Christopher Phillips writes: Of all the states involved in the Syria crisis, Russia has arguably been the most insulated from its fallout. Western states and their regional allies have been frustrated as their policies to topple President Bashar al-Assad repeatedly fail, while threatening jihadists such as ISIS have thrived in the chaos. Refugees have flooded Syria’s neighbours. Even Assad’s other ally, Iran, has seen its hard-earned regional reputation shattered. In contrast, the costs to Moscow have been limited.
However, the conflict’s echoes are finally being felt. In early December, Islamist gunmen fought Russian forces in Grozny, killing 20, prompting fears of ISIS-inspired violence in the northern Caucasus. The oil price has plummeted to $65, partly the result of Saudi Arabian machinations to punish both Iran and Russia. This is 35 percent below the Kremlin’s budgeted price and, along with western sanctions over Ukraine and the tumbling value of the Ruble, looks set to cripple Russia’s economy. However, contrary to some claims, this seems unlikely to prompt any major reconsideration of President Vladimir Putin’s Syria policy.
It is important to understand the view of Syria from Moscow. At the beginning of the crisis, Western analysts mistakenly believed Putin’s support was about preserving Russia’s interests in Syria: a tiny naval installation in Tartous and a modest arms market. Yet such material interests are, in reality, marginal. Instead, Putin sees Syria primarily through a geo-strategic lens. While Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have all taken leading roles in the campaign against Assad, Russia sees the West and particularly the US as chief instigator. [Continue reading…]