Russia’s decision to send in military airstrikes to assist Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has drawn international condemnation. Since the outpour of Syrian migrants making their way to Western Europe, world leaders have become more desperate to end the civil war once and for all. The conflict has ravaged the country for four years, and it seems Moscow has chosen the opportune moment to rescue its close ally.

Russia

Photo credit: Voice of America News: Scott Bobb reports from Aleppo, Syria

Brief outline of Russian-Syrian relations

Syria is Russia’s vital friend in the Middle East because Syria’s Tartus Port currently holds the Russian Black Sea fleet. Keeping this port means Russia has a foothold in the Mediterranean.

Russian-Syrian relations developed in the early phases of the Cold War; the Middle East was an important battleground for the US and Soviet Unions’ struggle for power. Conflicts in the region had brought Russia and Syria together.

Namely, it was the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956 that convinced Russia that the West was attempting to reclaim power and influence in the region. Another was the formation of CENTO (better known as the Central Treaty Organisation) where Iran (during the reign of the pro-west Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi), Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey and the UK signed a mutual security pact. When Hafez Assad (1971-2000), the father of Bashar Assad came to power in 1971, Russian-Syrian relations became closer.

Russia’s role in the Syrian crisis

The Syrian crisis erupted in the context of the Arab Spring. The ongoing conflict has left more than 220,000 dead. Millions of Syrians are left homeless and are forced to flee to neighbouring countries. Turkey has taken 1.7 million, Lebanon 1.2 million, Jordan 625,000 while Iraq has sheltered 245,000.

The war has kept major world powers occupied as the fall or success of the Assad regime will shape the future of Middle Eastern politics. Western powers like the US and France have pushed for a UN resolution, armed rebel groups, and enforced economic sanctions to pressure Assad to step down.

In 2014, the war was further complicated with the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIL).

The terrorist group seized parts of Iraqi territory which prompted American intervention into Syria. On September 2014, President Obama announced: “I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.”

Russia

Photo credit: Carregado por Cobija

Russia, on the other hand, has also staunchly blocked UN resolutions and has been supplying weaponry, training and military advisors to support the regime.  Moscow fears a new Syrian government, especially one that is backed by the West, would sever close ties with them. They warned if the conflict escalates, Syria would have the same fate as Libya.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “Syria is a very important country in the Middle East and destabilizing Syria would have repercussions far beyond its borders”.

Why it’s now or never for Russia

Syria is an important ally to Russia because it can retain influence in the Middle East and have access to the Mediterranean Sea. As we have witnessed thousands of refugees marching across Europe, faith in the UN has dwindled, and world leaders have become more desperate to stop the conflict. Putin has called in at the right moment to execute military intervention.

He insists the airstrikes are targeting terrorist groups, whom he believes are the real threats to the troubled nation. He has called world leaders to “unite efforts against this evil (terrorism)” and that Syria could be swamped with terrorists. However, there have been reports that rebel groups were hit by the airstrikes. The US, Turkey and NATO have joined together accusing Russia of deliberately killing rebel groups. Russian military personnel are present in key cities: Latakia (core of Assad’s Shia Alawite), Hama, Tartuous and Homs.

Despite the end of the Cold War, mutual suspicions between Russia and the West still exist. Russia is the largest country in the world, its economy has steadily recovered since the collapse of the Soviet Union and under Putin’s administration, its military budget increased by 26% from 2013-2014. Russia and the West’s relations deteriorated in when Moscow backed South Ossetians’ struggle for independence from Georgia during the Russo-Georgian war in August 2008.

In 2013, Moscow took advantage of the Ukrainian Revolution to expand control over the Eastern part of Ukraine and supported Russian separatist in Donetsk and Luhansk.  And in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea as the Peninsula would give Moscow access to the Black Sea. The West sees the Ukrainian Crisis as evidence of Russian expansionism and Moscow flexing its muscles to any opposition.

On the other hand, Russia believes the West is deliberately trying to dismantle its influence in global politics and economy. Recent US policies in the Middle East have sent alarming signals to Russia. This includes the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and installing a pro-west government, the escalating tensions between the US and Iran and intervention in Yemen to fight the Houthi rebels shows the US is stamping its dominance in the region. Washington’s influence is strengthened by having close ties with Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. Russia, however, only has two close allies: Syria and Iran.

Syria remains as a frontline for two superpowers’ struggle for influence. Middle East is a strategically important landmark as it is rich with oil resources, and a trading route between east and west. As US dominance in the Middle East is growing stronger, Russia wants to act quickly before it loses its footing in the region.

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Hsin-Yi Lo

Hsin-Yi Lo

I am freelance journalist and writer, and a Multimedia Journalism graduate from the University of Kent. I am originally from Melbourne, Australia.