and political settlement endorsed by Moscow.
Equally important is Moscow’s determination not to overplay its hand. The memory of the Soviet quagmire in Afghanistan is still fresh, and the fear of mission creep still strong. Turkey's shooting down of a Russian fighter jet in November made the prospect of war with a NATO member an uncomfortable possibility. With both Turkey and Saudi Arabia experiencing a violent blow-back from their involvement in Syria, and instability and uncertainty increasing, now appears an ideal time for Russia to scale back.
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