Why Russia will remain in Syria: Juan Cole on the war’s dynamics

REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah
People and a civil defense personnel carry children at a damaged site after an air strike on rebel-held Idlib, Syria, in March.

For some reason, we are constantly invited, at least by public discussions, especially by politicians, to view geopolitics as a pretty simple morality play.

In this melodrama, at least for most of my lifetime, the United States is the captain of the Good Guy team, seeking to protect the weak, spread human rights and promote the spread of democracy.

The other team, the Dark Side, has mostly been led by the Soviet Union, and now by its much weaker surviving portion, Russia, which has evil anti-democratic intentions: to spread communism (formerly) and now just to promote the growth of its dark power.

How fortunate, for those who prefer to see things this way, that the despicable, murderous Syrian regime of the Assads is the only longstanding, still-standing, strong Mideast ally of Russia and has reinforced its dark reputation by (in all likelihood) using poison gas. In this good-guy-bad-guy framework, it made total sense for the good guys to bomb Syria as a statement of its horror at the use of banned weapons. It even helped stabilize the horrible approval ratings of the current incumbent captain of the good guy team. So far as we can tell at the moment, this one-off bombing mission did little to increase the likelihood of an imminent happy ending in which Syria gets rid of the Assads, becomes a democracy, and joins the Good Guy team.

A darker, more realistic view is available. In fact, it is rooted in a school of international affairs analysis known as “realism.” Realists generally avoid talking about good guys and bad guys. International relations are far less about good and evil; they’re far more about power. This view often puts one in a better situation to deal with certain realities that don’t comport with the morality play — for example, the reality that the United States has often overthrown democracies (if they were headed by unfriendly leaders unwilling to take guidance from Washington) and replaced them with dictators who were more willing.  

Needless to say, considering the above, my own view of Syria and U.S. and Russian involvement there starts with a “realist” analysis, and that is very well summarized by a recent post from professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, a long-time analyst of the Mideast who expresses his views in his “Informed Comment” blog. The post is headlined: “Russia’s not Leaving: Syria is About old-Fashioned Sphere of Influence, not Oil.”

It makes the fairly obvious case that Russia, which is seeking to recover from a long, steep decline in its power in the world, has only one ally in the Arab world, namely Syria. All other Arab states (although it’s hard to call any of them democracies), are part of Team USA.

From a realist view, that’s why Russia is trying to preserve Assad and that’s why America would like to get rid of him. At the risk of overstating the argument, everything else about the case, from the U.S. and Soviet perspective, is window dressing.

Cole’s piece begins:

Russia is not going to yield its sphere of influence in Syria to Donald Trump or anyone else. Russia has all but won the Syrian War as we speak. There is no longer any feasible pathway for the rebels to take the capital of Damascus. The non-ISIL groups have lost all major urban areas except for Ghouta near Damascus. They are bottled up there and in rural northern Idlib province, and likely the regime will overwhelm them in both places over the next year, with Russian air support.

It ends thus:

Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, is a neo-nationalist who feels as though Russia got a raw deal from the US and NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia was reduced to a weak joke, and lost the spheres of influence that characterize a Great Power. It has lost even nearby assets such as the Ukraine. It lost Libya. Syria was a place where Putin could show the flag and bring home some victories.

Syria on the other hand is not important to the US. Syria’s alliance with Iran makes it inconvenient for both of the major US allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel. But the Israeli security establishment is divided about whether it is better to leave al-Assad in power or to welcome the Sunni fundamentalists into Damascus in order to weaken the Shiite Hizbullah in Lebanon. After all, an al-Qaeda state next door would be much worse than a little isolated militia like Hizbullah. Saudi Arabia has no such reservations, but its proxies in Syria have mostly been defeated and it can’t do anything more there except play spoiler and encourage what will amount, after the war is over, to mere terrorism. Aside from the Iran consideration, the US has no stake in Syria except to deprive Daesh/ ISIL of a base there from which to attack Europe. But the US cannot defeat ISIL without de facto strengthening the al-Assad regime.

