A Reason For Intervention: A Realist Understanding Of The West’s Decision To Intervene In Syria


On 13th April 2018, the United States, the United Kingdom and France co-ordinated a multilateral air strike within Syria; they successfully targeted three sites associated with Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad’s deadly chemical weapons program. This action was the first instance of multilateral engagement within Syria under the pretext of “establishing a strong deterrent against the use, spread and production of chemical weapons in Syria”. This is despite multiple occurrences of chemical weapons being used throughout the Syrian crisis, which erupted in 2011. This brief work will present one motivation for why the West chose to intervene within Syria in April 2018. This piece will argue that Western intervention was a reaction to a change in the international system of states as galvanized by the impending reality that Syria – with the assistance of Russia and Iran – had categorically won the war. This report will be divided according to two key sections. The first section will detail the interests of the West in relation to Syria. The second section will account for the interests of Russia within Syria that influenced Russia’s decision to enter the conflict in September 2015; an act that constituted Russia’s largest military intervention in the Middle East since 1989 and the first time Russia had conducted a military exercise outside the borders of the former Soviet Union. The analysis of these competing interests will underline the critical motivations that were pivotal in the consequential power balancing conducted by the West within Syria in April 2018.

Syria’s value to the United States and Western allies must be understood in terms of the broader structural policies put in place in the Middle East region. These policies are conceived in terms of regional alliance building systems so as to preserve Western predominance globally. Hence, Syria’s intrinsic value lies in its geography. Syria is situated between Europe and the Persian Gulf. With direct access to the Mediterranean Sea and critical trade links with Europe, Syria offers the West an important geopolitical foothold that could project Western economic and military power on to the Middle East. Syria also borders all major Western allies, particularly Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel and remains in close proximity to key Western economic sources located within the Persian Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia. On this basis, Syria has strategic, commercial and geopolitical value. The stability of Syria would allow the West to maintain a critical hold on the Middle East region whilst also secure key national interests; the free flow of oil and the security of Israel. Indeed, the neutralization of Syria would also contain regional adversaries Russia and Iran, pushing them to the periphery of the Middle East and thus maintaining key geopolitical alliance systems. On this note, the relative expansion of Russia and Iran within Syria would constitute a threat to such important regional allies, undermining the economic and military links that maintain U.S. primacy. Regardless of changing variables such as the involvement of external forces, Syria’s value will remain a constant variable in the international relations of the Middle East by virtue of its geography.

For Russia, Syria acts as a core pillar of a global Russian strategy designed to re-establish Russia as one of the world’s great powers. This desire to counter Western predominance is borne from Russia’s perceived grand vulnerability in the international system. This remains a substantiated fear caused by the continued expansionist policies undertaken by the U.S. and the West through NATO and the EU within Russia’s “near abroad” – as evidenced in 1999, 2004, 2008, 2014 and 2018 (the Western intervention of Syria). Thus, in order to ensure security, Russia has increasingly deployed military force in regions of high strategic value –Ukraine in 2014; Syria in 2015 – to preserve and strengthen existing economic and material interest. This sphere of influence encompasses historic ally Syria.

The port of Tartus, located on the West coast of Syria, holds immense geopolitical and commercial value for Russia. First established under the Soviet Union in 1971, the Tartus naval fleet first served as an important counter balance to the U.S. Sixth Fleet stationed in Italy. The Tartus naval port provides Russia with direct access to the Mediterranean Sea and presents an opportunity to establish important economic trade links with the Middle East and Europe. The port remains the last Russian operated naval facility out of the geographical confines of the former Soviet Union. The port also acts an important arms trade route between Russia and the Middle East. The maintenance and modernization of the Tartus naval fleet coincides with Russia’s plans to modernize the national navy force in order to globally dominate the West at sea. This forecast is projected in the 2015 Maritime Doctrine (for 2020) and the national ‘State Weapons Program for 2011-2020”. In January 2017, the Tartus naval fleet was bequeathed to Russia under a negotiation deal signed by Assad and Putin. The deal gave Russia legal jurisdiction over the Tartus naval fleet and extended the Russian lease by 49 years. The deal also provided for the addition of 11 Russian war ships to be stored as a permanent base in the Mediterranean. Thus, threats to the security of the Tartus naval base would elucidate a Russian response, as evidenced in September 2015.

The security of the Tartus naval fleet and economic interests would not be possible without a Russian allied Syrian government. Hence, the preservation and bolstering of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad was a vital security move for Russia. Whilst Russian diplomatic manoeuvring is evidenced between 2011-2015 at the forum of the UNSC, military action proved the defining factor in solidifying the position of Assad as the national representative of Syria. Prior to Russia’s entry in September 2015, the Assad government held approximately 17% of national territory. In contrast, in 2018 this figure had risen to 70% and ISIS had been declared eradicated under the Russian-Syrian negotiation agreement of December 2017. This relationship does not reflect an alliance of convenience; the partnership extends back to the Post World War II era. However, within the context of the Syrian War this alliance system serves what Glaser posits as co-operation for competitive purposes, designed to balance a “common adversary”. This common adversary is defined as the West.

