Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Putin, Assad, and Geopolitics

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

Putin, Assad, and Geopolitics

Article excerpt


On September 30, 2015, the world's news media circulated a startling development: Russian warplanes flew to Syria after an official invitation by the beleaguered government of Bashar al-Assad and waged a fierce wave of aerial bombardment against the regime's opponents. According to Putin, Russia stepped into the war to stem the tide of jihadi terror in Syria and beyond.1 However, the target lists of the Russian air force told a different story: From the outset, the Russian warplanes primarily targeted the Free Syrian Army and other armed Islamist organizations that threatened the regime's nerve centers (i.e., the Latakia-Damascus highway and the Alawite enclave) rather than the Islamic State.2 Only in November 2015 did the Russian warplanes shifttheir military focus to the Islamic State and, in particular, its oil industry (tankers and refineries).3 The main factions of the anti-Assad camp (most notably, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and NATO) were surprised and upset by the dynamic intervention of the Kremlin that threatened to undo the results of their policies since 2011.4

Why did Russia intervene in support of Assad in late 2015-almost a long four years after the outbreak of the conflict? Over the course of the following weeks, articles and analyses by prominent academics were published seeking to solve this riddle. Must this intervention be attributed to Putin's desire to aid his only Arab ally no matter the cost?5 Or has Putin decided to step in the conflict only to distract NATO and the United States from his actions in Ukraine?6 Or does Putin just want to show that Russia can still play in the "first league" of the world powers?7 Should this intervention be ascribed to Putin's aversion for "color revolutions" and popular uprisings?8 As with every political phenomenon, monocausal explanations do not suffice to convey reality; rather, a combination of the above explanations plus the insight of sound geopolitical theory can in effect interpret the true motives behind Russia's intervention in the Syria quagmire.


Undoubtedly, Russia intervened in Syria to support a friendly regime on the verge of collapse after years of brutal war. In July 2015, Assad addressed a desperate call to Putin for aid, citing the recent setbacks on the battlefield. Between March and June 2015, a newly-established alliance between the Islamist militant groups and the Free Syrian Army overran the regime's armed forces in northern Syria near the long frontier with Turkey-capturing Idlib, the capital of the homonymous province-and even scored some success in southern Syria near the Golan Heights. At the same time, the Islamic State attacked from the east and seized Palmyra in May 2015.9

A steadfast supporter of the Assad dynasty since the Cold War era, Moscow decided to intervene in Syria to secure its vital interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, despite the obvious costs and dangers for Russia's first military operation outside the periphery of the former Soviet Union since 1989. In fact, Syria hosts one of the two Russian military bases outside the Commonwealth of Independent States (the other is located in Vietnam) and the sole Russian naval base in the Mediterranean since the end of the Cold War.10 Russia cannot afford to abandon its only Arab ally after the end of Qaddafi. The latter was toppled by a NATO military intervention in 2011 and later on killed by the victorious Islamist rebels while Russia watched from a distance. Putin does not want to repeat the same mistake.11 In addition, the Russian strongman has invested heavily on his profile as a custodian of the status quo, which translates into support for autocrats in the Middle East and elsewhere no matter the human rights violations they may commit. After the "color revolutions" in the post-Soviet periphery and the Arab Spring, autocrats have begun to worry about their survival. Russia has reached out to them with tokens of friendship and guarantees of security. …

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