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 the 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 struggle towards terrorists like ISIS.

However Russia’s navy intervention in Syria started as Russia itself was struggling below Western sanctions, an ailing financial system and diplomatic isolation because of its annexation of Crimea and its position within the battle in jap Ukraine. Its Syria marketing campaign carries the dangers that include any international 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 of shedding public help.

So why the gamble?

Specialists say that whereas Assad could also be a worthwhile, long-time ally who presents 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 below the Western technique to isolate Russia, so this was an opportunity to say, ‘It’s important to cope with us. We’re a significant participant on this disaster,’” says Andrew Weiss, vice chairman for research on the Carnegie Endowment for Worldwide Peace.

Given america’ obvious reluctance to grow to be extra deeply concerned within the Syrian civil conflict, and the extreme strain European international locations are going through because of the refugee disaster, specialists say Putin noticed a possibility to re-assert Russian affect.

The purpose Russia desires 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 Heart for World Affairs.

As European borders and shores buckle below the strain of a whole lot of 1000’s of refugees, a overwhelming majority of them Syrians, Russia — with Assad in its nook — presents leaders a glimmer of hope for a negotiated answer to the battle. Nevertheless, 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 alter the topic from the battle in jap 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 conflict has resulted within the deaths of almost 8,000 folks, together with troopers, separatists and civilians, and a path of bodily and financial devastation that displaced at the very least 1.4 million from their houses — not a simple, victorious narrative for Russia.

The gambit could also be paying off, in line with the state pollster Russian Public Opinion Analysis Heart, generally known as VTsIOM, which stated final week that Putin’s approval score hit a file excessive of just about 90 % 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 stated. Specialists do counsel taking opinion polls in Russia with a grain of salt, although. For instance, Putin’s approval score has not fallen under 80 % 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 towards 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 wish to see their boys dying in Syria,” Galeotti says. However thus far, “it’s very a lot being introduced as a wholly arms-length and protected intervention” — from the Russian perspective, an nearly “anti-septic conflict.”


On the bottom, nonetheless, at the very least 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 value of the intervention, moreover the potential of 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 current Monetary Occasions report. That spending comes at a time when authorities figures present the Russian financial system, struggling below Western sanctions and low oil costs, shrunk by 3.8 % via the primary 9 months of the 12 months, and by 4.3 % within the newest quarter. In the meantime, the World Financial institution reported that the poverty price in Russia has climbed to fifteen.1 %, compounded by rising meals costs.

The intervention is “not an enormous expense” in the mean time, 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 Heart. “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 % of Russia’s GDP on the time, in line with The Moscow Occasions. The official, Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, stated, “These parameters are considerably larger than in 2014, when the proportion of GDP was 3.4 %.”

To this point, Russia has been capable of 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 lifestyle, and are solely engaged in varied forms of wars.”


In the meanwhile, it stays unclear how far Russia is prepared to go, and what number of assets it’s prepared to expend to safe Assad’s place, specialists say. As a result of one in all Russia’s key goals is to show to america and Europe that it’s indispensable in fixing the disaster, it could 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 energy 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 assume you may management them.”

“It’s Putin’s guess that he could be out and in shortly, and by some means with an enhanced status and perhaps even victorious,” Pomeranz says. However, he warned, “The Center East doesn’t appear to grant folks quick, victorious wars.”

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE

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