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What Does Russia Want In Syria?


Critics in the U.S. see Russia's incursion as a sign of American weakness. The U.S. didn't get fully involved in Syria, so the Russians did, yet there is a flipside to that story.


President Obama has warned against getting the United States into a quagmire. If he's right to worry, then it's plausible that Russia's Vladimir Putin just bought into the disaster that Obama was trying to avoid. So what makes it worth the risk for Putin? We talked through Putin's motives with counterterrorism analyst Richard Barrett.

RICHARD BARRETT: He's said his objective is to strengthen the Syrian army so that it can launch a ground attack on the Islamic State. Also, I think he's intimated that he can use his aircraft there to attack the Islamic State directly himself.

INSKEEP: And he has said this is about Russian national security, if I'm not mistaken, that there are Russians who have gone to fight in Syria. He's afraid someday they'll come back, so they might as well be killed where they are. Is that right?

BARRETT: Well, the Russian official figure for the numbers of people who've gone to fight in Syria is about 2,400. In fact, the actual figure's probably higher than that. And certainly, the Islamic State has already established a province, as they call it, in the North Caucasus. So he has reason to a certain extent to be concerned about the terrorist threat. But I think his ambitions are broader than that, and I think essentially, as often been said, to sort of confirm his foothold in the Middle East - and his only foothold in the Middle East at the moment is Syria - and try and extend Russian influence into an area which up until now has been the preserve of the United States.

INSKEEP: Well, let's investigate that a little further. Looking at what Russia has actually done up to now, there have been some initial airstrikes. As you and I are talking, we don't have a complete list of targets. But is ISIS the only target that Russia has struck against?

BARRETT: Well, it looks actually as if the targets Russia has struck have been much more controlled by other rebel forces than the Islamic State. They seem to be quite well to the west of the area controlled by the Islamic State. And this I think is slightly predictable because that follows very much into the Russian objective of supporting Assad rather than necessarily confronting the Islamic State.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm trying to figure out why Russia would want - why Russia would see it in its national interest to be more involved in the Middle East in this particular way. I understand that Syria has been an ally, and Russia's move may well prop up Bashar al-Assad in some way. But what does Russia get out of being friends with Bashar al-Assad at this particular time in the state that he's in?

BARRETT: Well, I think that's a very good question. Being able to reinforce the Russian presence in Syria right now and try to ensure that Assad stays I think will allow Russia to sort of regenerate its global power because I think Mr. Putin in particular is very conscious of the loss of Russian power and prestige since, you know, the collapse of the Soviet Union. And he's doing whatever he can to restore it. And the Middle East clearly is a key area, and the only entry point that he has really is Syria.

INSKEEP: So this is about Russian prestige, expanding that?

BARRETT: I think an awful lot of it has to do with Russian prestige and the Russian sort of game within the sort of international community, trying to reassert itself. And I guess for President Putin also to provide some sort of legacy. You know, this is what he's done - the sort of modern czar, reestablishing Russian might around the world.

INSKEEP: So other than Russian prestige, if we're scratching our heads and thinking this doesn't make any sense, you would actually say yes, that's because it doesn't make very much sense?

BARRETT: I think it doesn't make very much sense, exactly because it's easy to get into these things, but it's really difficult to get out. Maybe he doesn't want to get out. But the point is that I think Russia - no less than anybody else - realizes the Assad government is on the skids. You know, it's not going to survive. And certainly, there's absolutely no hope of it regaining control over the whole of Syria.

INSKEEP: You've suggested that you think the Syrian regime is in its last days, even though it's getting help from Iran, even though it's now getting help from the Russian air force. What evidence tells you that they may not even hold on to the chunk of country that they still control?

BARRETT: I think the key weakness for Syria - and this is a weakness that makes Russian support less effective - is that it doesn't have the manpower. You know, the army is exhausted, and it can't draw on fresh recruits. Sure, you can give people a better gun and so on, but what you really need is numbers. And I don't think they're going to get that. I think an awful lot of the refugees, for example, are people fleeing government-held areas because they don't want to be drafted into the army, so that is a fundamental problem.

INSKEEP: Richard Barrett, a former British counterterrorism official with MI6, also formerly a counterterrorism official with the United Nations and now with the Soufan Group. Thanks very much.

BARRETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.