Understanding Russia’s Endgame in Syria: A View from the United States

flags of Russia, Syria, and USA

Understanding Russia’s Endgame in Syria: A View from the United States

By Mona Yacoubian, senior advisor for Syria, the Middle East and North Africa at the U.S. Institute of Peace

Executive Summary

  • Lacking better options, Russia appears to be pursuing a “spheres of influence” model as its endgame in Syria.  This model would entail a Syria divided into territorial spheres of influence under the tutelage of competing external patrons: Russia would hold sway in the west; Turkey in the north; and grudgingly for Russia, the United States in the east.  Given the more covert nature of its power, Iran would not exert control over a specific territorial sphere of influence. Instead, Iran and its proxies would project influence in strategic areas under the Assad regime’s control.
  • This endgame model emerges from a position of necessity rather than choice. Russian domestic constraints, especially a faltering economy, combined with the international opprobrium directed against the Assad regime, the Syrian conflict’s complexity, and the Syrian economy’s catastrophic meltdown underscore the stark difficulties facing Russia’s endgame strategy. Pragmatic and opportunistic, Russia’s “spheres of influence” endgame implicitly acknowledges Moscow’s many challenges in Syria while exploiting openings to consolidate its gains. In its ideal, this endgame strategy works in concert with partners with whom Russia can cooperate, while undermining rivals who threaten Moscow’s strategy. While Moscow professes the importance of restoring Syria’s full territorial integrity, the Russian endgame recognizes that powerful external actors will continue to exert control over important swathes of Syria.
  • Elements of Russia’s “spheres of influence” endgame may serve as a template for Russia’s approach to the Middle East and possibly beyond.  The specifics of Russia’s engagement in Syria are unlikely to be replicated elsewhere. Yet, elements of its endgame strategy might constitute a template for Russia’s foreign policy in an increasingly complex 21st century world. Some Russian analysts consider Syria as Russia’s “first post-Soviet success” and a test case for a multipolar “post-West” world marked by the erosion of the U.S.-led international order. Russia’s “spheres of influence” endgame aspires to this “post-West” vision for Syria where Russia would play the dominant role, alongside other regional powers (e.g., Turkey and Iran), while U.S.  influence would be vastly diminished.
  • Russia’s Syria strategy fits within its multipolar ideal for the Middle East. Russia will seek to leverage its dominant posture in Syria as a springboard for its engagement across the region.  The interplay between Russia’s strategies in Syria and in the region features a two-way dynamic: Moscow draws on its regional ties to bolster its position in Syria, while leveraging its posture in Syria to project influence across the region. From its perch in Syria, Moscow seeks to stake a claim in the eastern Mediterranean—a longstanding component of its great power ambitions—as well as cementing ties to autocratic leaders in the Gulf and Egypt.
  • The United States potentially poses the greatest threat to Russia’s Syria endgame; thus the future U.S. posture in Syria will be consequential for both Russia and the region.  A full U.S. withdrawal from Syria would prove counterproductive for Syria’s stability, and a lost opportunity to develop new modalities mediating the roles of external actors in Syria’s internationalised conflict.  By contrast, maintaining—if not slightly bolstering—the small U.S. footprint in Syria is important not only to prevent the return of ISIS and as leverage in political negotiations, but also to shape the rules of the game for Russia’s presence in the Middle East. Enhanced U.S. influence in Syria coupled with a reinvigoration of U.S.-led regional diplomacy could be instrumental to progress toward a more lasting political settlement to the Syria conflict and a powerful rebuke of Russia’s “post-West” order.


The ideas expressed are those of the author not the publisher or the author’s affiliation

Published in February 2021

All rights reserved to GCSP

Part of the Syria Transition Challenges Project 

Mona Yacoubian is a senior advisor for Syria, the Middle East and North Africa at the U.S. Institute of Peace.  In 2019, she served as the Executive Director of the Syria Study Group which USIP was mandated by Congress to facilitate. Ms. Yacoubian joined the U.S. Institute of Peace after serving as deputy assistant administrator in the Middle East Bureau at USAID from 2014-2017 where she had responsibility for Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Prior to joining USAID, Ms. Yacoubian was a senior advisor at the Stimson Center where her work focused on the Arab uprisings with an emphasis on Syria.

Prior to joining the Stimson Center, Ms. Yacoubian served as a special advisor on the Middle East at the U.S. Institute of Peace where her work focused on Lebanon and Syria as well as broader issues related to democratization in the Arab world. From 1990-1998, Ms. Yacoubian served as the North Africa analyst in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Ms. Yacoubian’s research focuses on conflict analysis and prevention in the Middle East, with a specific focus on Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. Her interests also include fragility and resilience. Ms. Yacoubian was a Fulbright scholar in Syria where she studied Arabic at the University of Damascus from 1985 to 1986.  She has held an international affairs fellowship with the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and is currently a CFR member. Ms. Yacoubian earned an MPA from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a BA from Duke University.