What outcome would be perfect for Moscow?

I mostly agree with what Streetwise Professor has to say about Russia’s involvement in Syria but I propose a conspiracy-theoretical addendum.

First, why did Russia consent to the nuclear deal with Iran despite the downward pressure it would exert on the oil price? Were there any rewards promised for its cooperation?

Second, what is the Kremlin’s maximum set of goals in this Middle Eastern campaign? Does it include large-scale destabilization in the Middle East, especially of certain Sunni autocracies?


  1. I have no how idea this will play out, but most leaders hoping for a swift, successful campaign in the Middle East have been sorely disappointed. Iraq’s an obvious point to make here but this applies just as much to Middle Eastern rulers themselves, e.g. Nasser’s botched anti-insurgency campaign in Yemen (“my Vietnam”) or Saddam’s 1980 invasion of Iran. I doubt Putin knows the territory better than they did.

    Putin throwing his lot in with the Shias (about 15% of the Muslim world) over the Sunnis (85%) is not necessarily a great plan. He might be able to undermine the Sunni autocracies (the Gulf Arab states) but they might do the same to him. Remember Saudi Arabia backed the Mujahedin against the USSR in Afghanistan. They also have plenty of oil/gas power of their own.

    Also, don’t forget the sheer potential for incompetence. There may well be more MH17-style bungling on the part of the less well-trained and disciplined Russian forces.

    • My feeling is that instability in Sunni oil and gas states (KSA and Qatar above all) is the ultimate goal but if it is out of reach, securing the coastal mountains for an Alawi statelet would probably do.

      As you say, the Saudis and the Qataris have ways to retaliate: apart from spigot power, they have jihad power. However, Putin Version 2016 might very well use the threat of jihadist attacks in Russia to keep society consolidated around him.

      • I have trouble getting my head round Syria. I’ve read Emile Hokayem’s book on the country and Michael Weiss’s on ISIS but I haven’t really assimilated the information yet. As Hokayem says, Syria is immensely complicated and few people understand it, including Iran and (arguably) Bashar al-Assad himself.

        I presume Putin’s strategy is to knock out the non-ISIS opposition to Assad first, or radicalise that opposition so it joins with ISIS. Then the war becomes more or less a straight Assad versus ISIS fight and Putin can claim he’s defending civilisation against the terrorists. The flow of refugees to Europe is a massive bonus as it destabilises the EU. There is little chance of reasserting Assad’s rule across the whole of Syria so a rump statelet is probably the aim, as you say.

        There is no chance of destabilising Qatar with its extremely small, cohesive and wealthy indigenous society (if the migrant workers play up they get expelled and replaced). KSA is a better bet, but the price of oil and gas would have to go down big time and this, of course, would endanger Russia (or, more specifically, Putin’s Russia) too.

        Putin’s wooing of Syria and Iraq is another bit of Neo-Sovietry. After all, they were once part of the USSR’s sphere of influence. The alliance with Iran is more surprising and it’s more a marriage of convenience. I doubt Tehran trusts Moscow much.

        I have no idea what Obama’s strategy is, assuming he has one. Do nothing and hope for the best? Give Putin enough rope to hang himself by getting him embroiled in a Middle Eastern quagmire? If saving civilians was the priority then a no-fly zone should have been imposed to protect them from Assad’s barrel-bombing.

        • Perhaps Putin is drawing on the knowledge of Syria accumulated by earlier generations of spies and military advisers. Moscow strategists may think they are experts at managing complexity because Syria is probably no more confusing than the Caucasus and even, more narrowly, Dagestan.

          • It won’t matter so much as long as Russia sticks to air power and uses Assad’s troops as cannon fodder on the ground.

  2. So Russia might be using NATO strategy in Libya as a model: offer air and covert special forces support only, plus arms supplies; let the locals do the ground fighting.

    • I’ve seen claims that there are not many locals left to do the ground fighting for Assad. Most curiously, Strelkov has raised his voice against Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war, which he sees as a potential disaster and a betrayal of Donbass.

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