Putin’s Syrian Roulette
By Omar Ashour
LONDON – Two recent tragedies – the downing of a Russian civilian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula and the terrorist massacre in Paris two weeks later – seemed to give Russia and the West something to agree upon: the Islamic State (ISIS) must go. But a closer look at Russia’s military operations in Syria – not to mention Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane – suggests that it would be premature to conclude that Russian and Western objectives can be brought into alignment.
Of course, Russia claims that its Syrian intervention is aimed at defeating the Islamic State and “other terrorists.” But, according to the US State Department, more than 90% of Russian airstrikes so far have been directed not at ISIS or the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, but at the armed groups that are fighting both ISIS and Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In fact, ISIS has made advances in Aleppo since the airstrikes began.
This is not to say that annihilating ISIS is not on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s agenda. It almost certainly is. But he also has other objectives: to protect Assad’s regime, to expand Russia’s military presence and political influence in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, and perhaps even to push up the price of oil.
So far, Russian airstrikes have been concentrated in Latakia, Hama, and Idlib, where they have enabled Assad’s regime to make several advances. Putin seems to be trying to help Assad secure his coastal strongholds, toward which armed rebels made significant advances in August and September. These areas are part of the so-called “useful Syria,” which also includes the Lebanese border, Damascus, parts of Aleppo, and major cities in western, southern, and central Syria. Assad must maintain control over these areas to fortify his position in any political negotiations and eventual settlement, including a potential partition.
Moreover, Russia’s installation of sophisticated air-defense capabilities in Syria has nothing to do with ISIS, which has no air force. Instead, it sets the stage for a no-fly zone, which would protect Assad’s regime and serve as a strategic counterweight to America’s presence at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base.
In fact, Turkey’s downing of the Russian warplane – which, incidentally, was targeting Syrian rebel groups – is prompting Russia to step up these efforts. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has now announced that a cutting-edge S-400 SAM system will be deployed to Russia’s air base in Latakia.
But there are serious problems with Putin’s strategy. For starters, the tactical airstrikes on which Russia is relying have not proved particularly effective in the past. Russia’s air force lacks the breadth of precision weapons and targeting systems fielded by the West – a reality that produced horrific consequences during the Georgian war in 2008 and the first and second Chechen wars in 1994-1996 and 1999-2009. Tolerance for “collateral damage” is much higher in Russia than in the West – and the reality of it plays into the hands of terrorist recruiters.
The Kremlin has also been attempting to stoke ethnic tensions – a tactic used since the Czarist era – with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claiming that Russia intervened in Syria to “protect minorities.” Putin made the same claim when he sent troops to invade two ethnic enclaves in Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and recognized them as independent republics. Likewise, he justified Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of parts of eastern Ukraine by emphasizing their substantial “ethnic Russian” populations.
In the Middle East, however, the outcome could be reminiscent of what followed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 36 years ago. Regional players like Turkey and Saudi Arabia adamantly oppose leaving Assad in power, as that would advance the interests of their rivals, Iran and Hezbollah. Fifty-five Saudi clerics have released a statement urging “jihad” against the Russian invaders. Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose leaders are based in Turkey and northern Syria, have echoed that sentiment, declaring that jihad against the “Russian invasion” is the “religious duty” of “every able-bodied Muslim.”
If domestic resistance succeeds in driving Russia out of Syria, as happened to the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and to Russia in the first Chechen war, Putin could face trouble at home. Military defeat, combined with worsening economic conditions, would likely turn much of the public – and more than a few of his cronies – against him.
But other outcomes are also possible. A partial Russian victory, like that in Georgia or Ukraine, would mean carving out pieces of western Syria under Russo-Iranian protection, and ultimately the de facto partition of the country. An outcome like that of the second Chechen war – less likely, given the major differences between the two theaters – would entail the installation of a loyalist regime, whether led by Assad or someone else, and the persistence of instability and a rural insurgency.
The least likely scenario is one in which Russia leads a negotiating process that produces long-term peace and stability. A Russian-led “mediation” in Tajikistan ended the civil war of 1992-1997, and led opposition movements to hand over their weapons or to integrate into the regular army under Russian guarantees. But a few years later, many of these movements were banned, and their leaders and members were in jail, in exile, or in graves.
None of these scenarios correspond with the slogans of Syria’s 2011 revolution, or with Western interests in stabilizing the country, stemming refugee outflows, and, eventually, promoting democratization. Unfortunately, this is not surprising: as has been true so many times in the past, the West currently has no credible strategy for containing Putin, even when he has no clear exit strategy or endgame in mind. All that is certain now is that, whatever happens in Syria, it will not happen without Russia.
Omar Ashour is Senior Lecturer in Security Studies at the University of Exeter and an associate fellow at Chatham House in London. He is the author of The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements and Collusion to Collision: Islamist-Military Relations in Egypt.