Confused by what’s happening in Syria? In this brief explainer, we outline the key issues facing Russian foreign policy in Syria and the broader Middle East.

Syrian solders and Russian solders  stand near a car covered by collage showing photos of faces of Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and a Syrian general, President's Assad brother, Maher Assad, center. Photo: AP

Ever since Russia began its aerial military campaign in Syria last year, there has been much discussion about Russia's true aims and intentions in the region, with many viewing Russian military involvement as just a tactical ploy to divert attention away from Ukraine by propping up the Assad regime and taking on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).

Read the Q&A with John Hopkins University's Robert Freedman: "Lessons from Russia's moves in the Middle East in 2015"

In a series of brief questions and answers below, Russia Direct makes an attempt to separate the facts from the myths to understand better not just Russia's role in Syria, but also Russia's broader strategy for the Middle East.

Why does Russia back Syrian President Assad?

A patch with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad portrait on the uniform of a Syrian army volunteer. Photo: RIA Novosti

It is a misconception that Russia supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad personally. Whether the current president keeps his seat or resigns is Syria's domestic issue, but Moscow wants the country to have a government and an army that can maintain order and fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).

The Kremlin is definitely wary of anarchy in Syria and the war-torn nation turning into another terrorist hub not unlike Afghanistan or Somalia. From Syria, terrorists can go through Turkey and easily cross into the Caucasus, and the Russian leadership remembers all too well the last two long and bloody military campaigns in Chechnya.

The beginning of the Ukrainian crisis provided Moscow with a new motive for active involvement in the Syrian conflict. Fighting ISIS and playing a major part in conflict resolution raises Russia's global and regional status and gives it an upper hand in negotiating other issues with the West, such as the lifting of sanctions introduced after the annexation of Crimea.

Why did Russia not send more troops in addition to its Air Force and air defense systems?

A ground operation is expensive and can lead to significant combat losses. The U.S. operation in Iraq is a vivid example: It took years and hundreds of thousands of soldiers to create a semblance of stability in the country.

Russians do not perceive the Syrian conflict as "their" battle and are not ready to sacrifice themselves for it.

The Kremlin obviously does not want to repeat the mistake of the Soviet leadership by getting dragged into a new conflict that is so like the war in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union’s analogue of America's Vietnam.

Immediately after the deployment of the Russian Air Force in Syria, Moscow had to explain to the nation that this was "not another Afghanistan."

Moreover, there are some objective reasons that rule out a large ground operation in Syria, the main one being that Russia does not possess adequate logistics to supply a major military group in the region.

When will Russia move out of Syria?

Crew stand guard on the Russian navy destroyer Vice Admiral Kulakov on patrol in eastern Mediterranean on Thursday, January 21, 2016. Photo: AP

Officially, the Russian Air Force will remain in Syria until the ISIS threat is gone. In reality, such claims can be taken to mean that the Russian military will stay there until the government forces are victorious. In the best-case scenario, it will take another one to two years.

Still, the planes are not going to stay at the Khmeimim base forever. Russia has no long-term political interests in Syria that would justify the costs of maintaining a massive Air Force group there.

So, most likely, it is going to be just like in the 1980s when in 1982, in the midst of the war in Libya, the Soviet Union sent its planes and air defense systems to prop up Hafez al-Assad's regime and recalled them two years later after the situation in the region had stabilized.

Another part of the issue is the presence of military specialists who are training the Syrian troops and service battle equipment supplied by Russia. They will be in Syria as long as the local army uses Russian weaponry.

Can al-Assad count on being granted an asylum in Russia if he resigns?

Al-Baath University students hold a rally in Homs in support of Russia's military operation in Syria. Photo: Sputnik

So far the matter of al-Assad's resignation is undecided, and there are no potential successors in sight. Most likely, even if he steps down as head of state, he will keep playing an important part in Syrian politics, this time as a leader of the Alawi community.

 Also read: "Will Russia sacrifice Assad as part of its Syrian endgame?"

Still, Moscow could grant al-Assad political asylum if his resignation is part of the peace deal that parties to the conflict have yet to agree on. In reality, al-Assad has only two options if he is banished: Russia or Iran. In other countries, he could face prosecution for war crimes.

Why are Russians bombing hospitals and civilians?

Russian pilots use the data that they get from the Syrians, unmanned drones and satellites. The American experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan indicates that these devices sometimes cannot tell a wedding apart from a militant camp. Besides, any war inevitably leads to tragic mistakes, especially when military action occurs amid densely populated areas.


