What is the Russian government up to in Syria? After weeks of agitating for the creation of an international "united front" to confront the Islamic State terrorist group (and rehabilitate its longtime ally in
Beginning in early September, the Russian government commenced what amounts to a major intervention in the
On the surface, Russia's objective is straightforward. The
But the Kremlin's calculus does not end there. In addition to preserving the status quo in Damascus, Moscow is also seeking to accomplish at least three other strategic goals:
Changing the conversation. While the Russian government continues to apply broad political pressure on the Ukrainian government, it is increasingly apparent that its Ukraine strategy is struggling. Moscow still possesses the ability to dramatically escalate hostilities in its conflict with Kiev, as recent reports of a significant Russian military presence on Ukrainian soil make all too clear. But the rapid, decisive strategic victory once promised by Putin has proved elusive — while the real-world costs to Russia's economy of his foreign policy adventurism continue to mount. Against this backdrop, Russia's involvement in Syria can be seen as a way to change the subject and regain momentum lost closer to home in recent months.
Securing access to the Mediterranean. Russia's conception of itself as a global player hinges upon its continued ability to project power into multiple world theaters. In this calculus, Syria's port in Tartus — which Moscow has claimed as the home base of its Mediterranean flotilla since the early 1970s — represents a crucial strategic prize. The declining fortunes of the Assad regime have raised the unwelcome specter that the Kremlin could find itself without the ability to access the Mediterranean in the not-so-distant future. By reinforcing its troop presence within the country — and by broadening its footprint through the establishment of a second base in Latakia — Russia is working overtime to preserve its global reach.
Keeping Islamists at arm's length. Finally, Russia's steadfast support of Assad is driven, at least in part, by fears of swelling Muslim extremism closer to home. The Kremlin has good reason to be concerned. Earlier this year, the Caucasus Emirate, Russia's most potent jihadi group, formally pledged allegiance to ISIL, and the terror organization thereafter officially established a "governate" in Russia's restive majority Muslim regions of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia.
The group's potential to threaten Russia, meanwhile, is expanding rapidly. A year and a half ago, Russian security officials were estimating that 800 to 1,000
The Kremlin understands very well that should these jihadis return from the Syrian battlefield, its problem with Islamic militancy will become much worse. It has also clearly calculated that, with the right backing, the Assad regime could whittle down this contingent before it ever makes its way home.
All of which makes Russia's intervention in Syria an exceedingly high-stakes enterprise for the Kremlin. It is also why Moscow, now that it has become embroiled in the Syrian civil war, can't be expected to scale down its involvement there any time soon.