Russia’s direct entry into the Syrian conflict in September 2015 was spurred by a plethora of motivations. Russian scholars Rawi Abdelal and Alexandra Vacroux unpack the various rationales.
By Rawi Abdelal and Alexandra Vacroux
Fourth in a series that asks Weatherhead Center affiliates to examine the dimensions shaping the Syrian conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has confounded American policy makers with his agenda in the Middle East for at least the past decade. Russia’s stance has varied in its accord with Western policies, at times seeming to align—as in Libya and Yemen—and other times shirking, by showing indifference toward Iran’s nuclear program violations. Western diplomats have long puzzled over Putin’s real aims in the region and whether or not he could ever be a reliable ally.
Russian airstrikes in Syria in 2015 marked a turning point in its foreign policy. Taking full advantage of the vacuum created by President Obama’s failure to intervene, Russia stepped in to lead, signaling Moscow’s new commitment to involvement in the region. Just two years prior, Putin had refused to export missiles systems to Syria, raising hopes in the West for a possible partnership that could help to stabilize the region. It was not to be. Russian officials fanned speculation and confusion about its actions in Syria. To the public, they skewed the purpose of intervention, first claiming to target Islamic State, then “terrorists” in general. In fact, Russian bombs fell on anti-Assad rebel groups, some of whom were armed and trained by US intelligence agencies. Thus began a protracted “proxy war” between the United States and Russia that continues today.
Putin is now entering his fourth term as president, buoyed by high levels of public support. Syria is facing its eighth year of conflict, and is now a devastated country, in large part due to the deadly Russian bombing strategy that destroyed densely populated areas and many thousands of Syrian lives. Last December, Putin and Assad together declared victory over Islamic State and announced the eventual reduction of Russian armed forces. Nevertheless, the proxy war rages on, with Russia’s continuing air and ground assaults against US-backed rebels.
Taking Syrian intervention as a pivot point in Russian foreign policy, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs asked Faculty Associate Rawi Abdelal and Alexandra Vacroux—director and executive director of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, respectively—to demystify Putin’s overarching goals in the region, and to consider what they might mean for future relations with the West.... Read more about Insight on Syria: What Are Putin's Motives?
As an ethnographer and an EMT, Harvard anthropologist Ieva Jusionyte has a front-line perspective on tensions at the politically fraught border between Mexico and the United States.
Ieva Jusionyte has always been drawn to tensions at the border. As a graduate student, she went right to the heart of the drug and human smuggling nexus of Puerto Iguazu, a town at the tri-border area of Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina, to research how the media reported on crime. While there, she developed a deep interest in the experiences of firefighters and rescue workers, and later, in the US, trained to become a certified emergency medical technician, paramedic, and wildland firefighter.
Most recently, she embedded herself at the US-Mexico border for a year, using her technical skills to help first responders on both sides of the divide. She reasoned that firefighters and EMTs would face many of the human consequences of national security policy on a daily basis. In order to fully leverage her insights as an anthropologist, she felt she needed to participate.
In Nogales, Arizona, she volunteered as an EMT with the suburban fire department, responding to 911 calls—whether it was for a wildfire or for a critically ill or wounded person. Across the border in Nogales, Mexico, she delivered first aid to injured migrants and deportees on a bench in a soup kitchen, which also served as a humanitarian and legal center. Her forthcoming book, Threshold: Emergency and Rescue on the U.S.-Mexico Border will bring together the experiences of the first responders and residents of the local border communities, to take stock of the real-life impact of US national security measures.... Read more about Life and Death on the US-Mexico Border
Harvard historian Odd Arne Westad contends that the Cold War lasted 100 years—and affected many more countries than originally thought.
As an international historian, Faculty Associate Odd Arne Westad may be best known for bringing a fresh interpretation to the Cold War in which he argues that the era began much earlier and extended much farther than popularly thought.
Those and other themes are explored in detail in a comprehensive new history of the Cold War written by Westad, the S.T. Lee Professor of U.S.-Asia Relations at Harvard Kennedy School. In The Cold War: A World History, Westad traces the broad history of the era, including what he sees as its origins and its far-flung effects.
The Harvard Gazette spoke to Westad about his perspective on the Cold War, including the forces that brought about and sustained the epic confrontation, and how it continues to reverberate decades after ending.
Q: What inspired your fascination with the Cold War?
A: Growing up in Norway would be a part of it. Norway in the 1960s and early 1970s when I grew up was very much a kind of border region with regard to the East-West conflict. It very much felt like that when I was a child. Then when I was just out of college I was doing a lot of work with different kinds of volunteer organizations. I went to southern Africa to work there for a while with a relief organization dealing with refugees. I did some work in Pakistan a little bit later in the mid-1980s. And that certainly also inspired me in terms of thinking about these issues, because then you got to see the impact of the Cold War in a very different kind of way. Many of the problems these people were coping with had actually been created by the Cold War in a much more direct sense than anything I had experienced where I grew up.... Read more about The Cold War’s Endless Ripples
Harvard Professor Lorgia García-Peña returns to her roots to investigate the narratives that shaped a divide.
The border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic forces a conspicuous dividing line between black and non-black, respectively. How the island of Hispaniola came to be so racially divided, and the impact it has had on the formation of the Dominican identity is a central focus of Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradiction by Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate Lorgia García-Peña, Roy G. Clouse Associate Professor in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures.
