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Russian flags in front of the ancient ruins of Palmyra, Syria. Russian flags in front of the ancient ruins of Palmyra, Syria, April 8, 2016 (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service photo via AP).

The Syrian Civil War Is Russia’s Problem Now

Monday, Feb. 11, 2019

Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war was never meant to be long-term. Now that Russia has been successful in saving the regime of Bashar al-Assad, what's next for Russia's Middle East strategy? Find out more when you subscribe to World Politics Review (WPR).

Russia's decision to intervene in the Syrian civil war in September 2015 was consistent with its belief that the Syrian state represents the only viable and legitimate actor in the country, and its forces are the only ones worth supporting. Moscow has always been willing to pay a political and military price to prevent a Syrian army collapse.

From the outset, Russia’s intervention was a multilayered gambit, but its purpose was straightforward: changing the facts on the ground and imposing new realities to leverage a different political outcome in Syria, not necessarily at the expense of the U.S., but almost certainly at the expense of its allies in the region.

What motivated the operation was the increasingly desperate military situation of Assad’s forces after territorial losses in northwestern Syria, close to the regime’s coastal stronghold around Latakia. Assad sounded the alarm, compelling Russia and Iran to come up with a military plan to rescue both the Syrian army and, as a consequence, their own ability to maintain a deciding hand in the war.

To learn more about how Russian involvement turned the tide of the Syrian Civil War, read Russia Banks on Brief Campaign to Determine Syria Endgame for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

As Russia Vilified The Islamic State, Its True Agenda Emerged

From the outset of its intervention in the Syrian Civil War, Russia tried to portray its campaign at home and abroad as a push against the self-declared Islamic State. That narrative, while deliberately misleading, made a good cover story. Amid the current fog of Middle East conflict—with tangled alliances, conflicting agendas and partially overlapping geopolitical objectives—the Islamic State is the only actor whose behavior and objectives are universally reviled by the civilized world. The terrorist group earned universal ignominy with its self-styled caliphate, replete with videotaped decapitations and public slave markets. Who could challenge the moral value of fighting against it? But while Russian President Vladimir Putin consistently claimed his goal was to defeat the Islamic State, his true objectives all along were something altogether different, and that was visible as the carnage in Syria intensified and the incipient peace process crumbled.

To find out more about the history of Russia's involvement in Syria, read Putin Uses Islamic State as Cover for Russia’s Real Objectives in Syria for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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The Shift to Diplomacy to Prepare the Endgame in Syria’s Civil War

In August 2018, after seven years of war in Syria, it became apparent that the endgame was near. All major frontlines had been frozen by foreign intervention, and military action hinged on externally brokered political deals. The sight of Russian diplomats shuttling between Israelis, Syrians, Iranians and Americans to ease Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s return to the 1967 cease-fire line in the Golan was a sign of things to come. Israel finally relented, accepting a Russian-monitored restoration of the pre-2011 status quo. But things promised to be more complicated in the rest of Syria, where the three remaining areas outside Assad’s control were shielded by soldiers from NATO member states and wrapped up in complex diplomacy. Idlib, controlled by the last vestiges of the armed rebels under Turkey’s watchful eye, was a particular flashpoint. With Syrian tanks rolling north and tensions mounting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov headed to Ankara for talks with his Turkish counterpart that proved decisive for the course of Syria’s civil war—and Russia’s role in it.

Russian diplomacy in support of its military objectives played a key role in saving Syria’s Assad. To learn more, read The Shape of Syria to Come for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

How Russia’s Deal With Turkey on Idlib Left Putin Calling the Shots

In September, Turkey and Russia, largely on opposites sides of the Syrian civil war, struck an 11th-hour deal to prevent a military assault by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces on the last remaining rebel stronghold of Idlib in northwestern Syria. While the agreement, which was reached in the Russian Black Sea resort town of Sochi, won’t end the Syrian conflict, it buys some time to attempt to find a sustainable resolution in Idlib, where there are some 30,000 rebel fighters, perhaps a third of them al-Qaida-linked extremists. But if all things fail, Russian President Vladimir Putin has crafted the agreement in a manner that ensures he stays in the driver’s seat.

Can Russia’s Putin continue to call the shots in Syria? To learn more, read The Deal Over Idlib’s Fate Keeps Putin in the Driver’s Seat in Syria for FREE with your subscription to World Politics Review.

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Editor's Note: This article was first published in August 2018 and is regularly updated.