Research note originally commissioned November 2015
For Russia, Syria represents a strategic route to the Mediterranean and its only port there. Consequently, for Russia, maintaining a government friendly to it in power in Syria is desirable.
Russia is believed to have been supporting the Assad regime since the start of the conflict and has now recently sent fighter aircraft and artillery, which now fight in support of regime forces.
Moscow has claimed to have been targeting ISIS but many commentators have claimed that attacks have largely been focused on moderate rebels and direct threats to regime forces.
Moscow is assumed to be following a strategy of removing any moderate opposition to Assad before commencing peace talks, thereby making the Assad regime the only realistic alternative as part of a transition. There are also concerns on the part of Moscow that removing Assad and his state apparatus too suddenly would lead to a complete collapse of Syria, as seen after Western interventions in Iraq and Libya. While Moscow does not appear to be determined to maintain Assad, a government that is friendly to Russia is their desired outcome. Indeed, in the recent talks in Vienna, Moscow seems to have shown a willingness to have Assad removed, albeit over a much longer time frame than his adversaries. Iran, also on the side of the Assad regime, appears much less willing to compromise on this issue however.
Russia’s Muslim population
Between 6% and 14% of Russia’s population with over 90% believed to be Sunni. Russia faced a lengthy insurgency in Chechnya, which drew and produced radical Islamist fighters. Nearby Dagestan has also been home to violent, radical Islamist groups.
The destruction of a Russian passenger plane flying from Egypt to Russia, and the resultant death of all on-board, represents a potentially significant development for Moscow’s Syria policy. If, as ISIS claims, it or one of its sister groups was responsible for the attack, then this may spur Russia into focusing more of its energies on ISIS in Syria. This may also lead to Russia becoming more embroiled in the conflict than it had initially wanted.
Russia’s preferred scenario is likely to be, a stable, pro-Russian Syria. The possibility of a truly democratic Syria is still a long-way off and a sustained Russian presence in the country might also be the target of a future insurgency. Russia also has to take into account its sizeable domestic Sunni Muslim minority, which is potentially restive and could hold sympathies for Syria’s Sunni majority. Russia may not wish to further involve itself in Syria but it may find itself increasingly unable to withdraw.
In some ways, Russia’s involvement in Syria actually heralds a potential drawing-down of the conflict, although it is currently far too early to consider this with any certainty.