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What does Russia really want to achieve in Syria?

Image credit: (Wikimedia Commons: Creative Commons)

Recent events in Syria have demonstrated the weakness of international law and Western commitment to liberal internationalism. The bombing of a United Nation’s (UN) aid convoy in Aleppo, Syria, resulting in the deaths of 20 aid workers, is a confronting yet familiar reminder of the complex state of conflict unfolding in the region. With the finger firmly pointed at Russia as the perpetrator of the attack, post-Cold War relations between the United States and once-Soviet power are in a fragile state.

Following the attack, the UN immediately condemned Russia and announced that it would be suspending aid convoys in Syria. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded by admitting the aid convoy was being monitored by the Russian military when it was in Aleppo, but had lost track of the UN vehicles once they had entered rebel territory.

Following the ensuring investigation, the UN backtracked slightly in its blame of Russia for the attack, while other nations called for the reengagement of talks between Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry regarding a ceasefire agreement in Syria. It seemed that Western powers were willing to excuse the bombing of the aid convoy as a miscalculated strike based on ignorance as opposed to direct Russian aggression. For a moment, it seemed as if the ceasefire talks were back on track. That was, however, until Russia carried out another series of aerial attacks in northern Aleppo, damaging two hospitals held by rebel forces.

With every passing day, the war in Syria undermines the very ideology underpinning the international liberal system. States involved in the conflict are being accused of reckless and heinous war crimes against civilians, while non-state organisations are actively refuting any perceived notion of jus in bello. Anarchy is fitting term to characterise the unfolding turn of events in Syria given that there is no overarching power that can forcibly implement peace and stability.

For the West, Russia’s involvement in Syria demonstrates a newfound willingness by actors to publically pursue realist foreign policy. Its decision to deploy an aerial fighting contingent in support of the Assad regime is a calculated decision, which no doubt feeds into a longer term strategy to protect Russian interests. For this reason, it would be rash for the West to consider Russia’s intervention in Syria as a simple move to undermine regional stability in the Middle East.

One only needs to look at the types of Russian aircraft Putin has been deploying to Syria in September alone. In a goal to destroy the Islamic State and protect the Assad Government, one would anticipate the use of ground-attack aircraft and bombers with the capabilities to disperse a rebel ground fighting force and disrupt vital supply lines. However, Russia’s recent deployment of 35 warplanes and surface-to-air missile instruments in Syria suggests it is pursuing a different strategic objective—what good are surface-to-air missiles (SAM) when facing an adversary that does not possess the high tech air capability required for SAM defence?

Evidently, Russia might be using the opportunity in Syria to establish a firm strategic footing in the region while also demonstrating to the United States and its allies its willingness and commitment to protect national interests. It’s highly improbable that Russia will use its forces in Syria to attack or directly antagonise Western forces and their supporters. Nonetheless, it shows Russian realpolitik at work. It’s important that the West understands what Russia’s strategy is in the Middle East before undertaking any drastic action in Syria.

Rhys Merrett is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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