By recalling the basic theoretical presupposition of the Waltzian balance of power theory, one can explain the geopolitical movements of Russia to counter balance the West. Under anarchy, a multi-polar system exists when involved parties have a choice in who to align themselves with. Since 2015, this choice is clearly evidenced by the formation and strengthening of alliances between Russia and key Western regional players such as Egypt. This nation represents a critical source of U.S. primacy, particularly in military terms. Hence, the formation of Russian alliances confirms that the era of unipolarity was indeed over. The following section considers how the formation and strengthening of this coalition is manifested as a relative gain for Russia in military, political and economic terms.

In the context of the Cold War, Egypt conventionally featured as the territorial prize fought over by the USSR and the West. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Egypt remained a core dimension of U.S. grand strategy, commonly observed through the continued alliance brokered between the two nations. Examples of this are: Operation Bright Star – the support provided by Egypt to Operation Desert Storm – and the Bush administration’s U.S.-Egypt nuclear partnership. The continuation of such relations became crucial in preserving the predominance of the U.S. in the unipolar world. Most notably, Egypt’s control of the Suez Canal, which links the Mediterranean and Red Seas and is one of the world’s most important maritime chokepoints, provides the West with an important economic channel that was utilized to mitigate the geographical isolation of the United States.

The Arab Spring brought with it major geopolitical obstacles for the West, and particularly the United States. Egypt was not immune to the widespread political upheaval and in 2011 was one of the first nations to bow down to the strength exerted by large-scale democratic protest. Given Egypt’s geopolitical value to the West, the U.S. was deeply concerned about the volatile nature of the Egyptian political system. In the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring, the U.S. sought the continuance of an allied partnership with Egypt. This is noted in Obama’s statement, “the United States will continue to be a friend and partner to Egypt”. In the following year, the persistence of the U.S. to hold on to Egypt as a strategic ally was further demonstrated in Obama’s affirmation to newly elected President Mohammed Morsi, as noted in a White House statement: “[Obama] emphasized his interest in working together with President-elect Morsi… to advance the many shared interests between Egypt and the United States”. However, following a successful military coup by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2013, relations between the U.S. and Egypt declined. The deterioration in relations can be discerned through the examination of U.S. foreign aid packages to Egypt between 2011-2014. Furthermore, in August 2017, Trump announced that the U.S. would cut a further $260 million from the foreign aid package given to Egypt. He claimed that: “This decision was made in support of our national security interests as a result of Egyptian inaction on a number of critical requests by the United States, including Egypt’s ongoing relationship with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, lack of progress on the 2013 convictions of U.S. and Egyptian non-governmental organization (NGO) workers, and the enactment of a restrictive NGO law that will likely complicate ongoing and future U.S. assistance to the country”.

Whilst the prospective loss of Egypt as a strategic ally is an obvious blow to U.S. predominance, the relative advantages gained by Russia need to be examined. Since 2015, Egypt’s gradual realignment with Russia has provided the latter with a lucrative economic export base and a highly valued energy source. In 2014, Egypt and Russia successfully negotiated a $3.5 billion arms deal that was intended to upgrade Egypt’s missile system and expand Egypt’s already sizeable air force. In February 2015, three agreements were signed between the two states, thus marking a new level of co-operation between Russia and Egypt. Priority was given to economic co-operation. The initial agreements included: the Agreement on the Development of a Nuclear Power Plant Construction Project in the Arabic Republic of Egypt; a memorandum of understanding on promoting investment and participating in construction projects in Egypt; and the Memorandum of Understanding on the Development of Investment Co-operation. Furthermore, in December 2017, Russia and Egypt agreed to the construction of a Russian nuclear power plant that would operate under Egyptian jurisdiction. The deal was estimated to be worth approximately $30 Billion (U.S.). This was a highly symbolic gesture as the leaders of Russia and Egypt agreed to start construction on the 10th anniversary of the Obama administration’s decision to halt the U.S.-Egypt nuclear partnership. Whilst it remains out of the temporal parameters of the case study, one further example of Russian-Egyptian economic alliance is the agreement to establish a Russian industrial zone on the Suez Canal in May 2018. This directly infringed on the core strategic assets of the West – mainly the economic predominance of the West in the Middle East.

This report has presented one motivation for why the West chose to intervene in Syria in April 2018; namely, that it was a reaction to a change in the international system of states as galvanized by the impending reality that Syria – with the assistance of Russia and Iran – had categorically won the war, as stated above. The development of regional alliance systems between Russia and Middle Eastern nations, specifically Egypt, jeopardized the predominance of the West. Hence, action was required.

India Birrell

Government and International Relations graduate from the University of Sydney. Interested in conflict management, human rights and inter-state relations. Contributing to the OWP as a correspondent in Australia.

Latest posts by India Birrell (see all)


About India Birrell

Government and International Relations graduate from the University of Sydney. Interested in conflict management, human rights and inter-state relations. Contributing to the OWP as a correspondent in Australia.