Russian policy toward Syria: The perils of success

Like it or not, Russian policy toward Syria since Moscow’s intervention there in 2015 has been remarkably successful. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government not only appears to be in no danger of being overthrown by any of its internal opponents but also has been able to recapture much of the territory it once lost to them.  

Russia has maintained and expanded the naval base on the Syrian coast that it might have lost if Assad had been overthrown, and has acquired an air base as well. Several of America’s Middle Eastern allies — including Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — view Russia’s presence in Syria as serving to check Iranian influence there. The Obama and Trump administrations did not seriously challenge Russia’s presence in Syria, and the Biden administration does not appear likely to do so either. 

All this has occurred at relatively low cost to Moscow, in terms of casualties. Indeed, Russia’s smaller-scale intervention in Syria has been far more successful than America’s much larger ones in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Moscow, though, does face some problems in Syria. Russia had hoped to mediate a peace agreement between the Assad regime and at least some of its internal opponents, but the more secure the Russian intervention has made Assad feel, the less willing he has become to make any concessions to them. Moscow also has been unable to persuade the West, the Gulf Arabs, or China to fund the massive reconstruction effort that Russia cannot afford itself, which Syria will need to help stabilize it. 

Further, while Assad may yet be able to rule for some time, the recent report that he has tested positive for COVID-19 is a reminder that if he no longer would be able to rule, a succession struggle could lead to conflict within the regime that has potential to spiral out of control. There also is the prospect of renewed conflict between Turkey, on the one hand, and both the Assad government and its opponents on the other. 

Finally, it is always possible that the old adage — “When the purpose of an alliance comes to an end, the alliance itself comes to an end” — may come into play if Russia and Iran start to focus on competing with each other for influence in Syria once they see their common rivals there as no longer being threats. 

What Moscow may well do is work on cultivating allies within the Assad regime, as well as with opposing parties willing to work with figures other than Assad. We also can expect Russia to continue to turn a blind eye to Israel’s attacks on Iranian and Hezbollah targets, which help Russia keep Iranian influence limited without Moscow having to undertake the heavy lifting itself. And if Moscow’s relations with the Gulf Arabs and Israel improve further, it may yet persuade them either to fund Russian-led reconstruction efforts or to urge America and the West not to block them. 

Russian influence in Syria, then, is not only likely to continue but also to be supported to some degree by America’s Middle Eastern allies who see Russia’s presence there as preferable to Iran’s. And if America’s allies in the region see advantages in Russia’s continued presence in Syria, America may not be able to do much to oppose Moscow there without hurting its relations with its Middle Eastern partners. Nevertheless, the inherent instability of the Syrian conflict may well lead to a crisis arising that Moscow will not be able to contain. 

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.  

Tags Bashar al-Assad Middle East Russian involvement in the Syrian Civil War Syria Vladimir Putin

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