Putin’s shadow casts above Syria

Reuters

Welcome again to Motherland Russia! In today’s blog: Syria. 

The war in Syria has been the main subject matter that has caught the eyes of International Relations’ analysts since its beginning in 2011. The ongoing conflict, which is key to understanding the dynamics in the Middle East, has been very influenced by foreign actors, both public and private.

As I mentioned in the previous blog, Russia has been deeply involved in Syria. Why is this relevant? Because Syria does not only have geographical potential that could be useful to Putin but also it is the perfect opportunity to increase Russia’s soft-power in the region and in the whole world.

A nice Mediterranean location

Al-Assad and Putin have always had a stable and friendly relation. However, there is a key reason why Putin supported al-Assad after the Arab Spring revolts in Syria: access to the Mediterranean sea. Russia owns a naval base in Tartus, a western city, which is it’s only one in the Mediterranean. In fact, it is the sole naval base the Russians have abroad.

The facility is truly important because it allows Russian ships to circulate the Mediterranean with a port in nearby countries. Without the base, Russian ships would have to make their trip back to the Black Sea if they needed any type of reparations (which is inconvenient in terms of time and efficiency)

Why the Mediterranean? The answer is always the same: it benefits Putin’s economic and political interests. The Mediterranean opens a broad number of trading opportunities for Russia, which has already ties with many littoral states in both Europe (such as Greece or Cyprus) and Africa (like Libya or Algeria). 
Oh, and let’s not forget what an increasing Russian presence in the sea means: NATO’s influence in the area is slowly drowning away, leaving a void which is being filled up by not so “yellow submarines”.

A competition for soft-power, economic and political influence.

Similar to the Mediterranean, Syria became one of the international community’s favourite playground. With the outbreak of the war, leaders were quick in taking sides. It is not surprising to see Trump and Putin defending opposing parties to the conflict. Nevertheless, foreign involvement in the issue goes beyond the giants, including main EU countries, China, Turkey, and regional powers such as Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

Everyone saw their interests, both political and economic, at stake (or said to do so), so everyone wanted to dictate the fate of the Middle Eastern conflict and its government. As a result, it became not only a race to supply their favoured party with military equipment and training but also a soft-power war (a battle for legitimacy and influence in the Middle East, as well as for the reputation of diplomatic power in the international sphere).

The US and its NATO allies are gradually losing influence in the Middle East. Putin, who has pursued an assertive foreign policy in order to portray Russia as a major power in the region, saw the chance to officially show the world the decline of the West,

Putin has vetoed the UNSC wishes of taking action in Syria and has taken advantage of internal disagreements between the leaders supporting the rebels. For instance, using his newly improved relations with Erdogan and his drifting apart of the US and NATO due to the Kurds. Putin was able to obtain a victory. As we know, US troops withdrew from the country.

However, does the US withdrawal mean that Putin will no longer have to deal with Trump and other Western leaders in the Middle East? Not at all. Definitely, Russian’ interests in Syria are safe, unless the conflict takes an unexpected turn. Nevertheless, as I will analyze in upcoming blogs, Putin has many other challenges in the region. Challenges whose shadow grows a bit larger every day and threaten Putin’s fight for hegemony. Any guesses?

Elvira Bermúdez Fernández

General Coordination-Internal