Russia is protecting a Syrian regime that the US wants to topple
The Russians are coming in Syria, though it is not surprising in the least. Something has changed on the geopolitical landscape, and in many ways the United States helped change it. While many in news media want to hype up Russia’s Syria intervention, the context of this intervention is perhaps the most important fact here.
US foreign policy has been abysmal in the past decade. In recent years, Syria has been a part of this abysmal record. Since the Arab Spring in 2011, the US has flip-flopped its way through various issues. It’s interventions in Libya and now Syria have created staggering crises in the region, and now a clear endgame is in sight.
Out of the chaos in Syria, an old hegemon is reappearing to assert its interests in the region. While it would not be fair to say that Russia is invading Syria (yet), they are taking much more assertive action in protecting the Syrian government of Bashar Al-Assad. The US has become unnerved by this. This is mostly in part because Russia is now acting on its own accord to protect the Syrian regime which the US wants to topple.
One of the main reasons Russia is stepping up its aid to Assad is the fact that the United States and its NATO allies want Assad removed. The Assad regime in Syria has been an essential political ally and arms purchaser to Moscow for decades, and alliance stretching back to Cold War days. Ghadafi’s Libya was also once one of Russia’s allies, yet has since been removed.
Syria to Russia is like Saudi Arabia to the United States. Russia losing Assad would be a blow to both its political clout in the region and it would lose a major arms purchaser. Therefore, Russia is beefing up an airbase in Latakia, and stepping up shipments of arms and personnel. This is not so much a full-scale intervention yet. However, there is the possibility that Russia will use the refurbished airbase to stage its own airstrikes against ISIS and Syrian rebels. It is also not inconceivable that Russian troops could take part as well, though this is just speculation.
US policy in Syria has largely been to strike ISIS, though also finance and arm various rebel groups in Syria fighting the Assad regime. The US and its NATO allies essentially want to defeat ISIS and remove Assad simultaneously, a rather complicated goal to achieve. The reason this is complicated is because the rebel groups of Syria are so fractured, that any ISIS-like group has the potential to take power. Al-Nusra (an Al Qaeda offshoot) is the leading force in Syria’s rebels, with the Free Syrian Army effectively allied with them and various other Islamic militias.
While the US wants to see some fairly secular rebel group take power from Assad and defeat ISIS, the fact remains that no real secular rebels exist now in Syria. In some way, it’s unclear what the US wants to accomplish in Syria based on the facts. It is incredibly unlikely that a secular government would take hold from the rebel groups. Assad, for all of his brutality, is the only secular force on the ground.
While Assad is a dictator, the rebel alternatives at this moment seem far more troublesome. The US also is fairly hypocritical when it comes to Assad. Keep in mind, the US has supported and still supports a variety of bad regimes. While Assad has been duking it out with rebels in Syria, the US has supported the government of Saudi Arabia, which is far more oppressive by social standards. The US also supports the government of Jordan, which is not a democracy either.
While in no way is Assad a “good guy” in Syria, we have to understand that (at this point) there are no “good guys” in Syria. There are only guys there at this point, all looking out for their own interests and power. Both Russia and the United States have competing interests in Syria, and it seems that Russia is at last coming to a point where it will act on these interests.
A diplomatic offensive is coming from Moscow, the likes of which not seen in years. It seems subtle now, yet the Kremlin has decided to throw its own weight into the game. Russian government officials are now taking more active interests in combating ISIS and stemming the refugee issue in Europe. In some way, this can be read as a buildup to a political justification for a larger Russian intervention. This could get interesting.
Latakia has about 100 elite Russian Marines based there. It is also reported that elements of elite paratroop units are heading there to reinforce the airfield. No heavy equipment has been reported yet, though it seems that more Russian shipments are en-route, and it is possible further equipment and personnel could arrive. It is not inconceivable that Russian aircraft could be based at Latakia, allowing Russia direct strike capability against any opponent of Assad.
While these events seem disturbing to Washington, it is rather clear that the events in Syria are not solely in the hands of the Assad regime. The US has been egging on this conflict by supporting rebel groups, in defiance of Syrian sovereignty. The US of course made a bigger mistake by intervening in a conflict where Russia does hold a strong interest.
In no way is Russia really wrong under this context, either. The United States changed the rules of international norms and standards when it invaded Iraq in 2003. This is undeniable. The precedent set by the Bush administration allowed a new norm to fester. The US attacked a country out of pure aggression, and did so without full international support. Russia has mostly been unable to counter US actions, it seems this has changed somewhat. While the US believed it wasn’t possible, Russia has again proved all expectations wrong by intervening the way it has.
Russia’s economy is not doing so great at this point. The ruble is in trouble, and it appears that the drop in oil prices has done bad damage to Russia’s oil-based economy. Despite these hardships, Russia has still decided to commit forces to defend Assad and its interests in Syria. This can only mean that Russia has a direct interest in keeping Assad and his regime in power, a superseding security interest.
It is unclear exactly what a Russian presence in Syria would be for US interests. It is clear that American power in Syria will be significantly challenged if Russia does strikes on its own. And it is likely would could see this sooner rather than later.