5 Goals Vladimir Putin Wants to Achieve in Syria

5 Goals Vladimir Putin Wants to Achieve in Syria

5 Goals Vladimir Putin Wants to Achieve in Syria

1920 1080 Michael Petraeus


xactly two years ago, in September 2013, Vladimir Putin demonstrated his diplomatic prowess by brokering a deal which removed chemical weapons from Syrian regime’s hands – and prevented Western airstrikes from battering Assad’s forces. His maneuvering, coupled with bold PR moves – including an op-ed addressing the US public, published in the New York Times – in which he preached peace and cooperation while expressing concerns over United Nations’ future – earned him international respect and embarrassed the US president Obama who – despite wielding the Nobel peace prize – ended up looking surprisingly eager to resort to military actions on foreign ground.

Who would have expected the Russian Bear to school the West in the might of the pen over the sword?

To understand Putin’s latest actions we have to start 2000km north of Syria – in Ukraine. There lies the reason why Putin’s global popularity in 2013 was so short lived. For the past year and a half Russia appeared in the news largely in the negative context of fueling the fire of conflict in Ukraine – which resulted in thousands of deaths, including a catastrophic crash of Malaysian Airlines flight, shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft battery in the hands of separatists.

Hybrid warfare, coupled with annexation of Crimea accomplished Russia’s goals in the Black Sea region, but has cost the country dearly elsewhere. With economic sanctions, budgetary cuts and weakening rouble, its economy stalled.

However the most painful result of the Ukrainian conflict was not economic – it was the collapse of Russia’s global influence and diplomatic power. Disaster that Putin now wants to recover from.

Goal no. 1: Restore a Strong Position in Global Leadership

Western sanctions, coupled with dwindling price of oil and political ostracization of its leaders, relegated Russia to a 2nd league country status. This impact extended beyond the country’s economy and budget – it also diminished its leverage in dealing with world’s top players. While Russia is keen to demonstrate China as its alternative to the West, in reality Moscow simply has no other choice and the Chinese have used this as a leverage to drive prices of gas deals down, knowing that their counterparts can’t walk away from the table with nothing. As a result, Beijing reduced Russia to merely a cheap gas station.

Therefore the largest country on the planet is not only bleeding money – it also lost international respect. Bullying Ukraine or Georgia is the most Moscow is capable of today.

Putin needs a diplomatic success of a global scale, to restore Kremlin’s position in the world’s premier league – and Syria presents an ideal opportunity to achieve that.

Unlike Western politicians he acts swiftly. In a series of surprise moves he already managed to speak with all key stakeholders. He brokered an agreement that will allow sharing of intelligence information about ISIS, between Syria, Iraq and Iran. He reached out to Saudi Arabia and received visits from Israeli PM and Turkish president. While today he will address the UN to present his plan of defeating ISIS and restoring peace.

Notably, his actions are coupled with a surprisingly stable ceasefire in eastern Ukraine and an agreement to sell Russian gas to its embattled neighbor this winter, signed just 3 days ago. It’s clear that Russian president doesn’t want any bad press this autumn.

Amid the refugee crisis in Europe, after a year of US-led airstrikes which provided limited progress and only in the ethnically non-Arab areas, it’s the seemingly uninvolved Kremlin that proposes a diplomatic solution.

If Putin’s maneuvering works out and bolstered Assad is able to eventually strike a deal with rebel forces – which would free resources and manpower to tackle ISIS on the ground – then the Russian not American president, will be hailed as the one who turned the seemingly endless civil war around.

Even if Western sanctions over Russian involvement in Ukraine are not lifted, Russia will restore its position among the top global powers. As a consequence, it will be able to use the influence garnered in the Middle East to shape the politics of the region in a way that affects its Western rivals and provides leverage in negotiations in other matters.

