Syria: What’s In It For Putin? | Inside Assad’s Syria | FRONTLINE | PBS

For Vladimir Putin, Syria isn’t just about supporting President Bashar al-Assad. It’s about Russia’s place on this planet.

Ever since Russia started airstrikes in Syria a month in the past, it has made the case that it’s aiding the Assad authorities in a struggle in opposition to terrorists like ISIS.

However Russia’s army intervention in Syria started as Russia itself was struggling below Western sanctions, an ailing economic system and diplomatic isolation because of its annexation of Crimea and its function within the battle in jap Ukraine. Its Syria marketing campaign carries the dangers that include any international intervention — escalating casualties, runaway prices and the hazard of falling into a quagmire. That it comes so quickly after Ukraine, the place Russia took pains to cover its army function, solely heightens the opportunity of shedding public help.

So why the gamble?

Consultants say that whereas Assad could also be a beneficial, long-time ally who provides Russia a foothold within the Center East, the intervention is about one thing a lot bigger — making certain Russia’s affect within the area and its place on the negotiating desk.

“Russians have been smarting for a very long time below the Western technique to isolate Russia, so this was an opportunity to say, ‘It’s important to take care of us. We’re a significant participant on this disaster,’” says Andrew Weiss, vp for research on the Carnegie Endowment for Worldwide Peace.

Given america’ obvious reluctance to develop into extra deeply concerned within the Syrian civil battle, and the extraordinary strain European international locations are going through because of the refugee disaster, specialists say Putin noticed a possibility to re-assert Russian affect.

The purpose Russia needs to make with its intervention is that “it may be a helpful ally, or it may be a problematic antagonist,” so it shouldn’t be remoted, says Mark Galeotti, an knowledgeable on Russian safety at New York College’s Heart for International Affairs.

As European borders and shores buckle below the strain of lots of of 1000’s of refugees, a overwhelming majority of them Syrians, Russia — with Assad in its nook — provides leaders a glimmer of hope for a negotiated answer to the battle. Nevertheless, U.S. officers have accused Russia, which insists it’s concentrating on ISIS fighters, of primarily concentrating on CIA-backed insurgent teams in its airstrikes.


Syria has additionally supplied the Kremlin an opportunity to vary the topic from the battle in jap Ukraine, says Weiss. The Syria marketing campaign ramped up because the preventing in Ukraine was winding right down to an uneasy stalemate. The Ukrainian battle has resulted within the deaths of practically 8,000 individuals, together with troopers, separatists and civilians, and a path of bodily and financial devastation that displaced at the least 1.4 million from their properties — not a straightforward, victorious narrative for Russia.

The gambit could also be paying off, in response to the state pollster Russian Public Opinion Analysis Heart, often called VTsIOM, which stated final week that Putin’s approval score hit a document excessive of virtually 90 p.c within the aftermath of airstrikes in Syria. “Such a excessive degree of approval for the work of the Russian president is linked, within the first occasion, to occasions in Syria, to Russian airstrikes on terrorist positions there,” the pollster stated. Consultants do counsel taking opinion polls in Russia with a grain of salt, although. For instance, Putin’s approval score has not fallen beneath 80 p.c since March 2014 regardless of a deepening recession in Russia.

Putin has helped bolster public help by arguing that the Syria marketing campaign is a strike in opposition to terrorists who pose a risk to Russia, whereas they’re safely in another person’s nation.

“Beforehand, there was resistance, as a result of individuals didn’t need to see their boys dying in Syria,” Galeotti says. However up to now, “it’s very a lot being offered as a wholly arms-length and protected intervention” — from the Russian perspective, an nearly “anti-septic battle.”


On the bottom, nevertheless, at the least one Russian soldier has already died. On Tuesday, Russia confirmed its first army fatality in Syria, however the army’s account says the soldier, 19-year-old Vadim Kostenko, dedicated suicide.

The opposite apparent price of the intervention, moreover the opportunity of Russian troopers being wounded or killed, is financial. The airstrikes in Syria are costing Russia an estimated $2.3 million to $4 million a day, in response to a senior analyst quoted in a latest Monetary Instances report. That spending comes at a time when authorities figures present the Russian economic system, struggling below Western sanctions and low oil costs, shrunk by 3.8 p.c by way of the primary 9 months of the yr, and by 4.3 p.c within the newest quarter. In the meantime, the World Financial institution reported that the poverty fee in Russia has climbed to fifteen.1 p.c, compounded by rising meals costs.

The intervention is “not an enormous expense” in the intervening time, nevertheless it’s a “actual expense and the Russian price range is stretched to the utmost,” in response to William Pomeranz, deputy director of the Kennan Institute for Superior Russian Research on the Woodrow Wilson Heart. “In Putin’s 2015 price range, he’s clearly chosen weapons over butter. He’s elevated army and protection spending, and decreased spending on well being and schooling,” Pomeranz says.

In 2014, a Russian protection official introduced that the nation’s 2015 protection price range would attain a document $81 billion, or 4.2 p.c of Russia’s GDP on the time, in response to The Moscow Instances. The official, Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, stated, “These parameters are considerably increased than in 2014, when the proportion of GDP was 3.4 p.c.”

Thus far, Russia has been capable of depend on foreign money reserves to fill price range deficits, Pomeranz says, however “Sooner or later, Putin’s going to have to elucidate to Russians why they’re not spending something to enhance their way of life, and are solely engaged in varied forms of wars.”


In the mean time, it stays unclear how far Russia is keen to go, and what number of assets it’s keen to expend to safe Assad’s place, specialists say. As a result of one in all Russia’s key goals is to show to america and Europe that it’s indispensable in fixing the disaster, it might be open to a spread of potential choices — from preserving Assad, to transitioning to a different Moscow-friendly authorities, or just bringing Russia in from the chilly in worldwide negotiations.

And there are unknowns to issue into Russia’s intervention — the power of the forces on the bottom supporting Assad’s authorities (from the Syrian military to Shiite militias, Hezbollah and Iran’s army advisers), Russia’s capability for finishing up a long-term, long-range army effort, and whether or not occasions on the bottom will drive Russia to escalate its marketing campaign.

“Thus far, every little thing’s been going proper for [Russia] in Syria,” Galeotti says. “Sooner or later, we’re going to see planes getting shot down, or we’re going to see terrorist-style assaults on their bases. After which the query is do they really feel the necessity to escalate and try to ship extra troops? That is the way you get sucked into these wars — you assume you may management them.”

“It’s Putin’s wager that he may be out and in rapidly, and in some way with an enhanced popularity and perhaps even victorious,” Pomeranz says. However, he warned, “The Center East doesn’t appear to grant individuals brief, victorious wars.”

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Deputy Digital Editor, FRONTLINE

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