Syria

Insight on Syria: What Are Putin's Motives?

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. 

Image of Putin, Assad, and others

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?

Insight on Syria: The Unseen Challenges of Refugee Integration in Germany

For Syrian refugees fortunate enough to reach Germany—a model among European countries for its commitment to refugees—the day-to-day realities and the uncertainty of their futures loom large.

Image of Syrian Refugee

Third in a series that asks Weatherhead Center affiliates to examine the dimensions shaping the Syrian conflict.

Weatherhead Center Undergraduate Research Fellow Hanaa Masalmeh spent a semester in Germany studying Syrian refugee integration. Her work focuses on the formal and informal structures of integration, especially on the role of women—both German and Syrian—in the integration process. This article, written by Masalmeh, is based on her research on volunteer groups in Bavaria, Germany. Names have been changed to afford privacy to the interviewees.

Every Wednesday and Friday, Barbra gets into her blue Volkswagen and drives five minutes down the road to a small yellow house near a churchyard. After carefully parking her car and grabbing her brown messenger bag, she knocks on the door. 

Barbra is a Sprachpartner, a volunteer who makes sure that Syrian refugees are learning German. Barbra also explains the basics of German culture, helps Syrians open bank accounts, file insurance claims, and apply for work. 

A young man opens the door and invites Barbra inside. “Mohammad!” Barbra says, greeting him with a hug. “Welcome, Grandmother!” the young man responds jokingly, and Barbra laughs.

Like the majority of volunteers in Bavaria, Barbra is a woman in her fifties. The Syrian men Barbra works with are in their early twenties—young enough to be her children.... Read more about Insight on Syria: The Unseen Challenges of Refugee Integration in Germany

Insight on Syria: A Quagmire of Warring Religious Groups? Why the Western View is Misguided

Harvard political scientist Melani Cammett clarifies the role of sectarianism in the Syrian War.

Image of people and children of two Syrian Shiite towns

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.

... Read more about Insight on Syria: A Quagmire of Warring Religious Groups? Why the Western View is Misguided