Russia and the West in Syria- A question of global hegemony-

As 2016 came to an end, the immense cruelty of the Syrian Civil War once again revealed itself to the public. The bombings of Aleppo have shown the world how fragile the international system can be, when national power interests dominate international cooperation efforts. While Western media outlets are quick to point out Russia as the obvious villain, Russian media portrays the intervention as a liberation of terrorists and jihadists. This brief article will outline the heroic and vilifying narratives that seem to dominate media landscapes. Then, it will place the Russian intervention in Syria into a larger perspective and argue that the intervention is not about any moral obligation to fight terrorism, but rather serves as a tool for Russia to pursue its main interest in the international system: the creation of a multipolar world order.

In his annual news conference, Vladimir Putin recently called the intervention in Aleppo “the biggest international humanitarian action in the modern world.” Meanwhile, Sputnik reporter Fuad Rasarov congratulated the Russian president that “…for the first time, Russia and Turkey have succeeded in resolving a major important issue with Syria without involving the West.” As one may expect, Russian media displays an utterly positive image of the intervention, completely ignoring the horrendous casualties and destruction in the city. It displays an image in which the absence of the West has finally resulted in progress, which has previously stagnated because of the presence of Western powers. Like its Russian counterpart, reporting by Western mainstream media has been criticized for creating a one-sided image of the conflict. Although it creates a more sophisticated image than Russia’s liberation view, it often simplifies the conflict into two homogenous sides: “the government” and “the rebels”, ignoring the fact that the rebels themselves contain various sub-groups which are labeled “terrorists” by Western countries. Western media also strongly focuses on atrocities committed by Syrian and Russian forces, ignoring those committed by opposition fighters.

While the views on the intervention, presented by Western and Russian media, could not be more different in their ideological foundation, they both create an image in which Russia is taking the initiative while the West remains passive. From a Western perspective, it seems as if the situation is upside down. While this shift appears disturbingly sudden for many Western news outlets, it can be traced back to a long-term interest followed by the Russian leadership. The regime has long criticized the West, and especially the United States, for its attempt to create a unipolar world order (meaning a world which is dominated by one center of power). As Putin stated during the Munich Security Conference in 2007: “The unipolar model is not only unacceptable, but also impossible in today’s world. And this is not only because if there was individual leadership in today’s – and precisely in today’s – world, then the military, political and economic resources would not suffice. What is even more important is that the model itself is flawed, because at its basis there is and can be no moral foundations for modern civilization.” In the same speech, Putin mentions the US directly by claiming that: “first and foremost, the United States has overstepped its national borders in every way.” He then highlights the economic strength of developing countries, such as the BRICs, and paints his vision of the future: “There is no reason to doubt that the economic potential of the new centres of global economic growth will inevitably be converted into political influence and will strengthen multipolarity.” As these excerpts exemplify, President Putin created a discourse in which the West, under the leadership of the United States, has imposed failure upon the international system. This view is specifically applied to the situation in the Middle East, which has been frequently used as an example of Western failure. Now, as the United States is more concerned with its internal stability, the Russian regime has used the possibility to place itself as the new hegemon in Syria. Just like the US and its Western allies have done in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia used the rhetoric of “fighting terrorism” to step in and pursue its own power interests. This zero-sum politics approach is central to how the regime perceives itself within the international order. While the Russian intervention further worsened the situation of the civilians who have been crushed under its iron fist, it should nevertheless not be surprising to Western powers. Russia’s hard-handed approach in Syria reflects an international system that continues to be dominated by zero-sum thinking. In such an environment, it is sad but logical that Russia would use any possibility to pursue its central interest — to shift the world order towards multipolarity — in a situation in which it perceives its most significant “other”, the West, to be weak.

In conclusion, Russian and Western outlets have created two fundamentally different media discourses, following the Russian intervention in Aleppo and the shift in power towards the Assad regime. Despite different ideological foundations, Russia is displayed as an active actor and the West as a passive actor in both narratives. This dynamic reflects the Russian regime’s long-term strategic interest in the creation of a multipolar world order, which it hopes to achieve with its display of power in Syria.

 Basti Keil is a student of International Studies at Leiden University.