Why is Russia bombing Syria?

Why is Russia bombing Syria?
Compared to the Russian Air Force, rebels are insignificant. Why then, the use of significant firepower in Syria, asks Nahid Ali.
5 min read
29 Dec, 2016
Aleppo, Syria [Getty Images]
On 30 September, 2015, Russia began its rigorous military campaign in Syria to directly defend the regime of Bashar al-Assad, as the previous logistical and technical support was insufficient in the face of the major rebel advance.
The official reasons for the Russian intervention in Syria are to, "fight terrorism" and to prevent destabilisation, as Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov argues that Russia seeks to, "prevent a Libya-like situation." Although it is true that Russia was opposed to the NATO campaign in Libya, Russia seems to be adopting a 'War on Terror' policy, something the Americans had so badly failed to achieve and something that Russia once opposed as exemplified by its isolationist policy in the 1990s and its criticism of American foreign policy.

Just like America, Russia's campaign in Syria seems to imply a 'War of Terror' policy, with the military campaign killing 3412 civilians and counting, according to the Violations Document Centre (VDC). Ironically, that figure is more than the terrorist group IS who have killed, and continue to kill, 3078. The socio-political consequence of Russia's campaign costing a copious amount of civilian lives, whether intentional or not, is simple; it catalyses instability and amplifies terrorism. In layman's terms, if a person killed your family and destroyed your livelihood, you will inevitably take up arms in pursuit of vendetta [or justice].
The actual reasons for the Russian intervention in Syria are more complex than "fighting terrorism" as being the sole motivation
The actual reasons for the Russian intervention in Syria are more complex than "fighting terrorism" as being the sole motivation. George Homans' social exchange theory demonstrates how humans seek to acquire maximum reward for minimum effort; the actions of Putin are no different. Russian-Syrian relations date back to the tyrannical rule of Hafez al-Assad when he chose the Soviet Union as his key ally to acquire arms deals, and in return, the Soviet Union would enjoy a plethora of economic and military benefits that still resonate today. However, under the current circumstances with Russia no longer a superpower, Putin is required to increase his effort in order to sustain the benefits.
The first reason for the Russian intervention is economic. Rooted in the 1970s, strong economic relations with the Sovient Union were established by Hafez al-Assad, in particular for the purchasing of Soviet military hardware. As a result  of the close relations, 90% of the Syrian Army hardware were Russian exports. These relations are still present. According to Dimitri Trenin in the NY times, from the years of 2000-2010, Russia had exported 1.5 billion dollars worth of military hardware to Syria. The figures substantially increase in the years of 2011-2012 since according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Russia had acquired 687 million dollars in military exports. It is therefore valid to state that the Russian intervention in Syria is to preserve economic dominance as Putin is clearly capitalising from the Assad Regime both in peacetime and, especially, wartime.
The reason for Russia's involvement is to preserve the geopolitical and economic pawn that is Bashar al-Assad
Secondly, and the more significant reason for the Russian intervention in Syria, is geopolitical and military related. These two factors are interdependent since a strong military qualifies a nation as a significant 'global player'.

Since 1971, the Russians have acquired the Tartus naval base in Syria. This facility enhances Russian military and geopolitical capabilities as it allows Russia to demonstrate its military might to foreign powers, thus increasing its global influence. Coupled by the fact that it is the only Russian foothold in the middle east, and with rebels gradually closing in on the base, caused Putin's decision to intervene in Syria in order to preserve it. 

Other military arguments for Russian involvement includes the argument that Syria is essentially a Russian military testing ground, as it has heavily invested in its armed forces since its embarrassing avionic failures in Georgia, 2008. The latter argument is valid as the Russian MoD proudly demonstrates the capabilities of its evolved and enhanced air force in international arms expos while also publishing recent figures that indicate Russia has tested over 160 weapons in Syria.

The argument of Syria being a testing ground is further solidified as we see that Putin is transgressing the initial air force requirements in Syria. This is because despite air power being sufficient, Putin is deploying unnecessary military hardware and forces in Syria. These include the Kilo Class Submarine firing Kalibra Cruise Missiles; the admiral kuznetsov Aircraft carrier and he even went as far as to deploy nuclear bombers TU95 and TU160.
Syria could be viewed as a "warning" to the west hence its use of significant firepower against an insignificant enemy.

There are two possible reasons for Syria being a testing ground. The first is economic as the civil war provides an opportunity for Russia to demonstrate its weapons capabilities to its potential clients. The second and more significant reason for Syria being a testing ground is related to the wider revival of the cold war rhetoric; Syria could be viewed as a "warning" to the west hence its use of significant firepower against an insignificant enemy.
In conclusion, the reasons for the Russian intervention in Syria are not "humanitarian" or to "destroy terrorism". Rather the reasons for Russia's involvement are to pursuit self interests, and preserve the geopolitical and economic pawn that is Bashar al-Assad. This links to the wider context of the revival of the Cold War and Syria is another battlefield for a proxy war between opposing powers. We can safely conclude that Russia is not concerned with the interests of the Syrian people, rather the Syrian struggle is being manipulated and exploited by foreign powers, including America, for self interest.

Nahid Ali is an undergraduate at the London School of Economics studying International Relations.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.