Russia has multiple motives for involvement in Syria: ex-CIA official

October 10, 2015

TEHRAN – Professor Paul Pillar, a former deputy chief of counter-terrorism at the CIA, says Moscow has “multiple motives” for taking military actions against militant groups fighting the Syrian government.


“The Russians have multiple motives for their intervention. These include shoring up their ally in Damascus, protecting their own position in Syria, and ensuring that they are accepted as a major player in the Middle East and in any negotiations over the future of Syria, in addition to genuine concern about Islamist extremism,” Pillar says in an exclusive interview with the Tehran Times.

Following is the text of the interview with Paul Pillar:

Q: Don’t you think that the U.S. has given the Kremlin a green light to launch airstrikes against ISIS. And why have Russians decided to enter the war against ISIS?

A: I would not say that the United States has given Russia a green light. Certainly the U.S. preference was not for Russia to conduct this sort of military intervention. The Russians have multiple motives for their intervention. These include shoring up their ally in Damascus, protecting their own position in Syria, and ensuring that they are accepted as a major player in the Middle East and in any negotiations over the future of Syria, in addition to genuine concern about Islamist extremism.

Q: The Pentagon rejected an official request from Russia to clear air space over northern Syria, where Moscow said it intended to conduct airstrikes against ISIS. Considering the differences between Moscow and Washington, is there any possibility of cooperation between them against ISIS?

A: There will continue to be some discussions between the two militaries to deconflict their operations enough to avoid unwanted incidents in which Russian and Western forces clash. Beyond that, there is unlikely to be for now anything that could be described as positive cooperation against ISIS. A major concern for Western powers right now is that the Russian operations so far have been directed not against ISIS but instead at other groups opposing the Assad regime.

Q: Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq have established a joint intelligence sharing center in Baghdad. Don’t you think that the center is intended to create a kind of balance against the U.S. and its allies in war on ISIS?
A: There probably is a genuine use for such an arrangement in sharing information about Islamic extremists. The move also, however, undoubtedly is a matter of Russia making a point that it can develop such relationships with Middle Eastern governments while excluding Western states.

Q: Considering Russia’s presence in Syria and the arrival of Chinese war ships to Tartus port to join Russian forces in Syria, how do you see the future of the crisis in Syria?

A: To the extent that the most recent Russian military moves escalate the fighting, they make the crisis even worse than before. The only reasons for some offsetting optimism are that Russia should have even more leverage than before over the Assad regime (leverage that could be used in any internationally negotiated peace agreement) and will have more of a stake than before in reaching such a negotiated resolution of the conflict.


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Certainly the U.S. preference was not for Russia to conduct this sort of military intervention.