Goal no. 2: Humiliate the US

Last August president Obama admitted that his administration had no strategy of dealing with ISIS. A year since starting coalition airstrikes the White House still seems to remain in the same position. Apart from aiding Kurdish YPG forces retake swaths of northern, predominantly Kurdish, Syria, coalition bombings have hardly put a dent on ISIS’ Sunni Arab holdings. Not even a whiff of a suggestion for a diplomatic solution appeared from any of the Western countries either. And half-a-billion $US project of training and equipping rebel militia ended in a catastrophic failure after 54 of them have been picked up by Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front, suppling both with US equipment and ammunition. Gen Lloyd Austin was forced to admit that only “four or five” US-trained rebels were still fighting.

Seems like the US doesn’t need more embarrassment – but Russian president is keen on taking advantage of the situation.

Vladimir Putin seems to be taking a leaf out of Frank Underwood’s book here.

“It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”

These were Putin’s words in the NY Times op-ed released during the chemical weapons crisis in 2013. We may expect similar comments in his UN address today. It will further expose weakness and international indecisiveness of Obama’s administration – while reinforcing all the criticisms America has been receiving about its foreign involvement in the past.

All of a sudden Ukrainian crisis – and resulting alienation of Russia – becomes minuscule in comparison to hundreds of thousands dead Syrians and millions seeking refuge in neighboring countries and further away, in Europe. In the midst of it all, USA becomes one of the meddling culprits who have not been able to propose any constructive solution, while terrorists still control over 100,000 square kilometers with several million people.

Putin emerges as a messenger of peace, while the “rotten” America offers only war. Has Obama revealed any vision for Syria’s future? Not really. The only thing we hear about is airstrikes.

Goal no. 3: Humiliate the EU

But the US is not the only target of Putin’s actions. With the Syrian conflict spilling over to Europe in the form of a massive refugee influx, EU’s ignorance and unpreparedness became painfully apparent.

Where have the European leaders been in the past 4 years? Where was the EU public – now largely calling for aid to the refugees – when a quarter of a million people were massacred in a country on the shores of the same Mediterranean Sea they spend their vacation on?

The West, usually presenting itself as a beacon of morality and compassion, largely sat idly by when millions lost their homes and only now scrambled to action when hundreds of thousands of migrants from war torn countries started gathering at their borders.

And, out of nowhere, Vladimir Putin enters the scene, with a plan that may end the war and save Old Continent from dealing with even more immigration. Result? Within days Angela Merkel and David Cameron agree that Bashar al-Assad should be involved in talks about future of Syria. Russian president triumphs again – while EU leaders can do nothing else other than to show their appreciation.

Goal no. 4: Discipline Turkey

Modern relations between Turkey and Russia have been rather ambiguous, driven by mutual respect and maybe even admiration between the two leaders (who share similar character traits and have held near-dictatorial power in their countries for more than a decade) and mistrust at the same time.

Recent years brought more cooperation, including a massive nuclear power plant project worth $20 billion, which will be owned and operated by Russia on Turkish soil.

On the other hand Turkey, being a member of NATO, pursuing accession to the European Union, is clearly aligned with the Western powers. Additionally, its position in the Caucasus and strong influence in Azerbaijan are a source of regional tensions with Moscow – especially given the wealth of hydrocarbons and crucial energetic links between EU and the Caspian area, extending further to Iran and Turkmenistan, bypassing Russia. Some ire was also sparked by annexation of Crimea, which was protested by Turkey, over treatment of Crimean Tatars, whom Ankara remains a patron of.

Healthy business relations won’t outweigh misaligned strategic goals of both countries, so Putin will use the situation in Syria to limit Erdogan’s Neo-Ottoman ambitions. At least for now.

Turkish president visited Moscow a few days ago, concerned over Putin’s declarations about involving Assad in post-war Syria – what, by extension, protects Iranian influence which Ankara certainly does not want in Damascus. Their meeting ended without a joint-statement – customary in Turkish-Russian relations – what would signal that the parties did not reach a complete agreement in the matters discussed.

It was reflected in a comment made subequently by Erdogan, in which he softened his stance and declared there may be a place for Assad in transitional talks – though ultimately his departure was necessary, given that he was one of the main causes of the war.

This declaration indicates that Putin is adamant about Assad’s role in the process and Turkey is forced to accept it. In this game the Russian president has the upper hand.

