The September 30, 2015 launch of Russian air strikes on targets inside Syria marked a watershed in international politics. Immediately after the strikes began, speculations over what kind of policy the nation’s President Vladimir Putin was intending to pursue in the field of Middle East politics. The motives of Moscow’s military operation remain the subject of ongoing debate; a debate that has split policy-makers, diplomats, and the expert community into two squabbling camps.
Where one camp regards Russia’s moves in Syria as a genuine effort from Moscow to combat terrorism, and is seen as a part of Moscow’s own war on terror, others suspect Putin of pursuing a secret agenda in the Middle East. This latter camp holds that, in launching strikes, Moscow aims to eradicate the moderate Syrian opposition so that it might keep Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad’s crumbling regime afloat. This camp sees reference to any “fight against Islamic terrorists” as pure propaganda.
Russia’s official position is that air attacks on Syrian soil aim to counter ISIL in a battlefield far away from Russia as a pre-emptive move to ensure that the group does not begin terrorizing the nation’s backyard, and infiltrate ex-Soviet Central Asian republics to Russia’s south. This position remains unconvincing to the West and vast parts of the Arab world, including Gulf monarchies.
While the two positions on Russia’s stated aims seem clear enough at first, confusion has entered the debate first on account of language. While some describe Russia’s action in Syria as a “military intervention,” others see it as an attempt to forge a joint global alliance against ISIL in the same way as an international anti-terrorist coalition was formed in 2001 in Afghanistan, following the September 11 2001 attacks. Before coming to a conclusion as to the effects of Russian intervention, it is first necessary to understand Moscow’s real intentions when it comes to the Middle East.
Looking at the evolution of Russia’s politics in the context of the rapid transformations across Arab world, a clear picture emerges. This paper will show how, in light of Moscow’s political history, the case of the Syrian crisis can be well described as an acid test, and can explain why Russia has made the choices it has, what its ‘red lines’ are, and what its ultimate goals are at this historic juncture.
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