What’s Behind Putin's Ramped-Up Syria Intervention?

October 08, 2015

Russia’s Caspian Sea fleet fired 26 cruise missiles into Syria on Wednesday and continued the assault Thursday, backing forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and greatly escalating Russia’s incursion into the war-rattled country.

The war in Syria, which started in 2011, has killed more than 220,000 people. The United Nations reports 7.6 million people have been displaced by the fighting, making Syria the largest refugee crisis globally.

Why has Russia entered the war and what are the implications? Allen Lynch, author of “Vladimir Putin and Russian Statecraft” and a professor of politics at UVA, shared his thoughts with UVA Today.

Q. What is Russia’s motivation for getting involved in the fighting?

A. The Russian intervention in Syria is part of Moscow’s internal security strategy. A collapse of the Syrian government would make Russia's southern borderlands much more vulnerable to radical Islamist penetration. It’s less than 500 miles – about the distance between Charlottesville and Hartford, Connecticut – from the northeast Syrian border to post-Soviet borderlands in the Caucasus, where Russia maintains a significant security presence (Armenia is a client state).

Q. Why is Vladimir Putin backing Bashar al-Assad?

A. The Russian president has concluded from the U.S. interventions in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, as well as the obviously poor planning for possible intervention in Syria in 2013, that U.S.-backed regime change will bring more instability than maintenance of existing authoritarian regimes. Backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is the least bad of not-good choices.

Note the care with which the Russians have executed their intervention: they are based on the coast, which means that their forces cannot be surrounded and can be withdrawn quickly should circumstances warrant.

Q. Is Putin engaging in Syria to improve his job approval ratings?

A. Putin does not need this intervention to boost his domestic political support, which is still in the 80-percent range. In fact, a large majority of the Russian public was opposed to such an intervention, as previous Russian polls made clear and which Putin was certainly aware of. 

Q. Is Russia intervening in Syria to help Assad retake the country?

A. Backing the only visible source of state authority, even within a limited area, is not on the face of it unreasonable. Russia is not trying to help Assad retake all of Syria, but to see if it can bolster Assad’s regime within an area near the coast containing the majority of Syria's population. If it works, all the better, and Russia also develops a working alliance with Iran and ex-United States client state Iraq.

If it fails, he can get out on the cheap having made a strong but limited commitment.

Putin's prime motive is not to stick it to the United States, but to defend the interests of the Russian state as he defines them.

Q. What does Israel think of Russia’s intervention?

A. Israel is quietly rooting for Russia. They prefer the Assad that they know to future unknowns, all of whom seem much worse for Israeli interests, such as the stability of the Golan frontier.

Media Contact

Jane Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications