Simplification of what’s at stake in Syria and an underestimation of facts such as the growing terrorist threat from the region hinders the West from understanding the real reasons why Russia launched its air campaign in Syria.

Russia has many motives for its involvement in Syria. Photo: RIA Novosti

Since the very start of the Russian air campaign in Syria, most of the world is still trying to decode the rationale behind Kremlin’s move, the reasons that led to such a decision and the factors that influenced the sequence of events and the outcome.

As Russia and the U.S. are the two key players in the Syrian conflict, it’s important for American pundits, journalists and politicians to understand why Russia made such a move in Syria.

In a recent review of the situation in Syria, Stephen Sestanovich, ex-ambassador and a senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies of the Council on Foreign Relations, explains the three main factors that, according to him, played the key role in defining Russia’s rationale behind the increased involvement in Syria:

1. Russia’s military ramp-up;

2. The support that Moscow enjoys from the Syrian Army, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah on the ground;

3. The U.S.-led coalition’s disunity on how to deal with the Syrian crisis.

In general, Sestanovich is right about these factors, although these factors alone cannot explain why Russia increased its involvement in Syria. He is also missing several very important points, which cannot be ignored or underestimated.

Read Russia Direct's report: "Russia's New Strategy in the Middle East"

1. The growing terrorist threat from the region

Sestanovich does not mention at all the terrorist threat that emanates from the jihadists in Syria. Unfortunately, the majority of the U.S. media and think tanks mainly talk just about two groups: the Islamic Sate of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and the “moderate” rebels.  

For the first weeks of the Russian airstrikes, major U.S. media outlets, such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Washington Post, used Syrian maps where only ISIS-held areas were depicted along with those held by Syrian official forces, the Kurds and the rebels (e.g. the Free Syrian Army). Such simplification totally avoids the mentioning of other terrorist groups such as the notorious Jabhat an-Nusra, Jaysh al-Fatah, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Ansar al-Sham, etc.

Such a narrative easily created a simplified vision of the conflict in which ISIS is the only terrorist force and the term “rebels” or Free Syrian Army describe all moderates.

It is at least not pragmatic to simplify the division between “moderate” rebels and terrorists in such a way. Syria has long before these months become a magnet for all sorts of extremists from over the globe. This ultimately led to the creation and rise of a large number of terrorist groups and formations.

Russia views the rise of the terrorist threat from the region in a very pragmatic way. Russia cares about domestic stability and internal Muslims unity. Russia considers all jihadist fighters in Syria and Iraq as potential militants, as agents who will further infiltrate into Russia’s Caucasus, Central Volga region (where a large Muslim populations resides) and to the Central Asian republics. Ultimately, they will pose a direct threat to the security of the state. According to Russia’s security services, there are estimated to be more that 2,000 Russians fighting in Syria for ISIS or other terrorist formations. This creates quite a large risk and justifies raising these kinds of concerns.

2. The absence of any real force on the ground to combat the terrorists

In his review, Sestanovich also does not mention the absolutely fragmented Syrian moderate opposition, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In the words of the former U.S. intelligence chief David Petraeus, the “moderates” had collapsed long ago and currently there is no strong and united force in Syria except the Syrian Army and the Kurds that can resist ISIS. Even people inside Syria are very skeptical about the Free Syrian Army and say that, as a uniting structure for rebels, it is simply not viable.

These two above-mentioned factors create huge risks. The first risk is the spread of terrorism in the region and outside of the region to Europe, Russia and Central Asia. The second risk is the absence of any solid and rigid force on the ground to fight the terrorists – with the exception of the Syrian Arab Army and the Syrian Kurds (who actually did not confront Assad and are supported by the U.S.).

This created the situation where the balance of power started to tilt towards the terrorists. It created a risk that the Syrian government and all state institutions together with the Syrian Army could be overrun by the terrorists, which would have led to the total collapse of the state and further destabilization of the region for years to come. This is because a feasible force to replace or fill the “vacuum” after regime change did not exist and does not exist.

It is important to coordinate with the Syrian Army and Kurds militia to fight ISIS. The absence of such coordination is one of the reasons of the low productivity of the U.S.-led coalition strikes against terrorists. Therefore, these two factors seriously affected Russia’s decision to raise the stakes of its involvement in Syria.

Also read: "Playing the Kurdish card against Turkey"

3. The tacit support of the U.S. for Russian airstrikes

Further in the review, Sestanovich misses U.S. and regional actors' tacit approval of the Russian air campaign. In fact, there was no direct mention of disapproval of Russian involvement. The mere fact that Putin met with U.S. President Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session (along with numerous other Western and Middle East leaders) just two days before Moscow started its air campaign in Syria suggests that two leaders definitely discussed that very possibility and the U.S. gave its tacit approval for such move.

After Sept. 30, when the first Russian bombs hit their targets, the U.S. official position was very soft: it did not harshly criticize Moscow and it did not call for an immediate halt of the campaign. Moreover, Moscow already established direct coordination in the Syrian skies with Israelis, Turks and Jordanians, who are the allies of the U.S. in the region.

Moreover, it must not be ignored that during the summer before the airstrikes started, Russia undertook an unprecedented diplomatic “surge.” It hosted heads of states (in addition to Foreign Ministers and Ministers of Defense) of almost every regional country (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Iran, etc.), and held numerous talks on the level of foreign minister with every country involved in the conflict (U.S., France, Germany, UK). This indicates that Russia kept contact with every state actor involved in the Syrian crisis and communicated its ideas and plans.

So, all these reports that Russia's airstrikes took everyone by surprise have no factual basis. Certainly, the factors outlined by Sestanovich should be taken into account and should be monitored; however, ignoring or underestimating the  above mentioned factors hinders a true understanding of the reasons behind Russia’s Syria air campaign.