The ‘Return of Geopolitics’ and the Revival of Russia?

The Case of Syria

Since Daesh raised out of the troubles of the Syrian civil war and it established as an international actor, the Western respond was clear: the defeat of the terror group and the replacement of the Syrian government. Nevertheless, the US-led coalition had difficulties to agree on a reliable strategy for the future and the military mission, the Russian government rejected all attempts to overthrow the Syrian government. Furthermore, military efforts helped – deliberately or unintentionally – the Syrians’ regime to stabilize. The Russian engagement is one of the first major foreign interventions outside the territory of the former Soviet Union. Immediately, Russian engagement raised the question of the return of geopolitical strategies and the struggle of major powers. This brief essay will outline, why Russian intervention in Syria cannot be seen as the raise of geopolitics by outlining younger approaches on this topic, Russian foreign policies and its development in Syria.

The Return of Geopolitics?
While the 2000s remained, despite the proclaimed Global War on Terror, in relative terms a peaceful century, in 2016 the world was considerably less peaceful (GPI 2016: 33). While this development might be surprising for the US and the EU, Mead argues that “Westerners should never have expected old-fashioned geopolitics to go away.” (2014) In his view, the end of the Cold War marked not the triumph of Neo-liberalism. Though some powers forfeited strength, this was rather a short-term effect. After a period of recreation powers have gained enough strength to start the struggle for geopolitical advantage again. After the end of the Cold War, “foreign policy has been to shift international relations away from zero-sum issues toward win-win ones.” (ibid.) The global agenda was not dominated by sovereignty and dependency anymore, but by global governance problems. Nevertheless, Mead argues, that this view neglects the very basics. Geopolitics were not dead or overcome, but the reason: Only by reaching the level of geopolitical hegemony foreign policy was able to turn towards other fields of policy such as climate change or economics. This brought stability, which is faltering. China, Iran and Russia have faced rapid growth or have recovered and are questioning the global status quo. What seems, he argues, as the End of History has shown as a short summer night with a new dawn.
Do these indications apply for the Russian involvement in Syria? Without questioning the broader validity of Meads analysis, the Russian initiative cannot be seen as a part of potential geopolitical strategies. As I will show, the Russian initiative is much more to be explained by internal policy.

This argumentation will be undermined by a closer look at Russian relations with Syria and Russian strategy in Syria in a global context.

Syria in a broader context
Mead is right in arguing that current affairs and relations date back to times of the Cold War. The former Soviet Union had various diplomatic ties with the Ba’ath regime under Hafez al-Assad. But it was rather a strategic relationship than an ideological. Despite some struggles, the intelligence communities of both regimes held tight contacts and maintained several exchange programs for military advisors. This might explain Syrian interest in the relationship: the USSR as ally delivered important technical knowledge and expertise. During Syrian isolation between 2003 and 2008 Russia did not turn away and maintained the relationship. More than 12’000 military advisors and officers have been exchanged and trained in both countries (Kreutz 2010: 22). Especially Syrian’s air defence is under supervision of Russian experts. Not only personnel was part of the good relations, Russia has direct access to the Mediterranean maintaining two naval bases and a smaller air base, all located in the West of Syria. Nevertheless, Russian ties to the Syrian regime should not be overestimated, “there is no evidence that Putin has held any pro-Arab or pro-Third World sentiments.” (Allison 2013: 802) Again, the relationship is based on practical terms.

However, the practical aspect can only be explained by the new Russian Foreign Policy Concept of 2013 and its three pillars: condemning the overthrow of legitimate authorities in sovereign states (1), a multilateral approach to crisis management and the involvement of all parties (2), and the claim that human rights are used as pressure against sovereign states, an excuse for intervening in their internal affairs and destabilize them by manipulating the public opinion (3) (Monaghan 2013). While the US seeks to promote democracy and liberal values, Russia positions itself as protecting power for all kinds of regimes. Therefore, Konstantin Kosachev, Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Federation Council, argues, that the Russian intervention in Syria is not based on historical sentiments but on experiences made in the past: The US invasions in Iraq and Libya (2017). Both cases proof – in the view of Russia – that an external and illegitimate overthrow of the government in power is a threat to national and international security.
Therefore, Russian involvement in Syria has three aims: maintaining bases in Syria as further origin of protection for regimes threatened by a revolt (1), signaling internally to be aware of any tendencies of regime change (2) and to fight terrorism in Russia (3).

