From the 1950s onwards, Syria received hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military and economic assistance from the Soviet Union. In return, in 1971 Syria’s new president Hafez al-Assad allowed the USSR to open its naval military base in the port city of Tartus. Cordial relations continued into the 1980s as Syria and the Soviet Union signed a twenty-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. However, though ties with Syria were maintained, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that the vision of socialist utopia was in ruins.
As a nation that has, historically, sought credibility by projecting itself as a formidable power – regardless of its internal weaknesses – post-Soviet Russia has been keen to regain its position as a key player on the international stage. Inevitably, therefore, Moscow has looked to Syria as a region where it can build upon historic ties and exert influence to rival that of the United States across the Middle East. Russia has been successful in achieving this aim. It is now regarded as a key arbiter in the region and boasts the defeat of ISIS in Syria despite President Obama’s claims in 2015 that Russian interference in Syria would be to no avail. Moreover, in November 2017, Putin hosted talks with the leaders of Iran and Turkey to discuss Syria’s future, highlighting the international consensus that Russia will play a key role in Syria’s reconstruction. Since then, Putin has continued to flex his muscles in the region and proven himself to be a fundamental player in the outcome of the conflict. This not only bolsters his international standing, but also his domestic reputation as a leader who is intent on transforming Russia into a formidable power once more.
There are, however, more tangible interests at stake for Russia in Syria. The naval base in Tartus which was established in 1971 is now Russia’s only military facility outside of the former Soviet Union and holds great strategic importance. By remaining close with President Bashar al-Assad there is a possibility that Russia could, in the future, advance its presence in the Mediterranean. Furthermore Assad is reliant on Russia for providing critical air support, affording Russia a valuable opportunity to test its arms systems.
At present, therefore, Russia is centre stage in the attempt to navigate a Syrian peace settlement. This involves overcoming several challenges that have presented themselves now that the conflict has started to dissipate. For example, Assad has adopted a more unruly attitude now that he perceives himself as a ‘victor’ in the conflict and thus less dependent on Russia. Moscow recognises that Assad cannot fully resume his old powers, but must also contend with the factionalism that is rife within Syria (between anti-Assad opposition groups, pro-Turkish and pro-Iranian militias and the Kurds). If the commentator Dmitri Trenin is correct and Russia is paving the way for a coalition government by creating several de-escalation zones then Putin will need to persuade Assad to accept this, as well as accepting Iran’s interests in the region that Israel has unsurprisingly perceived as a threat.
In his attempt to build his reputation as an international strongman, Vladimir Putin has perhaps bitten off more than he can chew. As long as his international exploits earn him credibility at home, Putin will continue to exert influence over an ever-changing state of affairs in the Middle East. But now that he has successfully raised Russia’s international standing, it remains to be seen whether Putin’s diplomacy will continue to live up to his rhetoric.