“It turned out that Syria is our sacred land,” wrote a Russian blogger sarcastically in 2016 following attempts by some public figures to recast Syria as part of Russia following Moscow’s military intervention in the country’s civil war in 2015. Before then, the idea of Syria being part of the Russian homeland would have seemed absurd to most of us, but as part of the propaganda effort to drum up support for Russia’s Mediterranean war “narratives emerged that Syria is intrinsically connected to the very creation of Russia,” writes Anna Borshchevskaya in Putin’s War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America’s Absence.
Indeed, according to Russian parliamentarian Semyon Bagdasarov, “If there was no Syria, there would be no Russia.” The first monks in Russia were Syrian by birth, he told state television, and without them there would be no Orthodox Church upon which the Russians base their historic identity. Whether or not Bagdasarov’s claim has any merit, it underscores the point that Russia regards Syria as being very important for its national security.
We in the West tend to misunderstand Russia’s strategic culture. Analysts assume that Russia is fixated only with Western Europe and the United States, but while relations with the West are key for Moscow, it worries equally, if not more, about its so-called “soft underbelly” in Central Asia and the Middle East.
Borshchevskaya notes that Russia’s interests in the Middle East are rooted deeply and are not merely a product of relatively recent events. Russia clashed constantly with Persia and the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, in 1770 after defeating the Ottoman navy, Russia captured and occupied Beirut briefly. For Russia, the Middle East and Central Asia are connected to the country’s identity.
Unlike Britain and France, whose empires were completely detached both physically and metaphorically, Russia’s imperial expansion was mostly at the cost of its neighbours’ independence. Thus the empire was Russia and Russia could not exist without it. This characteristic difference has led to the development of a strategic culture where the line between offensive and defensive warfare is at best blurred. Such matters need to be considered, says Borshchevskaya, when thinking about Russia’s actions in Syria.
Playing off the US failure to intervene against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and trying to achieve great power status in the eyes of Washington in the process, is a key motivation for Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, Moscow has been keen not to repeat its past mistakes. When Russia entered the Syrian conflict, US officials claimed that it would be another Afghanistan for the Kremlin. However, as Borshchevskaya points out, the same officials failed to consider what Russia had learnt from its Afghan invasion and occupation in the 1980s; the goal in Syria was to save the Assad regime, but not at any price. Moscow opted to focus on air and naval power with a limited number of boots on the ground, leaving that to Iran and its militia proxies. Moreover, Russian army officers rotated with their Syrian counterparts so that they could learn about the dynamics of the ground war at first hand. This approach allowed Moscow to sustain its campaign in Syria and avoid a repeat of Afghanistan.
Syria is not yesterday’s issue, as Borshchevskaya warns: “A more explicit Russia-Iran-Assad nexus will only hurt Western interests beyond the Middle East. And Syria will remain a driver of regional and international instability for the foreseeable future.” Her book is well-written, well-researched and well worth a read, because it provides us with useful insights into Russia’s strategic thinking and what Syria means to Putin, although I think that she could have offered more about the internal clashes between pro-Iran and pro-Russia militias in Syria, as well as the tensions between Moscow, Damascus and Tehran.
Nevertheless, Putin’s War… should be essential reading for policymakers and anyone interested in regional and global issues. It provides a much broader context than usual, and an important analytical framework which can only enrich discussions on foreign affairs.