While (1) is a more tactical aim, I will examine the latter more in detail.

In September 2015, Russia started the first operations in Syria. In cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah and authorized by the Syrian government, Russian infrastructure aimed primarily to stabilize the Syrian regime and only then to fight Daesh and other terrorist groups (Kaim and Tamminga 2015). What explains the Russian involvement that time? After four years of fighting, the Syrian military was weakened and exhausted and was not able to fight all rebel groups. The regime was threatened by its opponents as never before. With the support of the US and the international coalition, an overthrow was more likely. Russia had two options, either it could stand on the sidelines or protect the regime. It opted for the latter and showed its allies that a violent regime change is not happening with Russia and will be opposed.
While initially the Arab Spring overthrew governments in the Middle East, a late but nevertheless successful regime change in Syria could have had enormous influence on other authoritarian regimes, not only in the Middle East but in Central Asia. Several countries were backed by Russia in the former decade when movements threatened the regimes in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan or Ukraine and claimed more rights. The support of the authoritarian but ruling Assad regime is a clear signal towards Russian allies: While the US and the West are turning against former partners, such as in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt Iraq – all authoritarian governments were once supported or at least accepted by the US – Russia is a partner for stability. So, before turning the Syrian revolution to success, Russia intervened. Whereas, the US coalition is only focused on Daesh and other Islamist terror groups, Russia perceives all rebel groups as terror groups and fights them where ever it is possible.

Just like the backup for an authoritarian regime is a selfish interest by Russia, its fight against Islamic extremism and a limited cooperation with the US is also rooted in an egocentric manner.

Other than the US, for Russia it is very difficult to control all its borders (Kosachev 2017) and Islamic terror is a real threat, as Chechnya is seeking for independence. The Caucasus region is mainly populated by Muslims. Many Chechens fight in Syria alongside Daesh and other groups. Russia fears that radicalized Chechens or citizens from other former Soviet Union states continue fighting in Russia. The attack in St. Petersburg in April 2017 proofs this. The fight against terror in Syria is also a fight against terror on Russian soil.

Other than Mead is indicating, Russian involvement is not part of geopolitical strategies. Although 72 per cent of Syrian weapons are bought in Russia, this account “for only 5 per cent of Russian total arms deliveries abroad” (Allison 2013: 805). Further, the hope for natural resources does not explain Russian involvement. Syrian gas and oil production is declining and very limited in comparison with other states in the region. If Russia would be interested in resources, it would do better in finding an ally with other states in the region – who are all fighting the Syrian regime. As I have shown, the involvement in Syria is much more explained by internal motivations and fits into a global Russian strategy to develop an alternative vision to create win-win situations.

Allison, Roy (2013): Russia and Syria: explaining alignment with a regime in crisis. International Affairs 89, 4: 795-823.
Kaim, Markus and Tamminga, Oliver (2015) Der russische Militareinsatz. Operationsplan, Zielsetzung and die Folgen für die Politik des Westens. SWP Aktuell 88.
Kreutz, Andrej (2010): Syria: Russian’s best asset in the Middle East. Russie.Nei.Visions no. 55. French Institute of International Relations.
Kosachev, Konstantin (2017) at the Munich Security Conference 2017. Accessed: 13.04.2017
Mead, Walter Russell (2014): The Return of Geopolitics. The Revenge of the Revisionist Powers. Accessed: 13.04.2017
Monaghan, Andrew (2013): The New Russian Foreign Policy Concept: Evolving Continuity. Russia and Eurasia REP 2013/03. Chatham House.
Zisser. Eyal (2016): Russia’s War in Syria. Strategic Assessment, 19, 1: 41-49.

Photo: Jacob Valerio