Why is Russia in Syria? Sergei Karagonov’s take
As an addendum of sorts to my series of posts Why is Russia in Syria, here is Sergei Karagonov’s take on why Russia militarily intervened in the Syrian Civil War. A Russian political analyst, Karagonov is the dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at Moscow’s National Research University Higher School of Economics. In his view there are four reasons why Russia is in Syria.
The first reason relates to the Russian conclusion that “the Middle East would undergo a series of disasters,” which would ultimately lead to the generation of more terrorists. Karagonov reasoned that “it would be better if they [the terrorists] killed each other or if we killed them rather than that they continue to multiply and maybe even reach our borders.” So the Russians were afraid of the potential proliferation of Middle Eastern terrorists who could eventually attack Russia, particularly via the volatile Caucasus region.
The second reason was that Russia wanted to maintain a balance of power within the Middle East. Regardless of who could win the war in Syria, either the Alawite (Shiite) Assad or the Sunni rebels, Karagonov argued that “It’s better not to let anyone win” so as “to prevent an even louder explosion” in the region. Mind you, prior to the Russian intervention in Syria, it appeared that Assad was on the verge of being overwhelmed by the various rebel groups. So to prevent Sunni domination in the region, Russia was forced to counter this possible geopolitical imbalance. But beyond Sunni dominance in the form of Saudi hegemony or an ISIL caliphate, Karagonov also mentions that Russia does not want the emergence of another Ottoman Empire (Turkey) or a Persian Empire (Iran).
The third reason was that the Russians wanted to display their geopolitical and military power so as to show the world that Russia is a great power. Karagonov called such a motivation a half “another half-baked idea we inherented from Peter and Catherine the Great.”
The fourth and final reason was that Russia wanted to divert attention from its involvement in the Ukraine. According to Karagonov, “this goal was completely achieved.”
What is most interesting about Karagonov’s analysis is his contention that Russia desires a balance of power in the Middle East, which includes balancing the power of their own Shiite allies Assad and Iran. Ultimately, it is very easy to have a simplistic view of Russian foreign policy, in which the Russians are the bad guys or are obstinately anti-American in their motivation.
However, we must always realized that Russian foreign policy is highly pragmatic and nuanced, and that Putin is not the mind-less thug that Western media keeps telling us he is, as evinced by his recent announcement that Russia will be withdrawing their military forces from Syria.