The Russian Presence in Syria Is a Force for Chaos Rather Than Order

December 27, 2019 | Jakub Grygiel
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After a hiatus from involvement in the Middle East that began in 1991, Russia has reasserted itself in the region through its intervention in the Syrian civil war. Jakub Grygiel explains how America made this return possible through empty rhetoric, passivity, and shortsightedness:

[T]he Obama administration sought to weaken Bashar al-Assad on the cheap, by arming groups like the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). This [decision] created deep and lasting tensions between the U.S. and Turkey as Ankara considers this particular Kurdish entity too close to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist organization that has battled Turkish forces since the early 1980s. The resulting strain in U.S.-Turkish relations further enticed Russia to return to the region, forcing [Turkey’s] Recep Tayyip Erdogan to accept Vladimir Putin’s influence in Damascus and to seek some sort of understanding with Moscow.

Thus, argues Grygiel, the U.S. inadvertently pushed Erdogan into Putin’s open arms. And, contrary to what some experts would argue, no amount of diplomatic maneuvering will turn the Kremlin into an American partner in efforts to restore order to the Levant:

Russia . . . is not eager to rebuild Syria or to ameliorate the humanitarian disaster caused by Bashar al-Assad and the Islamist terrorist groups; it merely seeks bases from which it can exercise some influence over the eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, Vladimir Putin’s approach is to destabilize a region, creating a problem to which he can then offer a solution.

This is a time-tested strategy that Russia has employed since its rise in the early 18th century: sowing instability in order then to be able to reorder the area according to its interests. Thus, Russia has presented itself to European leaders as a staunch defender of Christians against the depredations of Islamist terrorists and, to the more secular politicians in Western Europe, as a force to limit the flow of refugees—while at the same time doing little to fight Islamic State and aiding Assad in his gruesome suppression of the opposition.

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