WHY PUTIN WANTS SYRIA

                                                 Published by the Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2016, Volume 23:  Number 2  


                                                                                                                 Jiri and Leni Friedman Valenta

Russia’s military intervention in Syria that began on September 30, 2015, is its first major intrusion into the Levant since June 1772 when “Russian forces bombarded, stormed, and captured Beirut, a fortress on the coast of Ottoman Syria.”1 Then as now, the Russians backed a ruthless local client; then as now, they found themselves in “a boiling cauldron of factional-ethnic strife, which they tried to simplify with cannonades and gunpowder.”2 But why?

Russia has been largely landlocked for most of its history, and Moscow has always valued the Crimean peninsula for its coastline (see above). Catherine the Great took the Crimea, founding the port of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and established a commercial port in Odessa. But, the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in an independent Ukraine, and Moscow lost not only the port of Odessa but its prized naval port of Sevastopol. 

the Ottomans, the Turkish Straits remained beyond Russia's Grasp  Britain—and to a lesser extent France and the  Kingdom of Sardinia (Italy)—repeatedlycame to Turkey's rescue. This culminated in the 1853-56 Crimean war and the attendant Treaty of Paris that kept Russia caged in the Black Sea. It is hardly to be surprised that Putin, an avid  student of history, repeatedly invokes Russia's "strategic interests" in the Crimea.

Today, Russia is not as militarily dependent on the Turkish Straits as in the past. But throughout the twentieth  century to the present day, and despite the technological revolution and Moscow's formidable air forces, the Turkish Straits have remained a factor for the Russian navy.

The Fall of the USSR

The 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union was an even larger setback than the Crimean war. Analysts have long focused  on the loss to the empire of vast pieces of real estate with the newly-won freedom of the non-Russian republics in the  Baltics and the Caucasus as well as the second largest republic, Ukraine. Yet they have not given due consideration  to what else Russia lost: waterways, coastlines, and ports, in short—the power of the Russian navy.

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