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Putin wins in Syria

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Ingo Mannteufel
September 23, 2015

The Kremlin is pursuing multiple goals by building up its military presence in Syria. But one thing is clear, says DW's Ingo Mannteufel: Russia is shoring up its long-term interests with the move.

Symbolbild - Wladimir Putin und Bashar Assad
Image: dapd

No, the refugee crisis in Europe is not the reason that Russia has stationed fighter jets, helicopters and other military weaponry at its newly constructed military base in Syria. The Kremlin has brushed off the influx of refugees from Syria and the Middle East into the EU as an inner European problem. Besides: moral questions are never a motivation for Russia's foreign policy mindset.

National interests, the only things that count

In Moscow, the only things that count are - supposedly - objective geopolitical state interests. Freed from the ethical question of bearing partial responsibility for the bloodbath in Syria, Moscow's foreign policy decision makers have never seen a problem in supporting the government of President Bashar al-Assad diplomatically or militarily. Ultimately, Assad is the only partner that Russia still has in the Middle East, and that is the only thing that matters in terms of Russian foreign policy.

Yet, since late summer, Russia has been fearful that Assad might fall behind. The Iran nuclear deal pointed toward an easing of the confrontation between the US and Iran, Assad's most important ally. And though the strengthened military interventions of the US and Turkey were primarily sold as being directed against the terrorist group "Islamic State" (IS) - they ultimately posed a threat to the hobbling Assad regime.

Ingo Mannteufel, Leiter der Europa-Redaktion der DW
Ingo Mannteufel is head of DW's Europe departmentImage: DW

For that reason, it seems that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to become proactive. In the wake of the West's fight against IS, he ordered a lightning-fast operation that resulted in the construction of a Russian military base on the Syrian coast.

Putin will no doubt tout the base as Russia's contribution to the fight against IS when he delivers his much anticipated speech to the UN General Assembly at the end of September. He will most certainly remain steadfast in his support for Assad during the speech as well.

Maximum and minimum objectives

Should the US and other Western powers accept the offer as such, then Putin will have achieved his maximum objective: Breaking Russia out of the international isolation that resulted from its annexation of the Crimean peninsula in March 2014 and its role in the war in Eastern Ukraine. Russia would once again be acknowledged as a global power, and could stand eye-to-eye with the US.

At the same time, the survival of the Assad regime would also be secure, for the time being, also taken as proof of Russia's renewed power.

In the event that the US declines to enter into a coordinated fight against IS with Russia - at the cost of at least temporarily putting aside the question of Assad's political future - Moscow would still emerge from the current situation in a better position than it entered it. Either way, Russia has now established its own military base on the strategically important eastern coast of the Mediterranean for the foreseeable future. Even if Syria continues to fall apart in its ever deeper descent into civil war, the Latakia region remains a good choice.

Not only is it the home of the Assad clan, the coastal region is also the historical settlement area of the Alawites. Therefore, in any post-Assad phase it will most likely be the seat of an Alawite remnant state, similar to that which existed under French mandate after the end of World War I.

In exchange for the strategically significant military base, Russia could present itself as the defender of such an Alawite state. Russia would then solidify its role as a long-term player in the Middle East.

Even if Putin only attains this minimum objective, his Syrian policy has to be seen as a total success from Moscow's point of view.

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Ingo Mannteufel Head of IT and Cybersecurity@mannteufel