Russia’s Involvement in the War in Syria

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The Syrian conflict has been going on for almost a decade now and it has not become less complex. There are many actors involved, both national and international ones. All those actors have their own interests and hidden agendas that clash. These interests and hidden agenda can help to explain certain behavior of actors. This can be an important part of both academic and foreign policy debates. One of the major actors in Syria is the Russian Federation. Following a realist perspective, states are egocentric and will only act in their own self-interest. To see if that holds up in practice it would be interesting to look at Russia’s playbook on Syria and if it can explain their involvement in the crisis. For that reason, the international relations theory realism will be used in this paper to try to see if it can help providing an answer to the question: to what extent can the involvement of Russia in the war in Syria be explained. To provide a bit of background this paper will first discuss the Syria case in brief, this will be followed by a small introduction of the analytical lens, then the analysis of the paper and it will end with a conclusion.


Demonstrations in Libya in 2011 marked the start of what would evolve into the Arab Spring. After Tunisia followed other countries as Egypt and Libya having successful uprisings against their governments (Aljazeera, 2018). In Syria protests started by residents of Daraa City in March 2011 following the detention and abuse of teenage boys by the regime for spraying graffiti (Lucas, 2016). These rallies however became about economic problems and the wrong doings of local regime officials. Even though security forces attempted to suppress the protests, they quickly spread and grew to other Syrian cities. The Assad regime reacted to this with more force. This was the moment some groups decided to take up arms against the regime, and the start of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Starting in 2012 different groups began laying claim on different parts of Syria, the FSA parts of west Syria, in the northeast the basis for a Syrian Kurdistan was laid, and the Islamic State started to rise up. On August 20 2013 in a hope to break resistance of occupied areas the Assad regime filed rockets with sarin on seven sites (Lucas, 2016). The international community started taking sides around 2012, where almost all of them wanted the remove of Assad. The removal of the Assad regime became an important part of the peace talks starting in 2012, these talks had no success. From the start of the conflict in Syria has Russia been a supporter of the regime. Between 2012 and 2014 Russia used their veto power in the Security Council of the United Nations four times to stop resolutions about Syria (Kozhanov, ‘Why Is Syria so Important?’, 2016). However they started to become more involved in 2015 after the rebels gained lots of grounds in 2015, to the point the collapse of the Assad regime was a real threat. Together with Iran, Russia is the biggest supporter of the regime.

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Introduction Analytical Lens

When looking at the world and global events the view is based on presuppositions and assumptions. Different theories have different assumptions about the political world, and thus view it differently. These differences can mean the world is differently interpreted. In the discipline of international relations are the perspectives of realism and liberalism the most dominant (Heywood, 2014). The former will be used in the analysis and thus needs further clarifying. Realism claims to see world affairs as ‘realistic’, it is a hard world (Heywood, 2014). It sees politics as a struggle for power, where power is both the technique to get the goals as it is always the most immediate goal itself. There are two big school of thoughts within realism, classical realism and neorealism. Classical realist focusses their explanation of politics in the terms of state egoism, where neorealist explain it in terms of international anarchy (Heywood, 2014). However, it is more a difference of emphasize than a difference in thoughts since they both share the same assumptions of the world. They both see people, and thus states, as selfish and competitive. You can only trust yourself and thus policy should always follow the national interest. According to realist there is also no higher power above the states, states are sovereign and the international world is anarchic. Neorealist state that this international anarchy tends to cause tension and conflict. This is because everyone can only help their selves, you also cannot be certain about someone’s motives and states are worried about relative gains, whether another state benefits more. For both classical as neorealist is the term balance of power of grave importance, since they see it as the solution of containing conflict. However, classical realism sees it as a product of sensible statecraft, while neorealism look at is as a consequence of the structural dynamics of the international system. In the analysis the assumptions of realism will be used with an addition of some of the neorealism emphasizes on international anarchy.


Realism theory claims that states will only become involved if it serves their own self interests. Syria and Russia have a long-standing relationship that goes back to the Soviet times. During the Cold War Syria had a large number of Soviet advisers. This however had more to do with attachment to Russian technicians and arms than a shared ideological outlook (Allison, 2013). In the 21st century is Syria still an important buyer of Russian military equipment, in 2006 this was 4 billion USD and by 2010 this had increased to 20 billion USD (Kozhanov, 2013). While there is a significant amount of arms export to Syria, it cannot match in volume with the military export to China or India. In addition, economic ties in general are strong between Syria and Russia. Russian businesses increased their investments into the economy of Syria, by 2012 the trade almost reached 2 billion USD (Kozhanov, 2013). These investments could be a national interest for Russia, and something they could want to protect. On the other hand, them trying to protect their economic investments in Syria could hurt their other economic ties that are larger in size. Economic trade with Turkey and Israel is unlikely to rival with Syria’s (Mason, 2018). It would therefore not be in Russia’s self-interest to cause those ties any danger. For example, siding with Iran in Syria could bring serious damages to Russians close ties with Israel. Another point that is often brought up is the Russian naval and air base in Russia, it would be in their national interest to protect their military bases. However, most military experts state that the old naval base with less than 100 people personnel can hardly be called a base (Kozhanov, 2013).

