Russian Messaging and Intention in Syria: Perception Through Strategic Culture?


Russia’s intervention in the morass of Syria’s civil war was as dramatic as it was sudden. To date, much of the Western punditry has been pondering the question, what is Russia’s aim? Is it to attack IS, support Assad or challenge the West? Is it sending a message to global audiences of Russia’s re-emergence as a putative superpower, or feeding a domestic agenda? The simple answer is that it is all these things, and more.

Despite many strengths to the Western-centric thinking, there is a tendency to see events in binary terms of either/or: either the Russian regime is doing this, or it is doing that. As Russian and Soviet scholars, including James Sherr and Robert Bathurst, have pointed out there is often a duality to Russian action, although perhaps it is better to describe it as being polysemous: having multiple meanings, some of which do not perfectly overlap or synchronise. As Sherr commented; To the Russian mind, contradiction is part of life itself, not a sign of intellectual failure. It is something to be utilized, not overcome.

This post takes a brief look at Russia’s multiple objectives and messages behind its actions in Syria, suggests some of the reasons behind them, before outlining the dangers behind such actions, and why they are not physical so much as cultural and informational.

Russia operations in Syria fall broadly under the umbrella of conventional operations. However there is a clear link between Russian conventional and hybrid war in this way: regardless of whether the tool is one of physical violence or of non-physical conflict, Russia uses conflict to send clear and powerful political messages, supported by informational warfare (a concept I explore in a podcast here), and which are interlinked to wider events, both in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere. To understand them more fully it is better to relax the ‘either/or’ dichotomy, and to see Russian actions in a more polysemous form.

So what are signals that Russia is sending in Syria, and what are the purposes?

First, there is the ostensible reason presented to the United Nations: that the Russian regime will work with the legitimate government of Syria and its allies to counter international terror in the shape of IS. Clearly Russia does not want to see Sunni terrorism spreading, especially given Russia’s significant Muslim population. However, simultaneously there is another message. The BBC and others reported that Russia’s first strikes were not on IS but on the ‘moderate’ armed opposition, which is backed by the US. Russia’s message appears to be this: the overthrow of Assad will not be tolerated, and US proxies who present a threat will be targeted. President Putin’s determination on this point follows recent Russian experience. First, the overthrow of Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar Qadhafi, where Russia feels that it was misled. Second, the bombing of Serbia a decade and a half ago, an event which significantly boosted anti-Western feeling and exposed Russian political and military impotence.

Next, Russia’s intervention with Iran and Assad gives it a leading role throughout the Middle East as the military power, and military supplier, to Shia and Shia-backed regimes. This is a powerful new role given the on-going frictions in Syria, in Yemen and elsewhere, between US-backed Saudi Arabia, and Iran, now working closely with Russia. As well as a potential boost to the Russian military-industrial economy, Russia gains a political vehicle; into Lebanon (via Hezbollah), to Iran and into Iraq (via Iranian influence over the now Shia-led government), and increased leverage over the Sunni Gulf States (almost all of whom have Shia minorities) with the message; like it or not, Russia needs to be listened to. In addition, it gives it a role opposing the Western world, and in particular the US. If picking your enemies says something about you, Russia is showing that by taking on the global superpower, it must in some way be a global (super)power too. In military terms it’s David versus Goliath, but that is beside the point; this is about Russian, Middle Eastern and global perception. The reality is that Russia has now re-emerged as a significant player in Middle Eastern politics.

There are more operational and less global messages Russia is sending too. First, Russia’s clarity in its political line – all anti-Assad forces will be seen as terrorists and attacked – would appear to send a message to Syria audiences; are you for or against Assad? If successful, this action will split the ‘moderate’ opposition, and undermine the US/Western role in Syria.

Then there is the broader global information warfare which Russia has become exceptionally skilled at fighting. Moscow’s belief in the power of information operations is not new. Propaganda was at the heart of the Bolshevik cause in the early 20th century, and indeed throughout the life of the Soviet Union. Here perhaps the central message to damn Western policymakers is the accusation that Sunni extremism is a product of the West. This accusation dates back to Western support for the Afghan Mujahidin against the Soviet Union, bolsters Russian accusations of Western dilettantism in international policymaking, and speaks to Russia’s heightened sense of threat, which in turn feeds the sense of antagonism and hostility which is being used by the Russian regime to reframe Russian political culture.

This brings us to perhaps the critical point; the internal ‘sell’ to Russian audiences at home. In the media frenzy in Russia which has accompanied its bombing in Syria, Michael Weiss highlighted the link between the creation of an enemy – the United States – and its puppets. According to this point of view, both the Ukrainian ‘neo-Nazis’ and IS are two of the ‘Frankenstein’ monsters created by the USA. He quotes Lenin’s maxim not to separate foreign and internal policy, and indeed that is an exceptionally apt phrase. Russian foreign policy is being used to dramatically reshape – or perhaps reinforce – Russia’s political culture to turn it, and the Russian people, away from so-called Western liberal values to a more unique sense of Russian values. Scholars such as Lilia Shevtsova believe that foreign policy is a means to domestic control. Without the creation of external enemies, the Putin regime cannot survive; “foreign policy is the main instrument of domestic agenda,” she argues. That comment was made in regards to Ukraine but it is as apt for Russian policy elsewhere which fits domestic narrative; that Russia has enemies, that it needs to be strong, that the West is not a role model, that the West threatens Russia, and that Russia’s glory is its defence and security services.

This final point speaks to Russia’s battle over its identity, which since the days of Peter the Great has arguably been built on its concept of itself in relation to the West. Does it embrace or reject the West? Buddy-up, or to confront? In Putin’s mind, Russia’s role is to challenge the West, to confront it, and in doing so re-create Russia in an illiberal, anti-Western guise, rather than a more conciliatory pro-Western model hoped for after the last Cold War.

When one talks about the dangers of Russian action, it is clear that there are physical dangers, such as the risk of ground or air confrontation, seen most recently in the two Russian incursions into Turkish airspace. However the greatest long-term threat is Putin’s determination to use foreign and domestic policy to feed off each other in the creation of a Russia whose all-powerful elites and subdued population believe their country exists to challenge the West. Those dangers are as yet unknown, but creating a ‘wartime’ mentality risks becoming self-fulfilling.

Image: Dmitry Medvedev and Bashar Al-Assad in Syria 11 May 2010. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, attribution:

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