September 30, 2016 marked the first anniversary of Russia’s military intervention in Syria. However, the occasion was marred by the breakdown of the US-Russian ceasefire agreement negotiated just two weeks earlier. On September 29, Associate Professor of History of the American University of Beirut Dr. Paul du Quenoy provided crucial insights into the involvement of Russia in the Syrian crisis.
“I was going to come up with a very neat narrative of the past year…instead the ceasefire has collapsed in the last couple of days.”
In his talk, Dr. du Quenoy described how he had initially planned a very different kind of speech. Originally, he had intended to elaborate on the reasons behind the Russian intervention in Syria, concluding that the ceasefire had created stability within the war-torn country and enabled US-Russian cooperation in the fight against Islamic extremism. He had also planned to speculate on the further areas of cooperation between the two countries in resolving other shared political concerns. However, as he described, the failure of the ceasefire gave way to mutual blame, with each side promoting their own narrative of who was responsible for this breakdown and why.
“The reasons behind Russian intervention in Syria have to do with Russia’s domestic politics.”
According to Dr. du Quenoy, the deterioration of the Russian economy that followed economic sanctions and falling energy prices, in conjunction with a substantial rise in democratic opposition, led Putin to try to restore domestic support for his regime via the waging of a successful foreign war against Islamic extremists.
“Russians represent the third largest nationality in ISIS after Tunisia and Egypt. Russian is the second most commonly spoken language in ISIS.”
According to intelligence reports, Dr. du Quenoy continued, a significant part of ISIS is comprised of Russian and Central Asian Muslim migrants from Russia, who became radicalized as a result of increasing social discontent for Putin’s regime, and who ultimately gravitated to Syria. He estimates that around 3,500 Russian citizens are currently fighting in ISIS. It appears that, out of 20 million Muslims in Russia, some 700,000 of them are estimated to belong to the Salafist sect of Islam. Although they are largely peaceful, some of them are sympathetic to ISIS’s aspirations and messages. Thus, by intervening in Syria, Putin was also attempting to solve Russia’s domestic Muslim problem.
“It is therefore quite interesting that 80-90% of Russian military targets in Syria were not ISIS targets at all.”
Dr. Du Quenoy further explains that the Russian army usually targeted not ISIS, but rather the assets belonging to other anti-Assad forces- including both jihadists and groups supported by the United States. Indeed, Russia is deeply invested in defending its long-standing ally Bashar al-Assad, the current President of Syria. While another possible reason for Russian support for Assad’s regime could be Russia’s naval base in Tartus, Dr. Du Quenoy does not consider the base to be very important from a military standpoint. Instead, he considers Assad’s pro-Russian stance a more important motivation behind Russian support.
As an additional example of this Russian policy, Dr. Du Quenoy pointed to Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan, which was presented as a civilizational conflict between Muslims and the Russian Orthodox Church. Similar to the current situation, this crisis also appeared to successfully thwart domestic criticisms of the Russian government as well as bolster a pro-Russian state leader.