Recent reports of increased Russian materiel support for Syrian government forces has raised questions as to what Russian intentions are in Syria, while highlighting how relatively straightforward the strategic calculations of Russia are compared with the West. Syria has been a Soviet and then Russian ally for decades, tens of thousands of Russians have married Syrians over the years and Russia has what it regards as a historic moral and legal right to protect Christian minorities in the former Ottoman Empire.
But perhaps most importantly, from the earliest days of the conflict Moscow has seen the Syrian situation through an anti-Islamist lens. The view in Moscow was that the window of opportunity for the popular, secular aspect of the Syrian uprising to succeed closed very early. The exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood wished to dominate the political narrative, while the Russians believed the infiltration of Chechens and other jihadis from the Caucasus through Turkey and into northern Syria meant that the Syrian civil war would quickly turn sectarian.
That has meant that Moscow saw itself as supporting the Syrian government against jihadis, rather than against a legitimate opposition movement. Where President Bashar al-Assad fits into the issue may be open to debate but it hasn’t been the main issue as far as Russia is concerned — that has always been defeating the jihadis. Turning the Syrian issue into a binary problem has meant that Russia has had a clear aim from the start: supporting the maintenance of Syrian government control. It is an aim shared by Iran, the other country providing materiel and personnel support to the Assad regime.
Contrast this with the contradictory aims of the West, which has demanded that Assad step down, while trying to target Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra via an air campaign, at the same time as trying to find an armed opposition group to support that shared at least some of its own values and would be willing to fight militants while ignoring Syrian regime forces. Further complicating matters for the West has been the fact that other regional states opposed to the Assad regime have pursued short-term goals in Syria sometimes at odds with the US as well as each other. Although US President Barack Obama has been criticised for his response to the Syrian crisis, the reality is that it defies easy solutions, none of his critics have proposed a realistic alternative, and the US has never controlled enough of the levers that could be manipulated to make a solution viable.
Exactly how far Russia will commit itself militarily is an open question. But even a limited re-equipping of Syrian military forces with more modern Russian equipment and a more active role for Russian military advisers could produce a boost in morale for the embattled Syrian forces. It will certainly buttress Syrian government control over its coastal heartland that has come under pressure from a variety of rebel groups. And if reports are true of Russian Mig-31 aircraft and advanced anti-aircraft systems also being delivered to the Syrians, then demands for no-fly, or safe zones favoured by Turkey but resisted by Washington will be even harder to justify.
Additional ground forces are necessary before the embattled Syrian military can even think about reasserting control over parts of the country it has lost and there is no indication that it intends to at the moment. Even if it was thinking this to be a realistic option, it is unlikely at present that Moscow would provide them. Iran and Shia militias from Iraq and Lebanon have been the normal source of non-Syrian manpower for offensive manoeuvre operations and there is little to indicate that this has or will change in the immediate future.
By continuing to support the Assad regime so publicly, Moscow has tried to reinforce the growing perception in the West that Syria is about defeating the Islamic jihadist threat more than it is about forcing the departure of Assad. Russia has always subscribed to this view, while regional states have always viewed the question of Assad as the main issue. The West has tried to achieve both aims simultaneously without success.
Russia and the West share concerns about the Islamist jihadis in Syria, but the West’s lack of a viable partner on the ground in Syria while calling for Assad to step down has given it contradictory aims that show no sign of being fulfilled. Moscow is able to do something the West would like to do but can’t — target jihadis while buttressing the Syrian government. Russian actions in Syria will likely be criticised by Western leaders in public, but at the same time they may be privately welcomed.
Rodger Shanahan is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute and associate professor at the National Security College at the Australian National University.