Russia’s parliament approved a request by President Putin on 30th September to begin a series of aerial bombing raids to be carried out against “all terrorists” in Syria. With barely an hour’s notice to the US and to the West, Russia launched on their first military intervention in the Middle East in decades. Putin has reportedly said that his country is acting preventatively, with the aim of fighting, and subsequently destroying, the region’s militant and terrorist organisations on the land they already dominate, rather than waiting for the seeds of jihadism to spread. Russia has since responded to the widespread condemnation from the international community by publically claiming that the intervention was authorised by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, who, they have said, reached out to Putin to seek military assistance in the fight against both anti-government rebels and Islamic State.
Nevertheless, concerns have been raised that Russia’s air strikes could result in an elevated death toll. Opposition activists and rebel fighters in particular have conveyed their trepidation towards Russia’s decision to use aerial raids, speaking of a shared fear that if the raids continue, Russia will incur more civilian casualties than in the previous four years. The US Secretary for Defence, Ashton Carter, has also come out in open criticism of Russia’s unilateral decision to begin a bombing campaign, claiming that the approach is ill-fated, risks escalating the current civil war, and is tantamount to “pouring gasoline on the fire”.
It would appear that, rather than taking on Isil, Moscow is bombing opponents of Assad’s regime; evidence has arisen which verifies that anti-government rebels, backed by both Gulf and Western states, seem to be the true targets of Russia’s raids. Putin is one of Assad’s greatest allies on the international stage, with ties between Russia and Syria going back decades. The Syrian port of Tartous is the final remaining Russian naval base in the Middle East, a fact which leads us to one of the crucial reasons why Putin has decided to intervene. Moscow has an underlying motivation to meddle in a region where, since the Cold War, their power has significantly waned. Russia is attempting to re-establish a foothold in the Middle East, whilst seeking to challenge America’s influence over the region.
Equally, Putin has taken action in Syria in the hope that this could lead to a thawing in relations with his Western counterparts, as he attempts to deal with the economic sanctions enforced on Russia, along with a number of its top oligarchs. If Moscow is seen to be fighting a common battle with the West, he can only stand to gain from this; it is not only a daring move, but a tactical one, designed to draw attention away from Russia’s controversial occupation of Crimea and its continuing presence in Eastern Ukraine.
The airstrikes have blindsided Washington, and the prior failures of the US-led coalition have all worked to shift the balance of power in Putin’s favour. In once again providing backing for Assad, Putin will have forced the US to rethink its strategy, and to further consider the idea of maintaining Alawite rule whilst the issue of Isil is resolved.
The West’s lack of urgency in dealing with the crisis has encouraged Russia to step in and fill what they saw as a power vacuum. The US should not be afraid to work alongside Moscow, as they will need to be involved in any potential political transitions in Syria. America needs to reposition itself, as it cannot allow a conflict of ideology to manifest through a proxy war with Russia. It would be naive to raise fears of a new Cold War, but with both sides fuelling competing parties in the region, we cannot yet rule out a return to decades gone by.