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Media advisory: Russia’s intervention in Syria comes with broad implications for regional, global stability, professor says

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

LAWRENCE – Russia has intensified its involvement in the Syrian civil war in the past week with airstrikes against insurgent groups and “volunteer” ground forces joining the fight.

Jacob Kipp, an adjunct professor in the Department of History at the University of Kansas, is available to discuss Russia’s recent actions in Syria. Kipp, who retired from federal service in 2009, has worked on NATO-Russian issues as a senior analyst for the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth. He is a contributor to the Eurasia Daily Monitor of the Jamestown Foundation and has published extensively on Russian and Soviet naval and military history. He also has taught on the subject for decades.

Q: What is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motivation for intervening in the Syrian Civil War?

Kipp: The Middle East is on the verge of a great war, which will bring with it chaos and disorder, an end to the existing state system and set in motion a larger global crisis. Such is Putin's reading of the current Syrian crisis. 

Putin, who shocked the world by intervening in Ukraine and occupying Crimea in late February 2014, now has upped the ante in Syria by doubling down on his bet that the survival of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its military is the key to the re-stabilization of Syria. By his actions Putin is calling into question the assumption that the present order in the Middle East would survive the collapse of the Syrian state. Putin has downplayed Assad's "original sin" of firing on peaceful protesters because he is a charter member of the "party of order" with a strong distaste for revolutions. In this context Putin is not an internationalist but a very conservative nationalist.

Q: What do you see as Russia’s military strategy?

Kipp: Putin has entered into a military alliance with Syria, Iraq, Iran and Hezbollah and thus put Russian military power on one side of a contest involving a hodge-podge of Sunni groups with external state backing seeking to overthrow the Assad regime. Putin's objective seems to be to create a Shia-Alawite enclave in western Syria, which will be secure and include the Mediterranean coast and the area around greater Damascus. This effort will involve military operations against ISIL, the al Nusra Front, the Free Syrian Army and many other groups dominated by local warlords pursuing their own interests. Moscow will make an effort to identify the chief opposition threat among these and to apply military and political power to its defeat.

Q: How are Putin’s recent actions linked to Russia’s 2014 occupation of Crimea?

Kipp: What connects Ukraine and Syria is Putin's perception that both crises began with Western efforts to encourage "color revolutions" to remove authoritarian governments. Putin faults the West for promoting such revolutions when they result in chaos and increase regional instability. Putin has taken a very serious risk here. But it is one with very broad implications for regional and global stability. Success will mean greatly enhanced Russian influence in the Middle East similar to that achieved after the unsuccessful Anglo-French-Israeli intervention against Egypt in 1956. Failure could mean Russian disengagement from the region, but not an end to the growing conflict involving Sunni and Shia states along with non-state jihadist actors. 

Q: What diplomacy efforts have been made by the United States and Russia?

Kipp: Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war there have been those who urged the United States to intervene directly. The Obama administration has committed air power to fight ISIL but has been reluctant to intervene militarily against the Assad regime. Indeed, when the Assad regime appeared to be using chemical weapons against the opposition and inflicting civilian casualties and thereby cross a red line drawn by Obama, diplomacy and cooperation won out. Obama and Putin cooperated in an international effort to oversee the removal of the Assad regime's declared chemical arsenal, about 620 tons of sarin and other chemical weapons, which was completed in August 2014. 

In the bad old days, great powers with conflicting interests would step forward to organize a congress of affected states to end the fighting and negotiate a settlement backed by the signatory powers. In this particular case such an effort had an implied military component, but diplomacy was given a chance. 

To arrange an interview with Kipp, contact Christine Metz Howard at cmetzhoward@ku.edu or 785-864-8852.

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