Why has Russia intervened in the Syrian Civil War?

It is astonishing how many people are surprised that there was a military intervention by Russia in the Syrian Civil War on Assad’s side. How surprised can anyone be by Russia’s actions these days? The invasion of Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, the invasion of Eastern Ukraine, the intervention in the Syrian Civil War – and yet people are still surprised. It should finally be understood that Russia’s president Putin is basing his actions on something entirely different than the leaders of democratic Western countries do. The important difference here is readiness to use military force, even when the outcome is not entirely clear.

Dozens of people are killed and hundreds flee to Europe every day as the Syrian Civil War rages on. In addition to the horrific acts by ISIL, many Syrians have fled their homeland to escape from Assad’s repressions. Millions of Syrians are now scattered around the world. However, Russia has now created a new reality in Syria.

Russian leaders have a number of reasons to convince themselves and their society why they intervened in the Syrian Civil War and support Assad’s regime. First of all, to achieve an international position that is as powerful as possible, it is necessary to tackle the most urgent problem in the world today. That is the Syrian Civil War, a huge political and humanitarian issue, considering the amount of casualties and refugees, with no end in sight.

Russia’s one-sided intervention, in the hope of making their ally Assad stronger, will not bring the end of the Syrians’ suffering any closer.

Russian leaders are probably not wrong to assume that the majority of Europeans wish to see the end of the Syrian Civil War and the wave of refugees, even if that means Assad staying in power. In the current situation fighting could stop if one side gains significant military superiority. Today the two centres of power are the Assad regime and extremist militant group ISIL. Other opposition powers have, unfortunately, not had much success over the years. That is why it is easy for Russia to assume that the future of Syria belongs to either Assad’s regime or ISIL, and to present that simplified approach internationally. That was confirmed by Russia’s actions in the first few days, with its attacks against anti-Assad rebels and not ISIL.

Russia’s intervention in Syria has been helped by the fact that Western countries have been unable to put an end to the war for years and there are ever more refugees headed towards Europe. USA came close to a military intervention in Syria a few years ago – but decided against it. At the time, Russia was one of the loudest critics of that intervention. Now, Russia has developed its own new reality in Syria, which means there are no possible solutions for ending the Syrian Civil War without it.

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Syrian refugees – Mediterranean Sea 2015

Unfortunately Russia has no qualms about irritating Western countries. Especially considering that NATO member Turkey already feels directly affected.

The second reason for Russia’s intervention, is the belief that authoritarian leaders should not be overthrown. They probably see it as a threat to Russia, as well. Hussein and Iraq, Gaddafi and Libya, and, to some extent, Mubarak and Egypt – these are unfortunate examples of how some states were liberated from their dictators that were followed by years of violence and anarchy. By supporting Assad, Russia wants to send a message about putting an end to that trend.

The third reason is the belief that Syria’s current regime is viable and it can be a close ally for Russia in the Middle East. But Russia wants more than to just make friends with Syria’s current leaders. There is already a coalition between Russia, Syria, Iraq and Iran, and it is very likely that Egypt and Lebanon will join them as well. Therefore, the support of Russia’s potential allies in the greater Middle East is significantly more extensive. If there are no more sanctions, Iran has an even greater possibility to take part in that coalition.

The fourth argument for the Russian leaders is to show themselves as men of action, not just to the greater Middle East, but on a global scale. Russia has delivered a message that they are prepared for military intervention not just in the former Soviet Union, but anywhere in the world. That message is amplified in those areas of the world, where the USA and the EU are less active. Russian leaders think it is possible to increase their authority or even fear, because in their opinion those are often one and the same.

We should not rule out the fifth argument: Russia’s hope that their intervention in Syria will blur reactions to what is still going on in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea. They also hope that in order to come to an agreement in Syria, Western countries are willing to disregard what is going on in Ukraine, as well as Russia’s interests in Ukraine and the countries of the former Soviet Union.

This is where Western countries, Estonia included, can not allow for the blurring of lines between different conflicts. Any possible deals with Russia to end the war in Syria can not damage the determination to end Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

There are certainly some risks involved for Russia in connection with their military intervention in Syria, and soon possibly in Iraq.

The biggest risk for Russia is in not achieving instant military success, which means that the conflict between Assad, ISIL and other groups will continue.  People will still be killed, people will still flee, and Russia will be unable to take credit for putting an end to the war. Also, ongoing military action is economically draining for Russia.

The other risk is that by intervening in the Syrian Civil War on Assad’s side, Russia has made its citizens the targets of revenge operations by ISIL and other extremist groups. If innocent Russian citizens are killed somewhere as a result, instant disapproval of the intervention by Russian society will follow. We cannot forget that the wounds of the Soviet war in Afghanistan have not yet healed in Russia.

In conclusion, Russian leaders still have reasons for them and their country to intervene in the Syrian Civil War. Europe, USA and other Western countries are facing decisions and choices that are even more difficult. But those choices have to be made. After five years, the costs of the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of this century have been high, and Russia’s one-sided intervention, in the hope of making their ally Assad stronger, will not bring the end of the Syrians’ suffering any closer. Any kind of functioning solution can happen only through cooperation, not by using the people of Syria to fulfill Russia’s ambitions of global opposition.

The Nobel Peace Prize in the near future should go to someone who cares and who is able to create peace. In this instance, that means helping Syrians avoid fleeing the current regime and the invading extremists.

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