Fighting ISIS has never been Russia’s primary concern in Syria. Moscow made this crystal clear in 2016 with its brutal assault on Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city and industrial center. The Russia-led aerial campaign deliberately targeted dense civilian areas, including hospitals, and U.S.-backed opposition forces. (Russian officials predictably denied any wrongdoing.) At the time, Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, called Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of Aleppo, which killed thousands, “our generation’s shame.” During the months-long assault, Russia blocked two UN security council resolutions on Syria and broke multiple ceasefires.
With this context in mind, the events of the last few days feel like déjà vu. Once again, Russia stalled and watered down a UN Security Council motion for a humanitarian ceasefire in Syria in response to hundreds of civilian casualties. This time, Russia-backed Syrian government forces are leveling eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus and one of the last areas held by anti-Assad rebels such as the Free Syrian Army. Putin finally removed Russia’s veto after personal pleas from French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But a day after the resolution passed on Saturday, the air and ground assault resumed. Putin’s most recent call for a “humanitarian pause” may go the same way.
As the onslaught on eastern Ghouta continues, Assad, whose ousting once formed the bedrock of Barack Obama’s policy in Syria, has tightened his grip. For Moscow, preserving Assad’s rule was always less about Assad, and more about safeguarding what Putin saw as another domino in a series of U.S.-orchestrated revolutions in Russia’s backyard. The fall of the Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi disturbed Putin. According to multiple reports, he was obsessed with the gruesome video of Qaddafi’s murder and blamed the United States—in particular, then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. For Putin, the U.S.-led intervention in Libya was a “case study in Western interventionism,” as The New Yorker put it: a policy of regime change draped in the rhetoric of support for human rights.
In the summer of 2011, Putin watched as the Arab Spring reached Syria, embroiling the country in a civil war. As he was prime minister at the time, his ability to act unilaterally was limited. By 2013, when popular protests broke out in Ukraine—a former Soviet state that many Russians considered to be a little brother—Putin, once again the president, could not sit by and allow what he saw as another U.S.-led coup to topple a regime loyal to the Kremlin.
The underwhelming U.S. response to Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine emboldened Russia’s intervention in Syria. From Ukraine, Putin learned that the Obama administration would only go so far to support its allies. He saw that hybrid war, which emphasizes the use of asymmetric measures to buttress complementary military operations, was a useful tool for confusing the West while preserving maximum plausible deniability of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and elsewhere. This strategy includes the use of proxy fighters, unmarked soldiers (so-called little green men), and disinformation to deflect and distract from the reality on the ground. It should come as no surprise, then, that Moscow has tried to cover up Russian deaths in Syria while Putin purports to act as a mediator in the conflict.