A1: Russia’s primary goal in Syria is to support the Assad government and help it to stay in power. To do this, Russia, working with Syria and Iran, is targeting groups opposed to Assad. Russia is doing this for several reasons. First, Assad is a long-term friend of Moscow’s. Second, Russia’s position has long been that governments have a right to do what they want within their borders, without foreign interference, including (perhaps especially) putting down opposition movements. Third, Russia truly believes that Assad is Syria’s best hope for stability, and does not see a plausible likelihood of a moderate opposition taking power.
Q2: What about Islamist extremism and ISIS? Is Russia actively helping ISIS, or helping the U.S. fight it?
A2: Russia does have a genuine concern about Islamist extremism, in Syria and elsewhere. Indeed, Russia is particularly worried about Islamist extremism within its own borders. Estimates of Russian fighters among the Syrian jihadi opposition range from the hundreds to the thousands, and some of them are part of the ISIS leadership (there are even reports of Russian officials helping some fighters get from Russia to Syria, perhaps in the hope that this will make Russia safer in the near term). That said, Russia’s position is that Assad can be more effective in fighting ISIS and its ilk if he doesn’t face any other opposition, so they’re concentrating their efforts on supporting him (a more cynical interpretation may be that they simply want to eliminate all alternatives other than Assad and ISIS). Although Russia’s official position is that it is fighting ISIS, few of their targets in Syria have been in areas controlled by the Islamic State, and there is no question that they have struck groups that the United States has supported.
Q3: How does Syria fit in to Russia’s broader global strategy, if it has one?
A3: Russia has worked very hard in recent years to demonstrate that it is a global power. While this comes second to the need to demonstrate and exercise power and influence in Europe, it is a critical component of Russia’s strategic agenda. Moreover, Russia sees itself as in opposition to the United States, not in the balance of power sense of the Cold War, but in a new sense of standing up to what it characterizes as U.S. hegemony globally. In Syria, Russia’s desire to counter the United States is in conflict with its intention to bolster Assad, as any Syrian settlement, with or without Assad, requires U.S. involvement and acquiescence.
Q4: Is there any chance that talks with Russia and Iran on Syria can help resolve the conflict, or are they likely to be counterproductive?
A4: Talks are likely to be difficult, and progress slow, but they will not be counterproductive. The parties come in to the talks at cross purposes, with fundamentally different visions for Syria’s future. However, this is precisely why talks are necessary, and would be important even if these parties were not militarily involved. Because they are militarily involved, however, getting these key stakeholders together is important not only for an eventual resolution, but also to maintain communication, critical when misunderstandings run a dangerous risk of escalating.
Olga Oliker is a senior adviser and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.
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