“Putin’s War in Syria” by Anna Borshchevskaya (Bloomsbury). (London: I.B. Tauris, 2021) – To be published on November 4, 2021.
Putin’s War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America’s Absence” offers a concise account of Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict. Syria’s civil war, which began more than a decade ago, experienced a significant shift following Moscow’s intervention in September 2015. Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, dissects in her soon-to-be-published book the drivers of Russian direct engagement in Syria as well as its place in Moscow’s broader Middle East and North Africa policy.
To begin with, Borshchevskaya provides an insightful historical contextualization of Moscow’s intervention. In this sense, the reader may be surprised to learn that Russia established a brief presence in the Levant in the late eighteenth-century when it occupied Beirut twice in the context of its maritime expeditions against the Ottomans. In analysing the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Borshchevskaya sees Moscow’s Middle East policy as clearly separated into two periods corresponding with the Yeltsin and Putin eras. Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation, “did not appear to pursue a coherent policy in the region” (p. 33). This was to change with Vladimir Putin, who — after some initial caution upon taking power in 1999 — developed an assertive approach towards regions south of Russia’s borders. In the Middle East, Putin has “maintained a balancing act between key regional actors with opposing interests” (p. 127). Dimitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, has illustratively referred to this policy as a ‘tightrope walk’[i].
Moscow’s intervention in the Syrian conflict has been Putin’s boldest move in the Middle East during his more than two decades at Russia’s helm. Strikingly, it took place only one year and a half after the country’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Be that as it may, and as Borshchevskaya convincingly explains, the Kremlin was fully aware of the dangers of getting bogged down in Syria, which could have been a repetition of the Soviet Union’s predicament in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
According to Borshchevskaya, Russia learnt two key lessons from its experience in Afghanistan and applied them to Syria. Firstly, the necessity of other countries’ support. This could be seen in China’s vetoing of UN Security Council resolutions concerning Syria or in Iran’s military deployment to prop up the Baathist dictatorship. Secondly, establishing real change in a foreign country is beyond Moscow’s means. Consequently, the Kremlin “never even tried to attempt it in Syria” (p. 170). This notwithstanding, it should not be forgotten that endogenous factors are also of the utmost importance when comparing both cases of Russian intervention. For instance, the internal splits within Afghanistan’s communist government complicated Moscow’s intervention but have not been replicated in Syria’s case, where the al-Assad family has maintained a firm grip on the state machinery.[ii]
The most relevant and original chapter of the book is the one dedicated to what Borshchevskaya calls the ‘domestic campaign’. Taking advantage of her knowledge of Russian and the experience accumulated when she conducted public opinion research in Afghanistan, Borshchevskaya sheds light on Russian citizens’ perceptions of Moscow’s intervention in Syria. This is no easy task considering the limited transparency of opinion polling in Russia, but the effort is a valuable one since it provides a novel perspective on the Syrian conflict as seen from Russia.
In her analysis of the key drivers behind the Kremlin’s decision to engage directly in the Syrian conflict, Borshchevskaya mentions the objectives of saving long-time ally Bashar al-Assad as well as projecting great-power status. Moreover, Syria was perceived to be a useful training ground for Russian troops, and the military personnel on the ground have been rotated frequently. At the same time, Syria has been turned into the grimmest of weapons fairs for Russia, with the devastating effects of Russian weaponry being there for everyone to see. In a way that is reminiscent of the use of Israeli weapons against the Gaza Strip, customers of Russian weapons know they have recently been tested in combat.
Throughout the book, Borshchevskaya presents several value judgements that work against its scholarly value. The author writes that, contrary to what happens in Russia — where infamous paramilitary organizations such as the Wagner Group are incorporated into governmental foreign policy — in the West, “military contractors are legal and their activities are transparent and clearly defined” (p.86). Military contractor and former Blackwater CEO Erik Prince’s murky activities in Iraq and Afghanistan would suggest otherwise[iii]. Normative assessments are also to be found in the pages of “Putin’s War in Syria”. In a fragment discussing American support for the Afghan mujahideen, Borshchevskaya asserts that “the Soviet Union had to be fought” (p. 95).
The concluding remarks in “Putin’s War in Syria” are a combination of opinion piece, policy paper, and summary of the book. One of Borshchevskaya’s key arguments is that in the Middle East, “the West should engage in broader competition with Russia rather than de-prioritize the region” (p. 174). Moving away from Borshchevskaya’s calls for further Western interventionism Frederic Wehrey and Andrew S. Weiss advocate for restraint in the Middle East. In a recently published paper on Russia’s role in the region, they argue that Western policymakers should avoid viewing Russian activities in the region through an exclusively zero-sum lens[iv]. Wehrey and Weiss add that, “Washington will simply have to accept the Russian presence as a feature of the new landscape”.[v]
Borshchevskaya’s book lacks the nuance that could have turned it into a reference work. The reader will, however, find in “Putin’s War in Syria” an up-to-date, historically contextualised, and succinct study of Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict.
[i] Hanna Notte, “Book Review – Dmitri Trenin ‘What Is Russia up to in the Middle East,’” Changing Character of War Centre Blog, January 31, 2018, http://www.ccw.ox.ac.uk/blog/2018/1/31/hanna-notte-book-review-dmitri-trenin-what-is-russia-up-to-in-the-middle-east.
[ii] Charles J. Sullivan, “Sidestepping a Quagmire: Russia, Syria, and the Lessons of the Soviet-Afghan War,” Asian Affairs 49, no. 1 (2018): 49.
[iii] Jeremy Scahill and Matthew Cole, “The Persistent Influence of Trump’s ‘Shadow Adviser’ Erik Prince,” The Intercept, June 11, 2019, https://theintercept.com/2019/11/05/erik-prince-trump-ukraine-china/.
[iv] Frederic M: Wehrey and Andrew S. Weiss, “Reassessing Russian Capabilities in the Levant and North Africa,” The Return of Global Russia (Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, August 2021), p. 16. https://carnegieendowment.org/files/202108-Wehrey_Weiss_Russia_North_Africa1.pdf.
[v] Michael Young, “Opportunism With Limitations – Interview with Andrew S. Weiss and Frederic Wehrey,” Carnegie Middle East Center, September 28, 2021, https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/85435.