The Dominican identity is highly complex, melding various ancestries from Spanish colonials, Indigenous peoples, emancipated slaves from the seventeenth century, and Haitian blacks, who are themselves descendents of the slaves of French colonizers. Above all racial affiliations, blackness has been historically the most reviled and disputed element of Dominican diversity, where many shades of “brown” have been somehow easier to embrace. García-Peña delves into the archives and oral histories to document historic, cultural, and literary efforts to erase blackness from the national identity. As a contributor to the growing discipline of Afro-Latin American studies, her research moves beyond slavery and persecution to identify the many ways in which Dominicans are embracing their multifaceted ancestries and to document the growing awareness of social inequities for ethnic Haitians and Afro-Dominicans.
Dominicans should never forget the inherent ferocity of those monsters that penetrated our homes…and even the innocence of our candid virgins destroyed.
—Translated from the song “Canción dominicana” by Felix Maria del Monte, 1844.
Harvard political scientist Melani Cammett clarifies the role of sectarianism in the Syrian War.
Second in a series that asks Weatherhead Center faculty to examine the dimensions shaping the Syrian conflict.
Popular discourse, especially in the West, presents the current conflict in Syria as part of an age-old struggle between the Sunni and Shi’a communities within Islam. Despite the sectarian trappings of the conflict, these divisions are not the root cause of the war in Syria. Rather, the hyperpoliticization of sectarian identities is one of the outcomes—and an increasingly salient one as conflict progresses.
The origins of the Syrian war lie in much more mundane political and economic grievances. Despite steady economic growth and an extensive public welfare infrastructure, the vast majority of the population was excluded from the fruits of development and faced thwarted aspirations for social mobility and political expression. Rising poverty rates, endemic corruption, the poor quality of social services and government repression—factors present to varying degrees elsewhere in the Middle East—constituted a critical background to the Syrian uprising, even if they do not predict precisely why and when individual protestors took to the streets.
Half of the population of Syria is either outside the country or is displaced. Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate Jennifer Leaning is co-directing a new Lancet Commission to investigate the public health consequences of this epic war.
First in a series that asks Weatherhead Center faculty to examine the dimensions shaping the Syrian conflict.
The war in Syria is remarkable in its cumulative destruction of a society in a short six years. The toll on human life has been heavy; the involvement of multiple states, factions, and terrorist groups undermines resolution; the instigation of forced migration unprecedented; and the unfettered aerial bombardments against civilians—and perhaps most viciously, the deliberate destruction and targeting of health care facilities, health care workers, and patients—have defied all norms of war.
Achieving an accurate picture of the human cost of this conflict has been an extraordinary challenge for aid agencies and health officials. In an effort to understand the impact of the war thus far, last winter the British medical journal the Lancet convened a commission of medical professionals to investigate and report on this conflict through the lens of public health. In Lancet parlance, a commission is always anchored at an elite university; in this case the American University of Beirut (AUB). In an early publication to set the stage, The Lancet-AUB Commission on Syria (the Commission) has called Syria “the most dangerous place on earth for health care providers,” and notes that the many reported atrocities “undermine the principles and practice of medical neutrality in armed conflict.”
A new book by Harvard historian David Armitage unearths two millennia of thinking about a most ignoble type of war.
If you live in a developed country, you are among those enjoying the “Long Peace,” a period marked by the absence of large scale interstate war since the end of 1945. It is the longest period of such calm in modern history. During this same time period, however, the world’s pockets of conflict have moved away from the frontiers and turned, instead, inward.
“The Long Peace stands under a dark shadow—the shadow of civil war,” writes Harvard historian and Weatherhead Center Faculty Associate David Armitage, whose new book, Civil Wars: A History in Ideas tracks the evolution of human understanding of civil war over two millennia.
Thomas Schelling’s passing last month represents a great loss to many in this community and beyond. He leaves a remarkably rich intellectual legacy. Among his many achievements, Schelling’s influence on the theory and practice of arms control cannot be overstated. He produced his seminal works on the subject—Strategy and Arms Control, published with Morton Halperin in 1961, and Arms and Influence, published in 1966—during his twelve years in residence at the Center for International Affairs (1959–1971). I had the pleasure of spending time with Professor Schelling at his home in Bethesda while researching my book on the history of the Center in 2005. Two things stood out from that conversation then, and perhaps even more so now in retrospect. First, Schelling was deeply committed to policy-relevant research, and his long life of work reflects that fact. Secondly—and relatedly—his work on the efficacy and control of nuclear weapons remains a singular benchmark for research in the field and a profoundly erudite and intelligent guide for today’s policy makers, just as it was for their predecessors some sixty years ago.
Finding Possibilities of Peace in the Unlikeliest of Places
Sarah Dryden-Peterson, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (GSE), has spent years investigating the dimensions of education in conflict settings. During her time at GSE, her mission has proved ever more important as conflicts intensifying in Syria, Iraq, Gaza, and Somalia both demand immediate action and provide new opportunities for exploration.... Read more about Making Education Count
Recent evidence gathered by Harvard’s Dara Kay Cohen suggests a new paradigm is necessary.
What drives wartime sexual violence? Conventional wisdom points to the sudden breakdown of government, primordial ethnic hatreds, or even patriarchal society writ-large. But a closer look at variation across cases tells a different story.... Read more about Rethinking Wartime Rape