All this is why Russia will remain in Syria and will have most of it as its sphere of influence. Russia has clear motivations and clear goals there, a strong ally with most of the population under its control, and a practical plan for accomplishing them, which has worked well if sanguinarily so far.

In contrast, the US has no obvious motivation to be in Syria except fighting Daesh. Its policies are therefore muddled. It is damaging its relationship with a big important country, Turkey (pop. 78 mn., GDP $800 bn), by its alliance with the small PYD Syrian Kurdish population of some 2 million, for the instrumental purpose of rolling up Daesh. Maybe the military-industrial complex in the US would like a war just to make some money, and maybe the Neoconservatives would like a war to contain Iran. But neither of them is likely to be able to dictate to Trump, who likely hasn’t given up on better relations with Putin and doesn’t need either of those groups to be reelected.

My guess is that the Tomahawk strikes were impulsive and a one-off. The Russian-dominated status quo is not significantly affected, and there isn’t an early prospect of it so being. 

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/17/2017 - 01:22 pm.

    Russia and Syria will remain bound together because in any NATO confrontation, Syria is a foothold relatively near to the European sphere outside of the ring of NATO countries. The Bosphorus is the only southern sea link for Russia and the Atlantic. The ability to neutralize Turkey from 2 fronts cannot be ignored. For those reasons a relatively weak and dependent client state like Syria remains important to Russia.

    The increasing isolation of Syria as an outlaw state means that Russia retains maximum control over Syria. The Trump airstrike reinforced the importance of Russia to the Syrian government and Assad as a powerful protector that would stand up to the demands of the west. This ensures that Russia will continue to have a foothold on the Mediterranean and a voice in Middle East affairs. The end effect of the strike was to reinforce Russia’ goals in Syria, drawing Syria and Russia together, with very little damage to Syria or Russia (Russia was warned by the US of the strike before hand, and of course notified their ally, Syria).

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/17/2017 - 07:25 pm.


      All you have to do is look at a map to see why Russia’s involvement with Syria (and Iran, Iraq and Turkey) is much greater than ours.
      Like our reaction to a Soviet presence in Cuba.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/18/2017 - 07:44 am.

      And, for a bonus win, the US administration uses it as a call to come closer to Russia:

      “There is a low level of trust between our two countries,” Tillerson said in a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. “The world’s two foremost nuclear owners cannot have this kind of relationship.” In their remarks to reporters, both sought to emphasize opportunities for improving relations.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/17/2017 - 07:43 pm.

    Another point

    One cannot talk about the Mideast without talking about oil.
    Russia is an oil exporter; Syria is one of the few Mideastern countries (Egypt is another) that is not a competitor of Russia’s in the oil game.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/18/2017 - 08:26 am.

    My 2¢

    Not that the thoughts of an old, retired history teacher count for much on the world stage, but it’s hard not to agree with Neal Rovick and Paul Brandon. While there may be little else upon which Mr. Putin and I agree, I think professor Cole is on the mark with: “…Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, is a neo-nationalist who feels as though Russia got a raw deal from the US and NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

    Among the several flaws in the all-too-common “conservative” view of Ronald Reagan as the Second Coming is the total failure of the Reagan administration to find a way to treat the disintegration of the Soviet Union as an opportunity for something similar to the Marshall Plan after the end of World War II. Had we found a way to assist Russia in the transition from an authoritarian, state-directed economy into a more democratic and market-based one, the changeover would have been (I think) much, much easier and, in the end, much more productive for both the Russian government and the Russian people. As was the case with Germany and Japan after World War II, we had an opportunity to make Russia a genuine ally instead of maintaining its place on our “enemies” list (and in the process, maintaining our place on their “enemies” list, as well).

