Analyzing Russia’s Middle East Intervention

Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin

Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin

By Daniella Wenger

Photograph of Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin courtesy of Getty Images


Lets Start with Some Background

Today’s geopolitics looks something like a throwback to the 1950s. The Russians in the Eastern Bloc against the United States and the West. Eisenhower and Democracy versus Stalin and Socialism. Fast forward to the present and deja vu; Russia backs Assad— and the Syrian Army—while the United States backs the Kurds and the Syrian Rebels, both of which oppose Assad’s tyranny.

However, Russia and Syria did not suddenly end up in bed with one another. In fact, since 1956, Russia has supported the Syrian government. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets provided Syria with weapons, financial backing, and diplomatic cover. This alliance has held up during the current Syrian Civil War. In October 2011 and February 2012, Russia blocked Western backed resolutions at the United Nations Security Council due to the possibility of military intervention and sanctions against the Assad administration. Additionally, in January and February 2012, Russian pro-Assad peace initiatives were dismissed by Western powers.

In September 2015, the Russian military began fighting opposition groups to assist the Syria regime. Meanwhile the United States continued to back the rebels. Since then, Russia has used its military to fight not only Syrian rebels but also ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). Despite Assad’s cry for help in September, ISIS is still in control of land where 10 million people reside.

What about Russian Involvement in Iraq?

Back in September, the Russians were conducting flyovers to spy on the Islamic State. Since then, Iraqi defense officials have reached an intelligence-sharing agreement with Russia, which means that the Russian military is spying on ISIS for the Iraqi government so they can focus on fighting off the US backed Syrian Rebels.

Why is the US in the Mix?

Despite American antipathy against Assad, the Obama administration also opposes extremist rebel groups such as al-Nusra and ISIS. However, according to statements made by Marine General Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the US will not assist the Iraqi government in fighting off ISIS if Russia is helping as well.

This week, Dunford spoke with Iraq’s Defense Minister Khaled al Obeid. After the talks, Dunford stated, “We can’t conduct operations if the Russians were operating in Iraq right now”, he continued, the United States “can’t have a relationship right now with Russia in the context of Iraq.”

The Next Move

Overall, Russia’s intervention makes Syria’s already complicated civil war even messier. By getting actively involved, Putin increases the stakes of the conflict while increasing the chance of a great power conflict. Nevertheless, Russia’s actions appear to have given an immediate boost to Assad, who has taken the offensive in Aleppo and Idlib provinces. Now the ball shifts to Obama’s court. How the United States responds to Russian escalation will shape the next chapter of the ongoing turmoil.

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