In 2011, at the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Russia provided financial and indirect military aid to Bashar Al Assad. Then from 2015 they started providing direct military involvement. Their reasons for doing so were quite clear. Assad’s regime was favourable to them, they had a strategic naval base in the country and they wished to show the Americans and the nations of the Arab world that they could provide a valuable ally for these countries, free from the inane influence of America. Putin also stated during some briefings that he wished to remove Isis, the terrorists that had dominated large parts of Syria and Iraq. However, with Isis now all but defeated, one must wonder how much longer Russia can justifiably remain in Syria.
When Putin decided to actively involve Russia in Syria, he initially claimed it was to remove Isis. Then as that organisation steadily crumbled, it became about propping up the Assad regime and working with the various groups that were aiming at doing this, be it Hezbollah and their Iranian backers, or the Assad regime itself. Some believed that this approach was doomed to fail, due to the different agendas at play, with Iran wanting to make itself the dominant power in the region and Assad simply wanting to survive. However, two years later, it appeared as though Putin had succeeded. The rebels had been all but defeated and Assad was secure in his position of power. That was when trouble began to rear its ugly head.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly from Putin’s wider world view, is the conflict of interest with Israel. Israel is a nation surrounded by other nations that wish to see it removed. The Iranian regime has constantly decried its existence and has vowed to see Israel exterminated. With Assad looking reasonably comfortable in Syria, Israel must be worried over the possibility that Iran will continue to exert a stranglehold of influence over the man and that they and Hezbollah will continue stationing troops in the border region.
Israel’s desire to survive and face down any perceived threat from either Assad or Iran will conflict with Russia’s promise to both Assad and Iran that Russia can be viewed as their defender and main benefactor. This arises due to Putin’s strong belief in friendship with Israel, particularly their nationalist leader Netanyahu. This friendship and the belief in maintaining Israel goes back to Russia’s historical role as protector of Christians within the Holy Land and any loss of such a friendship could be potentially damaging for Putin and for Russia. Therefore, Moscow must be scratching its head over how to keep that alliance going.
Iran has not helped the quandary faced by Moscow. The launch of an Iranian drone into Israeli airspace saw the drone rapidly shot down, but the fact that it was weaponised only served to exacerbate tensions. This launch was considered part of Iran’s efforts to continue its expansive foreign policy in the Middle East, in which it has been encouraging the expansion of Shia-friendly states, as seen in Yemen and Lebanon. Whilst these actions might have served Russia well through antagonising the West, they are increasingly shifting the game into Israel’s backyard, and leading to a conflict that Russia just cannot afford to allow.
There is no clear-cut support for a long term strategy in Syria for Russia. After the events of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars of 2001 onwards, support for a prolonged conflict has diminished across both the West and Russia. Putin knows that any deaths of Russian soldiers would go down badly at home. However, with Iran and Israel using Syria as a proxy field, much like the Iranians and Saudis are doing in Yemen, one must wonder whether Putin feels comfortable leaving Syria to its own devices. The threat of a long term war in the region which could damage two key Russian allies is in no shape or form beneficial for Moscow.
This is particularly true following the accusations against Russia relating to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, and the tensions arising thereof with the West. Moscow knows it needs a win in Syria because it needs to show its allies and its voters that it can deliver on the dream of Russian strength. Yet strength with unending war is nothing but a waste. Putin knows this, but whether he can bail out of Syria in the foreseeable future remains in serious doubt.