6 October 2015 – Toronto, CA
Eric de Roos

These past weeks, the world witnessed one of the most noteworthy events this year in international relations. President Vladimir Putin significantly increased Russia’s involvement in Syria to include a commitment of Russian military assets within Syria. As a long-standing ally of the embattled Syrian government, led by Bashar al-Assad, Russia has been their main supplier of arms throughout the on-going civil war. This support has proved substantial. Indeed, it is worth noting that at the beginning of the conflict many assumed an overthrow of Assad was inevitable. Russia’s stalwart backing of Assad has ensured that his removal is anything but inevitable.

What has characterized the Syrian civil-war is the interconnected web of international actors that have their own respective stakes in the conflict. The numerous international actors involved has led some to label the Syrian conflict as a proxy war. However, it is far removed from the traditional bipolar proxy wars of the Cold War. Rather, there are several competing actors both inside and outside the region seeking to influence events. In some cases, this creates odd bedfellows – such as when the U.S. worked with Iran to stymie Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) incursion in Iraq. With the recent development of Russian involvement, it is worth reviewing the various actors involved in the conflict to see where the major players stand.

Bashar Al-Assad
The clearest beneficiary of the Russian intervention is, of course, the Assad Regime itself. Apart from the tangible military support being provided, almost as important is the show of confidence Russia has in Assad. While it was abundantly clear before the escalation that Russia was hedging its bets on the Syrian Government to win out, it appears now they are all-in on this strategy. For Assad, it demonstrates to the rest of the world the confidence Putin has the Assad will end up on the winning end of this conflict. Meaning that the countries opposed to Assad will have to show comparable levels of commitment to oust Assad, something they are unlikely to do. With it becoming ever apparent that Assad’s Regime is unlikely to fall under current conditions, more countries will begin to call for negotiations with Assad – something that was unheard of just two years ago.

Russian Air Force SU-30

Russia’s policy toward Syria has consistently supported its long-standing ally: the Syrian Government. With tangible interests in the country, it is no secret as to why Russia has supported Assad. While they have been in stark opposition to the U.S. – who has made the removal of Assad a foreign policy goal – Russia has been able to find common ground with U.S. over their shared opposition to ISIS. Indeed, it is under this common interest that Russia has sought to frame its intervention as principally one against ISIS. Over the past week, however, there have been numerous reports that Russian airstrikes have instead struck other rebel groups – ostensibly to aid Assad’s forces. It appears that Russia is focusing their attacks on U.S.-backed rebels over ISIS. Although this intervention does not make Russia into the global actor Putin desires, it does shore up support for its ally and seek to tactically improve their goals for the Syrian conflict, at least for the short term.

Iran benefits from Russia’s intervention in Syria simply based on their shared opponents in the conflict. Both Iran and Russia have actively supported Assad’s government against both the various rebel groups as well as ISIS. Since the beginning of the conflict, Iran has been active, supporting Hezbollah as a proxy force and ultimately sending trooping of their own. Already, Iranian forces have begun working with Russian air support to launch an offensive on Syrian rebels. Furthermore, increased Russian pressure on ISIS will aid Iran, who have been involved in the battle of ISIS’ eastern border in Iraq. A burgeoning regional power, Iran has been looking to expand its regional influence throughout the Middle East, something Russia’s intervention encourages.

Twin explosion in Kobane. ISIS claims it was not airstrikes, but a suicide bomber
Twin explosion in Kobane. ISIS claims it was not airstrikes, but a suicide bomber

The United States
The United States has the clearest interest in opposing Russia’s intervention in the region. At the beginning of the conflict, the Obama Administration led the calls against Assad’s Regime. However, for a variety of reasons, the U.S. was not prepared to back up its proclamations against Assad, leading to failed “red lines” and half-hearted attempts to train moderate rebels. Now with ISIS controlling a substantial part of Syria, the U.S. is faced with a “lesser of two evils” choice. It appears that this question has been answered and the Americans view Assad as the lesser evil. That said, the overall goal of removing Assad has not been abandoned, but it clearly has been postponed. The U.S. has condemned Russia’s intervention, but it remains unlikely they would take any steps to remove them Syria. There is little the U.S. can now do, other than to ramp up support for moderate rebels, who now have to contend against Russian airstrikes.



Feature Photo: Syrian Grunge Flag – Nicholas Raymond, Flickr, 2015

Inset Photo: Russian Air Force Su-30 – Wikimedia Commons, 2015

Inset Photo: Twin explosion in Kobane – Karl-Ludwig Poggemann, Flickr, 2015

DefenceReport’s Analysis is a multi-format blog that is based on opinions, insights and dedicated research from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The analysis expressed here are the author’s own and are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting.

By Eric de Roos

Eric de Roos is a Staff Analyst for DefenceReport. He also is a regular contributor to Vanguard Magazine, writing on foreign and defence policy. He holds a M.A. and B.A. (Honors) in political science from the University of Western Ontario. His master's thesis examined U.S. Civil-Military Relations from 2001-2003. He is a co-founder and adviser to the Leadership and Democracy Lab at the University of Western Ontario. He can be contacted at: [email protected]