As Vladimir Putin orders airstrikes against rebels of all stripes fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, there are important strategic economic goals behind Russia’s actions in Syria. The short term goal is easy to discern: prevent Assad’s collapse as no alternative suitable to Russian interests exists, preserve Russia’s only naval base in the Middle East at Tartus, and promote Russia both at home and abroad as a world power that counterbalances American hegemony.
Much of the media has focused on Putin as a personal driver of Russian behavior. While forays into Georgia and Ukraine have accomplished the tactical goals of preventing increased European Union presence in Russia’s sphere of influence, these have come at a high cost both politically and economically in the form of isolation and sanctions. Putin seems to have concluded that intervening in Syria in the name of fighting terrorism can only help repair Russia’s battered image.
It is important to at least try to understand Putin’s motivation without delving too much into psychoanalysis. He is on record as lamenting the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.” In power since 2000, the former KGB officer is an ardent Russian nationalist, a promoter of a personality cult concerned with his country’s standing and perception in the world. With his career spent in the service of the state, he is not one to take a background role in world affairs. Putin has effectively used Russia’s alliance with Iran as an effective tool to undermine the US, both regionally in the Gulf and globally with the nuclear deal.
The current buildup at Tartus and Latakia is nothing new: since Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power in 1970, the Former Soviet Union and then Russia was and is a stalwart ally, long attempting to position Syria as a counterbalance to American and Israeli military superiority in the Middle East.
Russia’s actions are also a message to the world: unlike the US, which abandoned long-time ally Hosni Mubarak during his time of need in Egypt, Russia is prepared to intervene, militarily if necessary, to preserve a friendly regime in danger. Therefore, it pays for autocrats to court Moscow, especially if they possess valuable resources or are in prime strategic locations.
While Vladimir Putin ostensibly espouses the acceptable goal of a global alliance against IS, the strategic context is that he has entered into a sectarian alliance with Shia Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the proxy army Hezbollah (The P4+1) against the American-backed Sunni alliance of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and the UAE, all of whom insist that Assad has no future in Syria.
Through its airstrikes, Russia continues to advance the prior Syrian strategy of focusing efforts against pro-Western rebels, with the recognition that, while dangerous, the Islamic State is the one party in the conflict the West will never support.
The Islamic State will take advantage of both the respite, and the propaganda value of being the recognized number one enemy of the infidel coalition, which it uses to rally supporters simply by pointing out that its enemies are gathering to destroy the renewed Caliphate.
The one strategic motivation for Russia that has been widely ignored is the economic one. Qatar, the richest country in the world per capita and also owner of the world’s largest natural gas field, proposed in 2009 to jointly construct a gas pipeline running through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and into Europe. Assad, not wanting to provoke Moscow, refused to sign on. Instead, he floated an alternative: an Iran-Iraq-Syria and possibly Lebanon pipeline, to then follow under the Mediterranean to Europe. The Qatar-Turkey pipeline would run through majority Sunni countries with the exception of Syria’s Alawite regime. Assad’s counter proposal follows the Shia crescent.
Russia, not wanting to lose its primary market in Europe, is adamantly opposed to a prospective Qatari project. A military presence in Syria will guarantee that even if Assad is removed from power, the pipeline will not be built. It will look on favorably to the Iranian proposal, provided Gazprom and other state-owned companies get their share of the pie.
Pipeline politics in the region have a long and varied history of Russian involvement. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline was built only after Moscow’s demand for an alternative pipeline for Azeri oil to Russia was met. During the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, US intelligence officials determined that an explosion on the pipeline near the Turkish-Georgian border was carried out via Russian government cyber warfare. Days after the explosion, Russian fighter jets bombed positions in Georgia close to the pipeline. Although the BTC pipeline was built precisely to avoid Russian interference, the Kremlin has never let that stop them.
Turkey and Azerbaijan have also begun construction on a joint natural gas pipeline, the TANAP. This project’s stated goal is to reduce the EU’s dependence on Russian natural gas, a prospect that cannot please Moscow. Both the BTC and TANAP bypass Armenia, a Russian ally and wary of its neighbors in the Caucasus.
As the endpoint for the Qatari project, Turkey is adamant in calling for Assad to step down or be removed, which dovetails with the proposed Sunni pipeline. By clearing the way through Syria, Qatar and Saudi Arabia can receive a handsome return on their investment in backing jihadis fighting Assad. On the other hand, Iran will not sit idly by and leave potential billions of dollars in the hands of its ideological and regional enemies.
Russian intervention in Syria is just beginning. There is every possibility that it will expand as more targets are found, perhaps those that are in the way of the proposed Iranian pipeline, directly threatening Damascus and by extension, the Russian monopoly of gas exports to Europe. For the time being, Putin has the world’s attention.