Making Sense of Russia’s Involvement in Syria

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s visit to Moscow — coming on the heels of a dramatic Russian military intervention on his behalf — has once again brought public attention to the question of Assad’s future. For most regional observers, there is no possible scenario which envisions a long-term role for the embattled Syrian president. Some suspect that the Russians and the Iranians are very aware of this, but are buttressing him in a bid for more time to exert influence in a post-Assad Syria. There is also much debate over the long-standing question of who could viably replace Assad in any negotiated peace deal, given the immense task of keeping Syria intact while simultaneously ridding it of ISIS. Meanwhile, neighboring countries like Turkey and Jordan feel that their proximity to Syria entitles them to a seat at the table in any negotiations over Syria’s future.

For many, like Asharq Alawsat‘s Amir Taheri, it is clear that, regardless of the security conditions in Syria, there can be no scenario under which Al-Assad remains as the country’s leader: “As the Syrian tragedy continues to bleed that nation, a cliché is making the rounds in policymaking circles and think tanks across the globe: There could be no solution without Bashar al-Assad!…Until a year ago, the fashionable cliché was different: There could be no solution unless Assad goes!…Seeking an alliance with Assad is not only morally wrong but also ineffective as a strategy. It is morally wrong because Assad is now irretrievably associated with crimes against humanity that no diplomatic double-talk could camouflage….Regardless of his personal qualities, or lack of them, Assad has become a symbol of what most Syrians do not want. If, and when, he goes, a space will open in which those who do not want him may seek a compromise with those, in dwindling number, who wanted him.”

In an op-ed for the Saudi daily Arab News, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed expresses the view that the non-viability of a long-term Assad presidency is clear to the Russians and the Iranians as well; however, they are both propping up the regime to buy time in order to exert more influence: “The idea that Syrian President Bashar Assad will remain in power has worried many….The Assad regime and its allies are repeating it in the context of suggesting that their rivals have submitted, and that Russian intervention has changed the course of the war. So is Assad really staying?…He governs less than a third of the country, and has a small army and security apparatus….There is nothing left of the elements of a state. Assad stays among tombs, as he confronts thousands of rebels. On the practical level, as a ruler he exists only in the statements of his allies….Even the Iranians, who are the most keen to keep Assad in power, are aware of the impossibility of him staying. However, they want to control the course of negotiations and decide the fate of future governance in Syria….It is impossible for him to resume as a legitimate president. The Syrian cause has not been sold, and it is not fit to be sold.”

But as Raed Omari points out in a recent Al-Arabiya op-ed, there are few genuinely viable options for Mr. Assad’s replacement, which makes the envisioning of a post-Assad Syria more difficult: “The question of who could replace Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been asked throughout the conflict, and has gained urgency amid defections and rebel gains against his regime. The formation of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), and its military arm the Free Syrian Army (FSA), brought to the fore Syrian politicians, army defectors and technocrats who were viewed as transitional figures….One of the most important factors in the debate over a viable replacement for Assad is the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He has used the group as a scarecrow, with the message: ‘Better me than ISIS.’ Russia’s military intervention in support of the regime is another complicating factor, with Assad now seemingly unconcerned about being replaced. He will likely leave Syria’s political scene one way or another, but he will probably be replaced by a national assembly that includes regime figures, rather than by an opposition representative.”

From Turkey’s perspective, the more immediate concerns, suggests Hurriyet Daily News‘ Semih Idiz, are related to its internal security  and the possible alliances between the U.S. military and Kurdish groups, some of which have engaged in military skirmishes with Turkish forces: “Some Western diplomats believe al-Nusra is still receiving clandestine assistance from Turkey….Moscow knew Turkey’s position on Syria all along, and this did not prevent it from getting militarily involved to shore up Bashar al-Assad’s regime, even though it was aware that this would annoy Ankara deeply. As for the vast economic and energy interests between the two countries, these cut both ways….Looking at the picture as it really is, and not as some Turkish official would like it to be, one is reminded again of how important it is for Ankara to get real and recalibrate its Syrian policies, instead of floating notions clearly aimed at a domestic audience that is increasingly wary of the cost of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s misguided policies.”

Iran, for its part, has been quick to support the Russian involvement in Syria. The Tehran Times Political Desk recently reported that “Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani…reiterated Tehran’s position that Iran supports Russia’s air attacks against terrorists in Syria, noting Moscow move is based on a ‘realistic’ view and a request by the Syrian government. ‘Fighting terrorism is not a tactical and temporary issue, and given the spread of terrorist acts in the region [the Mideast], there should be a well-organized plan to counter them,’ Larijani said before traveling to Russia on Wednesday. Larijani traveled to Russia to attend the 12th meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club.”

Jordan, which has been hit hard by the Syrian immigrant crisis, is keen to make its voice heard. In a recent editorial, the country’s main daily, Jordan Times, called on the United States and the Russians to ensure that Jordan has a seat at the negotiation table: “U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry decided that he should also be talking to Jordan, alongside Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, if peace in Syria were to be given a chance. Kerry announced recently that he intended to engage a number of countries in an effort to find a common denominator that would help settle the chronic conflict in Syria….The world, the two superpowers, the U.S. and Russia, particularly, cannot rely on mere force to combat Daesh and other extremist organizations now rife in Syria. There is need for a holistic approach to arrive at a solution in Syria and to fight radicalism in the region, one that Jordan has been suggesting all along. The Kingdom, by virtue of its geographical position, principled position and for hosting a huge number of refugees, should be nothing less than a full partner in the search for a political solution to the Syrian conflict.”

Finally, there are those, like Today’s Zaman‘s Aydogan Vatandas, who are trying to read the tea leaves to determine what the unfolding events in Syria mean for the U.S. role in the region and whether a reordering of great power and middle power relations may be in the cards: “While President Obama made clear that his government supports a managed transition to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, the Russian military campaign in Syria has demonstrated that Russia has not changed its position on Syria and is safeguarding the Assad regime….It is true that the United States is the military hegemon in the Middle East, maintaining a large presence that includes the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, Naval Support Activity Bahrain, army bases in Kuwait and Turkey and a training presence throughout the region. However, this huge military power doesn’t seem sufficient to dissuade Russia from military aggression in Syria. If the US government accepts the Russian military campaign in Syria, it means the United States unipolar moment has already passed and that the roles of other strong states in the region are growing in importance.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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