Russia frames their involvement in Syria as counter terrorism and emphasize the fight against ISIS. In the past Russia has had some conflicts with Muslim militia within their own area, with the most well known the Chechen wars. There are still area’s within and near Russian borders that have tensions, and thus Russia is afraid of a spillover effect of the Syrian conflict to their own borders (Kozhanov, ‘Russian Military Involvement in the Syria Conflict’, 2016). The high number of Chechen fighters and other Russian speaking fighters going to Syria is of grave concern to Moscow. In addition, there was also a fatwa issued that blessed the Russian jihadists to gather battle experience in Syria to bring their fight back to the Northern Caucasus against Russia (Kozhanov, ‘Russian Military Involvement in the Syria Conflict’, 2016). This could make the Syrian crisis a matter of national security for Russia, and national security is always the top priority of a state. While this could explain Russia getting involved in Syria, it would not explain their targets of bombings in Syria. It has been estimated that 70 to 90 percent of Russian airstrikes were not aimed at Islamic State, but at regime fighting rebels (Souleimanov, 2016). This would not follow the lines of their counter terrorism fight.

Before 2015 Russia’s Syria policy was mostly overshadowed by the involvement in Ukraine (Kozhanov, ‘Why Is Syria so Important?’, 2016). It has been speculated that Russia hoped the Syria crisis would take some of the focus away from Ukraine and put it on Syria (Soleimanov & Dzutsati, 2018). This would help serve the Russian agenda that directly follows national interests. The Syrian civil war could also help Russia get out of the international isolation they were put in after the backlash about the annexation of Crimea (Souleimanov, 2016). With their involvement they would become a bridge between the regime and the opposition and, even more important, between the regime and other states. Through this Russia made sure the international world could not go around Russia and made sure it has to take into account Russia’s opinion. This would bring more power to Russia on the international stage, hoping to shift the balance of power more their way. Any gain in this is, especially over another state, is a win for Russia. Russia’s agenda in the peace talk is one of the most utter importance for them, since it contains one of their core principles. According to Russia no supranational institute should endorse the removal of a sitting government (Charap, 2013). States are sovereign and regime changes supported by foreign countries threat the stability of the international system. The normalcy of talking about regime changes by Western states feels as a threat to Russia and its autocratic neighboring allies (Charap, 2013). Russia can never be sure of the U.S.’s motives and that they are driven by humanitarian reasons. If regime change for non-democratic states will becomes a precedent in the international world, this could a direct threat to Russia. Thus, Russia has vetoed every resolution in the UNSC about Syria that included any possible regime change and has support the sitting government of Syria against the from outside influenced rebels. By doing so Russia has protected its interest in Syria, but mostly its interests in the international politics.


At the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011 Russia has supported the Assad regime from the sidelines. When pressure increased on the Syrian regime in 2015 Moscow started to rapidly expand their involvement. The reasons of involvement by Russia in Syria can be explained to an extend from a realist perspective. Realism claims that states will always act in their self-interest. However, their national interest as their naval base and economic ties could not explain their involvement. In addition, while their fear of spill-over effect of Muslim extremism into or near their own borders may be based on some truths, it can’t explain their actions of mostly targeting regime fighting rebels. The neorealist perspective of the international structure gives to an extend an explanation to the involvement of Russia. Russia is reacting to behavior in the international structure from other states. By getting involved in Syria they force other states to include Russia on the world stage and seek to stop any possible president on regime changing in global politics. However, as realism also claims, states do not always act rational and we can never assume any motives, especially when the conflict is still on going. In addition, the conflict of Syria is very complex and cannot be brought down to a few reasons, this includes any involvement of a state. It would be interesting for the future to look at the aftermath of the Russian involvement in Syria after peace is brought back into Syria. In the mean time we can only make assumptions.


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  3. Charap, S. (2013). Russia, Syria and the Doctrine of Intervention. Survival, 55(1), 35-41.
  4. Heywood, A. (2014). Theories of Global Politics. In A. Heywood, ‘Global Politics’ (pp. 54-65). London: Palgrave Macmillan.
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  6. Kozhanov, N. (2016). Russian Military Involvement in the Syria Conflict. In N. Kozhanov, ‘Russia and the Syrian Conflict: Moscow's Domestic, Regional, and Strategic InterestS' (pp. 59-74). Berlin: Gerlach Press.
  7. Kozhanov, N. (2016). Why is Syria so Important? In N. Kozhanov, 'Russia and the Syrian Conflict: Moscow's DOmestic, Regional and Strategic Interests' (pp. 43-58). Berlin: Gerlach Press.
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  9. Mason, R. (2018). Russia In Syria: An Unequivocal Return to The Middle East? Middle East Policy, 25(4), 101-115.
  10. Soleimanov, E. A., & Dzutsati, V. (2018). Russia's Syria War: A Stratigic Trap? Middle East Policy, 25(2), 42-50.
  11. Souleimanov, E. A. (2016). Mission Accomplished? Russia's Withdrawal from Syria. Middle East Policy, 23(2), 108-118.
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