By Dr. Spyros Plakoudas, Analyst KEDISA
More than a month ago, the world’s mass media circulated a startling development: Russian warplanes were deployed in Syria (after an official invitation by the beleaguered government of al-Assad) and started a new wave of aerial bombardment against the jihadists – a vague term since Moscow characterizes all enemies of al-Assad as jihadists without distinction. The main factions of the anti-Assad camp (Saudi Arabia, Turkey and NATO) were surprised and upset by the dynamic intervention of the Kremlin which threatened to undo the results of their policies since 2011.
Why did Russia intervene in support of al-Assad in late 2015 – almost long four years after the outbreak of the conflict? Should this initiative be attributed to Putin’s desire to aid his only Arab ally no matter the cost? Or has Putin decided to step in the conflict only to distract NATO and the USA from his actions in Ukraine? As in every political phenomenon, monocausal explanations do not suffice to convey reality; only an objective analysis of Putin’s idiosyncrasy and sound geopolitical theory can interpret Russia’s actions in Syria.
Undoubtedly, Russia intervened in Syria to support a regime on the verge of collapse after years of brutal civil war. In July 2015, al-Assad addressed a call to the Russian government for aid, citing the recent setbacks on the battle field. A steadfast supporter of al-Assad 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. Putin did not want to repeat the mistake of Libya, where Qaddafi was overthrown by NATO without any resolute reaction by Russia. Putin has invested heavily on his profile as a custodian of the status quo. After all, Putin has consistently promoted the image of Russia as an upholder of international law who opposes external interventions in the internal affairs of third countries. Moscow views the Syrian War not as a revolution against an autocracy but as a conspiracy orchestrated by the anti-Shia Western and Arab states to topple the pro-Iranian al-Assad. According to Moscow’s point of view, the West and its Sunni (Arab) allies follow in Syria the same old tactic of the Afghanistan War against the Soviet Union between 1979 and 1989: they foster the growth of nomadic jihad to topple a regional opponent without any regard for the monster they breed. The participation of thousands of jihadists from the Russian Caucasus (and Central Asia) has fuelled the anxieties of Russia, which already tries to hold the line against Jihadism in Central Asia (near the border with Afghanistan).
Russia in effect intervened in an ongoing ‘war by proxy’ between Iran and Saudi Arabia – the champions of Shia and Sunni Islam respectively – and their peripheral and international allies. Victory for the pro-Assad camp will obviously translate into the securing of the Shia Crescent (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon) and the consolidation of Russia’s influence in the Fertile Crescent – a region where more than 50% of the world’s oil reserves are situated. Russia would extend its influence in a region traditionally included within the US sphere of influence and, by extension, upgrade itself as an international actor. Russia currently tests its new military capabilities, the result of a silent revolution in military affairs after the war in South Ossetia in 2008, and its resolve to lead a ‘crusade’ against Jihadism in the Middle East and Central Asia. Syria will prove the test tube for the new military tactics and weapons of Russia and the battleground between Jihadism and Russian anti-Jihadism. In effect, Putin will kill two birds in one stone: he will wipe out the threat of the Russian jihadists to Russia’s national security and boost the legitimacy of Russia as the champion against Jihadism for its friendly regimes in Central Asia and the Middle East.
In addition, Russia wants to gain a foothold in the Eastern Mediterranean. Since the time of the Czars, Moscow longed for an exodus to the warm waters of the Mediterranean and the riches of the Near East since geography has not graced this northern ice-capped country with serviceable ports throughout the year. The recent discovery of vast energy reserves in the exclusive economic zones of Egypt and Israel radically changed the energy landscape of the region, creating opportunities and risks for Russia – a petro-state whose budget depends critically on energy exports. Therefore, Putin wants to have a say in the exploitation of the vast hydrocarbon reserves lest the energy-thirsty Europe turns its back on Russia by testing new energy suppliers and routes.
Putin, a former KGB intelligence officer, once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the severest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century and, since his first term of office, has striven consistently to reverse the outcome of the Cold War. He started by rebuilding the Soviet Union on new grounds, primarily through two institutions: the Collective Security Treaty Organization (a peripheral organization of collective security in Central Asia and the Caucasus) and the Eurasian Economic Union (an economic union that includes the majority of the post-Soviet states). The territories of the former Soviet Union comprise the Heartland – the most important region of the world in geopolitical terms. Putin’s efforts to reassert the control of Russia over the post-Soviet space (or near abroad in Russian political terms) have resulted in pre-emptive actions towards neighbouring countries such as Georgia and Ukraine. Putin views the recent Ukrainian Crisis as yet another effort by the USA and NATO to isolate and weaken Russia by denying it control over the Heartland. As a leader with a geopolitical view, Putin understands that Russia will remain slave to the status of a second-class power without control of the Heartland. Russia already lost several sections of the Heartland to the EU and NATO in the 1990s; now Russia will fight to the last man to guard its vital interests in Ukraine.
Putin has proven an adept chess player. Having guarded, at least temporarily, the vital interests of Russia in Ukraine and, by extension, over a substantial section of the Heartland, Putin moved his pawns in the grand geopolitical chessboard shrewdly. Russia currently challenges the US control over the Rimland in geopolitical terms, seeking access and influence in centres of power across the Heartland’s periphery (the Middle East and Western Europe) which are traditionally included in the US orbit. In addition, Russia attempts to establish alliances and organizations antagonistic to the USA and NATO – the Shanghai Treaty Organization and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). In other words, Putin strives to transform the international system into a multi-polar world where the USA will share power with Russia and other powers (e.g. China) rather than operate unilaterally. The outcome of the Syrian War will not only change the balance of power in the Middle East but also shape the geopolitical landscape in Eurasia – the World Island in geopolitical terms. And as Spykman characteristically stated, whoever controls the World Island dominates the destiny of the world.