Syria: What’s In It For Putin? | Inside Assad’s Syria | FRONTLINE | PBS

For Vladimir Putin, Syria is not only about supporting President Bashar al-Assad. It’s about Russia’s place on this planet.

Ever since Russia started airstrikes in Syria a month in the past, it has made the case that it’s aiding the Assad authorities in a battle in opposition to terrorists like ISIS.

However Russia’s navy intervention in Syria started as Russia itself was struggling beneath Western sanctions, an ailing economic system and diplomatic isolation because of its annexation of Crimea and its position within the battle in japanese Ukraine. Its Syria marketing campaign carries the dangers that include any overseas intervention — escalating casualties, runaway prices and the hazard of falling into a quagmire. That it comes so quickly after Ukraine, the place Russia took pains to cover its navy position, solely heightens the potential for shedding public help.

So why the gamble?

Specialists say that whereas Assad could also be a worthwhile, long-time ally who provides Russia a foothold within the Center East, the intervention is about one thing a lot bigger — guaranteeing Russia’s affect within the area and its place on the negotiating desk.

“Russians have been smarting for a very long time beneath the Western technique to isolate Russia, so this was an opportunity to say, ‘You need to take care of us. We’re a significant participant on this disaster,’” says Andrew Weiss, vice chairman for research on the Carnegie Endowment for Worldwide Peace.

Given the USA’ obvious reluctance to grow to be extra deeply concerned within the Syrian civil warfare, and the extreme stress European international locations are dealing with because of the refugee disaster, specialists say Putin noticed a chance to re-assert Russian affect.

The purpose Russia needs to make with its intervention is that “it may be a helpful ally, or it may be a problematic antagonist,” so it shouldn’t be remoted, says Mark Galeotti, an skilled on Russian safety at New York College’s Middle for World Affairs.

As European borders and shores buckle beneath the stress of tons of of 1000’s of refugees, a overwhelming majority of them Syrians, Russia — with Assad in its nook — provides leaders a glimmer of hope for a negotiated answer to the battle. Nonetheless, U.S. officers have accused Russia, which insists it’s concentrating on ISIS fighters, of primarily concentrating on CIA-backed insurgent teams in its airstrikes.


Syria has additionally provided the Kremlin an opportunity to vary the topic from the battle in japanese Ukraine, says Weiss. The Syria marketing campaign ramped up because the preventing in Ukraine was winding all the way down to an uneasy stalemate. The Ukrainian warfare has resulted within the deaths of practically 8,000 folks, together with troopers, separatists and civilians, and a path of bodily and financial devastation that displaced not less than 1.4 million from their houses — not a straightforward, victorious narrative for Russia.

The gambit could also be paying off, in line with the state pollster Russian Public Opinion Analysis Middle, referred to as VTsIOM, which mentioned final week that Putin’s approval score hit a file excessive of just about 90 p.c within the aftermath of airstrikes in Syria. “Such a excessive stage of approval for the work of the Russian president is linked, within the first occasion, to occasions in Syria, to Russian airstrikes on terrorist positions there,” the pollster mentioned. Specialists do recommend taking opinion polls in Russia with a grain of salt, although. For instance, Putin’s approval score has not fallen beneath 80 p.c since March 2014 regardless of a deepening recession in Russia.

Putin has helped bolster public help by arguing that the Syria marketing campaign is a strike in opposition to terrorists who pose a menace to Russia, whereas they’re safely in another person’s nation.

“Beforehand, there was resistance, as a result of folks didn’t need to see their boys dying in Syria,” Galeotti says. However up to now, “it’s very a lot being introduced as a completely arms-length and protected intervention” — from the Russian perspective, an nearly “anti-septic warfare.”


On the bottom, nonetheless, not less than one Russian soldier has already died. On Tuesday, Russia confirmed its first navy fatality in Syria, however the navy’s account says the soldier, 19-year-old Vadim Kostenko, dedicated suicide.

The opposite apparent price of the intervention, apart from the potential for Russian troopers being wounded or killed, is financial. The airstrikes in Syria are costing Russia an estimated $2.3 million to $4 million a day, in line with a senior analyst quoted in a latest Monetary Occasions report. That spending comes at a time when authorities figures present the Russian economic system, struggling beneath Western sanctions and low oil costs, shrunk by 3.8 p.c by the primary 9 months of the yr, and by 4.3 p.c within the newest quarter. In the meantime, the World Financial institution reported that the poverty charge in Russia has climbed to fifteen.1 p.c, compounded by rising meals costs.

The intervention is “not an enormous expense” for the time being, nevertheless it’s a “actual expense and the Russian finances is stretched to the utmost,” in line with William Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute for Superior Russian Research on the Woodrow Wilson Middle. “In Putin’s 2015 finances, he’s clearly chosen weapons over butter. He’s elevated navy and protection spending, and decreased spending on well being and training,” Pomeranz says.

In 2014, a Russian protection official introduced that the nation’s 2015 protection finances would attain a file $81 billion, or 4.2 p.c of Russia’s GDP on the time, in line with The Moscow Occasions. The official, Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, mentioned, “These parameters are considerably greater than in 2014, when the proportion of GDP was 3.4 p.c.”

To this point, Russia has been in a position to depend on foreign money reserves to fill finances deficits, Pomeranz says, however “Sooner or later, Putin’s going to have to clarify to Russians why they’re not spending something to enhance their way of life, and are solely engaged in varied forms of wars.”


In the intervening time, it stays unclear how far Russia is keen to go, and what number of sources it’s keen to expend to safe Assad’s place, specialists say. As a result of one in every of Russia’s key goals is to show to the USA and Europe that it’s indispensable in fixing the disaster, it might be open to a spread of potential choices — from preserving Assad, to transitioning to a different Moscow-friendly authorities, or just bringing Russia in from the chilly in worldwide negotiations.

And there are unknowns to issue into Russia’s intervention — the power of the forces on the bottom supporting Assad’s authorities (from the Syrian military to Shiite militias, Hezbollah and Iran’s navy advisers), Russia’s capability for finishing up a long-term, long-range navy effort, and whether or not occasions on the bottom will power Russia to escalate its marketing campaign.

“To this point, the whole lot’s been going proper for [Russia] in Syria,” Galeotti says. “Sooner or later, we’re going to see planes getting shot down, or we’re going to see terrorist-style assaults on their bases. After which the query is do they really feel the necessity to escalate and attempt to ship extra troops? That is the way you get sucked into these wars — you suppose you’ll be able to management them.”

“It’s Putin’s wager that he may be out and in shortly, and in some way with an enhanced repute and perhaps even victorious,” Pomeranz says. However, he warned, “The Center East doesn’t appear to grant folks brief, victorious wars.”

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE

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