Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, focuses on security issues in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Russia. He is the author most recently of Iran's Deadly Ambition. Mr. Berman briefed the Middle East Forum in a conference call on October 20, 2015.
While the Russian military intervention in Syria tends to be viewed as an opportunist response to the Obama administration's weakness and inconsistency, Moscow has its own reasons to undertake this hazardous move:
· Propping up its foremost longstanding regional ally, the Assad regime.
· Regaining its position in this key region, hard on its southern border.
· Recapturing momentum after the battlefield setbacks suffered by its Ukrainian proxies.
Photos posted to social media last month by Russian soldiers in Syria's Latakia province.
· Injecting itself into the forefront of the fight against ISIS to facilitate Russian reintegration into the global community, with the goal of removing the Ukraine-related sanctions.
· Stemming the growing radicalization of Russia's Muslims, who account for 16 percent of the country's population and will likely grow to 20 percent by 2020.
· Consolidating relations with Tehran, thereby reducing the likelihood of Iranian intervention in Central Asia.
The Kremlin will not likely attain all these goals. In part, power projection into Syria is unsustainable over the long run given Russia's buildup in the Ukraine and its military deployments in the Far East. In part too, revenue losses from the suspension of two outlets for Russia's natural gas supplies (Europe via the proposed South Stream pipeline, and Turkey via Turkish Stream) are bound to create hardships. Finally, the risk of a terrorist blowback has increased, with jihadists urging attacks inside Russia and a sharp increase in thwarted attacks having taken place.
All in all, Moscow's Syria intervention seems a long term commitment that bears the hallmarks of a new Afghanistan disaster for it.
Summary account by Marilyn Stern, Middle East Forum Board of Governors