Russian President Vladimir Putin has used the Syrian Civil War to strengthen his strategic position against NATO and expand Russian influence in the Middle East.
Why is Russia Involved in the Syrian Conflict?
Since taking office, Vladimir Putin has been intent on restoring Russia as a great world power.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian military radically shrank and decayed. A strong navy is essential to project power and protect commerce but, despite 23 million miles of coastline, Russia does not have a single warm water port. Ports that are not frozen year-round are very shallow. In order for a Russian ship to access a world ocean, it must go through a chokepoint controlled by either a NATO member country or Japan, a close ally of the United States.
Putin has prioritized rebuilding the armed forces and restoring the Russian navy’s ocean-going capability in order to deter NATO, which he views as the greatest threat to Russia.
The Kremlin’s military strategy is designed to break out of “perceived NATO encirclement,” according to Adm. Mark Ferguson, commander of the U.S. Naval Forces Europe and the Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, by creating an “arc of steel from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.” In 2013, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu similarly stated the “Mediterranean region was the core of all essential dangers to Russia’s national interests” and established a naval department task force in the region on a “permanent basis.”
During the Cold War, advanced ships from both the United States and Soviet Union were present in the Mediterranean Sea. More recently, American ships have been focused in the Persian Gulf and Western Pacific.
Russia’s only naval base outside the former Soviet Union is in Tartus, Syria. After the Soviet collapse, it was only used occasionally by Russian ships, but the Kremlin expressed renewed interest in the facility in 2005. Tartus is used for maintenance and is capable of holding 11 warships at a time, including nuclear submarines. In 2017, Syria and Russia signed a new lease for 49 years, with plans for expansion.
Without Tartus, all Russian ships must sail through the Bosporus Strait, which is controlled by NATO member Turkey.
Putin began providing weapons to Assad to “fight terrorism” in 2011. However, the anti-ship cruise missiles and advanced air-defense systems the Kremlin provided were not to fight ISIS — a group with no ships or planes. “These systems are aimed at denying NATO the ability to operate freely in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as helping to crush all opposition to Assad,” Frederick Kagan and John Miller wrote. “Russian submarines can threaten both seaborne and land targets and if they range the entire Mediterranean, no NATO capitol is safe,” Kagan and Miller continued.
The Kremlin has benefitted from the Syria conflict in a number of ways. Putin has used this regional instability to establish working relationships with Iran, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan; in every case, backing the status quo, as Leonoid Bershidsky points out. “Such a record endears Middle Eastern leaders to Putin: They can be reasonably certain he won’t pull a fast one on them. With the U.S., they can’t be so sure, since Washington has backed or directly performed several regime changes in the region,” Bershidksy writes.
Continued U.S. presence in Syria will not alter Russia’s strategic position in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, it is worth nothing that as U.S. credibility has decreased in the region, Russian credibility has actually increased.
Morgan Wirthlin is Chief of Staff at the Center for Security Policy, located in Washington, D.C.