BY: KATHERINE GAN, SENIOR CONTRIBUTOR
Originating as a peaceful protest between the government and its citizens, the Syrian conflict has spiraled into a full-blown war, featuring sectarian and political divisions. Russia’s military presence, bolstering Bashar al-Assad’s regime, has only further splintered the country. While Russia claims to be targeting ISIS insurgents, its operations have mainly killed Syrian rebels, the largest opposition to Assad’s government. Unintentionally, by wiping out the rebels, Russia has eliminated one of the key adversaries of ISIS key. This has allowed the terrorist organization to strengthen its hold in Iraq and Syria. Due to the detrimental consequences of Russia’s military intervention in the region, questions have arisen over the nation’s real intentions.
Almost two weeks after Russia began its air campaign in Syria, Allen Lynch, a professor at the University of Virginia, claimed that Russian intervention in Syria was necessary for domestic security reasons. Essentially, if the Syrian regime collapsed, then an influx of terrorists would flow into Russia’s borders; thus, by preventing a Syrian collapse, Russia would have less terrorism spilling over. Other analysts argue that President Putin’s actions in Syria mirror those in Ukraine, where the United States and other Western countries were weak and unwilling to intervene. They further that the continuing airstrikes pit Russia in a proxy war with the United States, demonstrating to the international community that the Kremlin is willing and able to fight. Moreover, to other Middle Eastern nations, this demonstrates the lengths that Russia is willing to go to and keep its allies in power. Regardless of how hated and vilified Assad may be, President Putin’s support demonstrates assertiveness and consistency, aspects that the United States has lacked in its recent foreign policy. In addition, hostilities with NATO have influenced Putin’s decisions. Kathryn Stoner, a Stanford political scientist, elucidates that the intervention gave Russia the ability to show off its new and updated military weaponry to both the United States and NATO. All the different theories for Putin’s intervention have shared one common characteristic: the need for Russia to emphasize its role as a global power, capable of fighting terrorism more effectively than the United States.
The most common and widely accepted theory for Russia’s involvement in Syria is that Putin uses external conflict to mitigate domestic woes. For the past few years, mainly due to Western sanctions, Russia’s economy has suffered, with the ruble falling 60 percent and oil prices dropping to an all time low. Yet, despite these economic troubles, Putin continues to invest billions of dollars into a war abroad. The Kremlin seems to be fighting a foreign war while neglecting basic needs, ostensibly leading to resentment. Putin’s interventions, nevertheless, have distracted the average Russian. In fact, after launching an air campaign in Syria, Putin’s already high approval ratings soared to 90 percent. It seems that the only one who stands to benefit from the Kremlin’s interposition in the Middle East is Putin himself.
For the United States, a nation that has historically been tied up in the Middle East, Russia’s interference could not have come at a worse time. The issue of ousting ISIS, which has launched and influenced attacks around the world, is supposed to be paramount and the goal of all actors in Syria. Unfortunately, with Russia’s intervention, ISIS-led destruction and degradation continues to decimate Syria and its people. The U.S. coalition runs the risk of being undermined by Russia’s military operations and failure to join peace talks. Additionally, the implications of Russia’s actions are not just limited to the strengthening of ISIS. Rather, the Kremlin has launched airstrikes against aid convoys and hospitals, attacking innocent children and families. Any chance of a cease fire, necessary for putting a halt to the violence that has ravaged the region, has only dissipated with Russian reluctance to follow through on agreements. The future of Syria seems bleak, with no hope in sight. Removing Russia is no easy task, but it is certainly one worth pursuing.
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