Russia’s Goal in Syria May Be to Worsen Refugee Crisis

By drawing out the war in Syria, Russia may be trying to exacerbate a crisis that is dividing Europe.

Russian president Vladimir Putin lands in Milan, Italy, June 10
Russian president Vladimir Putin lands in Milan, Italy, June 10 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Russian support for Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria may be designed to weaken the European Union, according to The American Interest‘s Adam Garfinkle. By drawing out the civil war in his country, Russia could exacerbate a refugee crisis that is already diving Europe against itself.

Garfinkle identifies the same primary and secondary objectives for Russia in Syria as the Atlantic Sentinel did earlier: propping up Assad and preventing the establishment of norms that would allow for international intervention whenever a government suppresses domestic protests or unrest as brutally as he has.

Both objectives imply a rebuke to the West which has insisted that Assad must step down and that his crackdown on the opposition — that triggered the civil war — invalidated his regime’s sovereignty.

But there may be a third, more ambitious aim: to overwhelm the institutions of the European Union with a massive refugee stream from Syria.

Already half Syria’s population has either fled the country or is displaced internally. Most refugees are in Jordan and Turkey. Hundreds of thousands have made the journey to Europe this year. The migrant crisis, combined with an usually high influx of asylum seekers from the Balkans and North Africa, is dividing the European Union. Hungary and Slovakia refuse to take in Muslim refugees. Austria, Denmark and Germany have reinstated border controls that call into question the bloc’s Schengen visa-free travel arrangements.

What if Europe has to deal with two million refugees, Garfinkle wonders. Or three? Or even more?

Russia may be thinking that such a huge population movement will destroy or at least seriously degrade the viability of a bloc that it sees less as a security threat than an affront to its illiberal values and model of government.

A worse migrant crisis would almost certainly raise support for nationalist and Euroskeptic parties, like France’s Front national, which tend to be more sympathetic of Russia than the continent’s current leaders.

Garfinkle cautions that such an attempt on Russia’s part would involve high risks. Aggravating the civil war in Syria could bolster the self-declared Islamic State as the only Sunni opposition group strong enough to defeat Assad. Putting Russian boots on the ground would put lives at risk; a dicey proposition when casualties in Russia’s undeclared war in Ukraine’s Donbas region are already causing some Russians to think twice about Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions.

But the American thinks Russia might just calculate that it’s a price worth paying.

“Just as attacking a Baltic state hoping to politically destroy NATO would be a high-risk undertaking, turning Syria into a free-fire zone in the hope of politically destroying the European Union would be as well,” Garfinkle writes.

That doesn’t mean the Russians won’t do it if they think the benefits exceed the risks.

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