Does Russia have any economic interests in Syria?

The Syrian economy has traditionally targeted Europe and the countries of the region. That is why it is not one of Russia's key trade partners. In 2008, commercial exchange between Russia and Syria reached $2 billion, while the numbers of neighboring Turkey were at $33.8 billion.

Russian companies are interested in building pipelines in Syria and developing the nation’s oil and natural gas sites, but the number of contracts is rather small.

In 2005, Russia wrote off 73 percent of Syria's $13.4 billion debt in order to boost military and economic cooperation (experts estimate that half of Syria's overall debt was to Russia).

The remaining part of the debt ($3.618 billion) was to be repaid in installments that would reach as high as $1.5 billion over the course of ten years. The remaining amount was supposed to come in the form of Syrian investments into joint projects.

After 2005, Russia supplied Syria with several air defense systems (Strelets short-range air defense system and Buk medium-range system) and modern coastal defense systems armed with Yakhont anti-ship missiles. However, in order to maintain good relations with Israel, Russia refused to sell Syria S-300 missile systems.

Does Russia need Syria as a platform for returning to the Middle East?

The Pyotr Veliky nuclear-powered heavy cruiser on a long range cruise in the Mediterranean. Photo: RIA Novosti

Syria was of some consequence during the Cold War when the Soviet Navy kept watch over the U.S. 6th Fleet from its position in the Mediterranean. Soviet marines needed a safe harbor and a supply base.

After the end of the Cold War, Russia was no longer interested in Syrian bases. Formally, it still controlled a pier and several warehouses in the port of Tartus. However, it was scarcely used because nowadays the Russian Navy prefers to patrol coastal waters as opposed to competing with the U.S. for maritime domination.

Nor does Russia have plans for a triumphant return to the Middle East, which last happened during the 1950s-1960s under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Now Russia is not a global but a regional power that is interested in its immediate neighbors. Moscow cares a lot more about its relations with the former Soviet republics.

By propping up the Syrian regime, did Russia ally with Iran and antagonize the Persian Gulf monarchies?

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, center, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, arrive for the signature of bilateral agreements, at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, January 28, 2016. Photo: AP

Russia and Iran inadvertently became partners in Syria because they were interested in preserving its sovereignty. Both countries see ISIS as their adversary and believe that the current situation in the region is the result of the failed Middle Eastern policies of the U.S.

However, Moscow is not seeking to get involved in the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is currently unraveling in the Middle East.Russia sticks to a pragmatic course and readily cooperates both with Shi'ites in Iran and Sunnis in Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.).

The best example is nuclear cooperation. Russian engineers built Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant in Iran and are going to erect analogous facilities in Jordan and Egypt. Russia will also supply nuclear fuel to the U.A.E.

Finally, one should remember that Russia maintains friendly relations with Israel, which traditionally has been one of Tehran's major opponents. That is why the Kremlin has been postponing the supply of S-300 air defense complexes to Iran.

Will Russia and Saudi Arabia keep up their hostilities?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, and Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, enter a hall for their meeting in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015. Photo: AP

Due to their differences in opinions over Syria, the relations between Russia and Saudi Arabia are clearly tense, but they can hardly be called hostile. Moscow and Riyadh are willingly cooperating in the areas where their interests coincide (for example, in Egypt, which buys Russian weapons with Saudi money).

 Also read:"Russia pivots again, this time to Saudi Arabia"

Moreover, throughout the last six months of 2015, Saudi Arabia was trying to negotiate with the Kremlin. Moscow has also indicated that it is open for dialogue.

What are the strategic goals of Russian policies in the Middle East?

Russia has been seriously concerned about the destabilization of the Middle East that started after the American invasion of Iraq. However, then there was hope that the situation could be remedied because the U.S. was willing to send its troops to Iraq and invest into the restoration of the country.

Things changed for the worse when the Arab Spring began. The Kremlin thought that the West and its regional allies had been acting irresponsibly by overthrowing regimes and leaving chaos in their wake. For Moscow, the last straw was the removal of Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, which led to the loss of large military and civil contracts.

The Russian government wants the Middle East to become stable and predictable yet again, eliminate the terrorist threat and create favorable conditions for national companies. Indeed, Russian oil companies and the defense and industrial sector have expressed their interest in the region. 

Read RD's Report: "Russia's New Strategy in the Middle East"

With the deterioration of its relations with the West, the Kremlin wants to make sure that the Middle Eastern countries do not join anti-Russian sanctions and that they maintain friendly relations with Russia.