Even though it may mean Erdogan’s ambitions to extend Turkish patronage over Syria have to be curbed to cover only some of its regions most critical to Ankara’s interests (notably the northern provinces inhabited by Kurds who seek self-determination), Turkish and Russian goals in Syria are not necessarily incompatible.

Putin certainly doesn’t want more responsibility in the Middle East than he already has. As a pragmatic he won’t seek to be dragged into the regional quagmire. Rather, he will simply protect Russian interests and leverage his alliances to influence the matters in Moscow’s favor.

Therefore Turkey may still hope that Russia will eventually trade Assad’s departure for a cooperative government (so Moscow retains its naval base in Tartus) that could be influenced by Ankara. Given that ¾ of the Syrian population is Sunni, Iranian influence may be something Russia is unable to defend in international talks, opening the doors to Turkish patronage.

A scenario not unlikely to emerge eventually could be a proposal of partitioning Syria and creating an Alawite state, on the shores of Mediterranean, where they constitute majority of the population.

It would separate Russian interests from the rest of the embattled country, save Assad’s head and keep naval base in Tartus under Moscow’s control. While that may spur Alawite separatist sentiments in Turkey it would also open up the possibility of Turkish influence expanding across the rest of Syria without conflicting with Russia.

Today however, Erdogan has little leverage over Putin – he must wait to see how the Russian president plays his hand.

Goal no. 5: Secure Russian Interests

Finally, the most obvious reason for Syria’s importance to Russia is the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean. The facility in Tartus has been in operation since the 70s and has recently been under expansion to host Russian nuclear submarines and major navy warships – which could not have docked at the old, short piers.

Military presence often brings business and it’s no different this time. Apart from military sales (which make Syria one of the largest buyers of Russian arms) other industries, including petroleum, were present in the country. Russia will be reluctant to give up its influence here.

However, Putin understands that Assad may be finished, but what is not decided is the means of his departure. Russia wants to have control over the transitional process, so that its interests remain protected.

As I already mentioned, what Putin may propose, to keep Assad useful, is partitioning Syria, since the Alawite minority is highly concentrated in Mediterranean provinces – coincidentally the ones most important to Moscow.


It would create an internally stable country and secure Kremlin’s control over Tartus for decades, with Assad family still in charge. In a predominantly Sunni state the clan’s position is indefensible and Russian allies in Tehran will probably be forced to swallow this bitter pill too. As far as Moscow’s interests go it doesn’t matter who’s in charge, as long as their position is secure. If they aren’t going to push for creation of an independent Alawite state they will still want to make sure a friendly power remains in charge in the Syrian capital.

Proposing and leading the political transition by diplomatic means is the surest way of achieving that.

Return of the Tzar

Pummelled by the Western sanctions, isolated and criticized for his war with Ukraine, Vladimir Putin returns to global politics in style.

With a single diplomatic move he may be capable of reversing the damage that Ukrainian conflict did to him and his country, while elevating himself to the role of an international mediator for peace, brokering a Middle Eastern deal with rivaling regional powers and paving the way to ending war in Syria.

If he executes his plan well, he will restore Russia’s position among respectable global powers, embarrass US and EU for their ignorance, indecisiveness and warmongering, while limiting Turkey’s influence and safeguarding his country’s position in Damascus.

That said, what his actions really highlight is how weak and paralyzed the Western world is today.

United States even under Democratic leadership sought war when they should have looked to diplomacy. Despite their alliances with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel, despite their leverage in Iraq and a recently struck deal with Iran, they weren’t able to use them for anything constructive. What they haven’t done in months, Putin did in days.

At the same time the Old Continent, the symbol of post World War 2 peace and cooperation, the moral compass of the world, turned a blind eye on war, death and destruction at its borders, until their consequences violently spilled over, nearly drowning European leaders.

Interesting world we live in – in which the developed West keeps dropping bombs and former KGB colonels seek peace talks. Perhaps creating that impression is Putin’s greatest achievement in his Syrian ploy.


Michael Petraeus

Economist, marketer, designer and business strategist publishing about the past, present and the future.

All stories by:Michael Petraeus

Michael Petraeus

Economist, marketer, designer and business strategist publishing about the past, present and the future.

All stories by:Michael Petraeus
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