Why is Russia in Syria? Part 1 Introduction and the Initial Russian Response
During a recent televised interview with Al-Jazeera, President Erdoğan of Turkey raised some concerns with Russia’s intervention in Syria. He said, “Why is Russia so interested in Syria? I want to understand this. Russia has no border with Syria, but I have a 911-kilometer-long border. I am disturbed with what is happening now.” President Obama was even more critical when he described the unfolding situation in Syria as “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population,” which “is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” It is easy to dismiss these comments as the ‘biased’ viewpoints of world leaders opposed to Russia, yet they do bring up valid points.
As Erdoğan was wondering, why is it that Russia provides significant support to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, previously by supplying weapons and munitions, and more recently by conducting an aerial bombing campaign directed against jihadi rebel groups? Furthermore, as Obama pointed out, Russia’s intensifying intervention in Syria draws it into a risky situation. There is the potential for another Afghanistan like scenario, direct confrontation with Turkey, Israel, the US and NATO, increased terrorist attacks within Russia and destabilization of the Caucasus region. Why would the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, a pragmatic and cunning man, expose his nation to such risks?
The Initial Russian Response in Syria
Before we can make sense of Russia’s motivations and objectives for involvement in Syria, first we will briefly characterize what that involvement has been. Since the Cold War, Syria and the Soviet Union have been allies. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia remained close with Syria, principally due to the strategically important Russian naval base at Tartus. With this relationship in mind, as soon as the Syrian Civil War commenced Russia was providing assistance to their ally Assad.
Initially Russian assistance entailed political support and military aid. In the UN Russia used its clout, sometimes exercising its Security Council veto power, to obstruct and resist the anti-Assad factions (i.e. the US, Europe and the Arab Gulf Coast Countries). In September of 2013, a Russian proposal pertaining to Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons helped to avert an imminent military involvement by the US against Syria. Furthermore, while at times expressing what appeared to be ambivalent sentiments regarding Assad, Russia was generally arguing to the world that if Assad was ousted from power the most likely outcome would be radical Sunni Islamist groups coming to power in Syria, a far worse situation than if Assad remained in power, at least according to Russia and, mind you, many other voices in the West.
Militarily Russia has continually provided weapons, munitions, supplies, training and fiscal aid to the Syrian regime. The P-800 Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missile, SA-17 and SA-22 anti-aircraft missile systems, Yak-130 warplanes and “armored vehicles, surveillance equipment, radars, electronic warfare systems, spare parts for helicopters, and various weapons including guided bombs for planes,” have all been provided to the Syrian army. Furthermore, the Russian GRU had been operating a secret spy facility at Tel al-Hara, which was used to gather intelligence on rebel groups and on Israel, until it was overrun by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in October of 2014. Prior to the escalation of Russia’s intervention, this was the extent of its involvement in Syria.
Read Part 2 Here.
 For further reading on Russia’s involvement in Syria see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russia%27s_role_in_the_Syrian_Civil_War