    Instead, the notion of helping a former enemy make the change, politically and financially, to a more democratic and egalitarian society seems never to have been seriously considered by the Reagan administration, at least at the policy level, and that has worked to the detriment of both Russia and the U.S. We still too often respond to Russia (and, not coincidentally, they to us) as if the Cold War was still going on in 1980s style.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/18/2017 - 10:07 am.

      Your Musings

      Are welcome here at MinnPost. It’s better than hollering “Get of my lawn!” to the neighbor kids.

      The break up of the Soviet Union was terrifying to many Americans. Politicians, the military, and merchants of death all had used the mythical specter of Rooskie tanks driving across Western Europe to maintain their livelihoods. Remember how the Pentagon quickly said that the North Korea and Iran were just as capable of invading the US as the Rooskies were?

      Fear inhibits one’s ability to think in a rational manner. And fear of losing one’s livelihood is a huge fear for most of us. Think of the way law enforcement opines on the legal availability of various drugs, despite a lack of all medical training.

      The boogeyman of the Soviet Union served American elites well for decades. Is it any wonder the CIA, who’s entire purpose was to know what was going on in the USSR, was completely taken by surprise by it’s demise?

    • Submitted by Roy Everson on 04/18/2017 - 10:24 am.

      Get gubmint off our back

      As unsympathetic as I am with anything to do with the Reagan years, the post-Soviet challenge fell upon Bush 41and Clinton. The entire direction of American elites was to avoid spending any money on anything except military. We were in a race to the bottom. “You want a tax cut, how big?” Domestic infractucture was ignored. Corporate interests care nothing about democracy in Russia, America or anywhere else.

  4. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 04/18/2017 - 10:37 am.

    True realism

    Here is a truly realistic world view: America is doing what is in its own interests AND it is good for the world (vs. alternative of China or Russia being a top dog). Just that simple. Of course, realism also require us to acknowledge that it was Obama’s approach that brought us current troubles with Russia and Syria.

    And Mr. Cole is partially wrong in his analysis too. Weakening Iran and defeating ISIS is a very significant goal so nothing muddled about that. And Turkey is important but it will have to live with Kurds, and, if Trump is smart, with the Kurdish state, just like Saudis live with Israel. Defeating ISIS without strengthening Assad and Iran is tricky but, to certain degree, ISIS is Assad’s ally (I have suspicions that he helps it) because he needs it to present himself as a terrorism fighter. In fact, ISIS is the only reason Assad is still there because, if not for ISIS, other rebels would have been helped much more to defeat Assad. By the way, it is always easy to see where an author is coming from: Those referring to ISIL are Obama’s sympathizers, and those using ISIS term are in the opposite camp.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 04/18/2017 - 09:18 pm.

      ISIS vs ISIL

      Hmmm, I recall the US just bombing ISIS in Afghanistan with a MOAB–so is the name ISIS (Iraq Syria) correct or is ISIL (Iraq Levant) correct? Active in 18 countries now. Time to face facts.

  5. Submitted by joe smith on 04/19/2017 - 08:31 am.

    When there was a real opposition fighting

    group trying to oust Assad, the Obama administration chose not to back them. That led to ISIS gaining power and Russia getting more of a foothold in Syria by supporting Assad with weapons and air power. Finally the USA did a surgical air strike on the Syrian Air Force after they dropped chemical weapons on civilians. The only thing these dictators like Assad fear is strength, talk and making nice have no impact on them. Bombing them let it be known there will be consequences.

    In one of the most glaring leading from behind (what does that even mean) moments ever, the Obama administration put Russia in charge of collecting and dismantling the Syrian chemical program after a 2013, redline crossing, bombing of civilians. Shockingly, the Russians didn’t quite get the job done and Assad dropped chemical weapons on innocents in Syria again last month.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/20/2017 - 10:49 am.

      That’s why

      on the same day as the missile attack (I wouldn’t call it an ‘air strike’) Assad launched another air attack on his own people. The surgeon obviously left his knife inside the wrong leg ;0)

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