How Russia’s Gambit in Syria Changes the Game


A large uptick in the influx of Russian weapons and equipment into Syria in recent weeks, along with 200 additional naval infantry, has fueled speculation that Moscow is preparing for an expanded role in the conflict.  President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, coyly suggested on September 18th that Russia would indeed consider sending more troops if Damascus requests them, but “it is difficult to speak hypothetically.”  With Vladimir Putin in New York this month to speak at the UN General Assembly, some may expect just another rant, but more likely, he is not here to simply score political points.  The timing is uncanny, and by all appearances Moscow plans to force Washington into a change of course on Syria.  This was seemingly unthinkable a few months ago, but Russia has a way lately of turning the unthinkable into the possible.

Those that still doubt whether Putin can use military force decisively to achieve political ends, and make strategic gains, should watch this situation unfold.  Just as during August of 2013, when Moscow seized an opportunity to avoid U.S. air strikes on Syria by jointly disposing of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons, this is another flanking maneuver, leveraging military and diplomatic power.  What is Russia’s game?

The Syrian mess

To understand Moscow’s actions, we need to see them in context.  It has become cliché to say the situation in Syria is complex but that is a gross understatement.  Over four years into this war, Assad’s forces have held, but his position is deteriorating.  The Syrian Army has lost ground over the past year to an assortment of jihadist forces that includes the Islamic State, al Qaeda in Syria (Jabhat al-Nusra), Ahrar al Sham, and a variety of Syrian opposition fighters (and many of these groups are, of course, fighting each other).  His forces do not have the manpower to resist all of these groups, and are being squeezed steadily into a narrower strip of territory running alongside Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast.

Efforts at political settlement have gone nowhere over a fundamental disagreement between the two external coalitions backing differing horses in Syria: Russia and Iran versus the United States, Turkey, and some Gulf states.  The U.S. starting position has been that Assad must first resign for negotiations on settlement to go anywhere, while the Russian position is that excising him from power is an unacceptable pre-condition for political settlement.  Moscow probably has little love for Assad, but like Iran, is unwilling to give up its chief ally in the region.  Trading him out was unpalatable four years ago, but given the alternative now is effectively one or more of the three main jihadist groups, it is unclear why Russia and Iran would ever agree to push Assad aside.

While negotiations remain at an impasse, the United States has worked to contain the spread of the Islamic State’s forces in Iraq (with mixed results) and at the same time watch this coterie of extremist fighters gobble up Assad’s forces.  If Russia and Iran refuse to intervene on the Syrian regime’s behalf, then in time there will be no Syrian Army left to back, and probably no Assad.  The only efforts to support proxies in this war that had been faring worse than Russia’s are decidedly America’s.  General Austin aptly described in Congressional testimony how the U.S. military’s effort to train and equip a group of fighters has been remarkably unsuccessful (although the CIA’s efforts have reportedly met more success).

When the United States cut a deal with Turkey in late July to establish a no-fly zone, using Incirlik air base to conduct strikes in Northern Syria, Russia probably viewed it with deep suspicion.  The fear of course is that this agreement between Washington and Ankara involved some trades, including a U.S. promise to support Turkey’s deep desire for regime change in Syria.  Moscow remembers what happened during the 2011 intervention in Libya, which it views as a demonstration of how America no-fly zones can become regime change zones.

A changing Russian role

Watching Assad’s position weaken, Russia has chosen to intervene, not just to rescue him but to fundamentally turn around its engagement with the West.  The first objective appears to be the establishment of a bastion around the port cities of Latakia and Tartus.  If Latakia falls Russia may then lose its naval resupply station in Tartus and then the Syrian Army would be in deep trouble.  Cut off from its sea lines of communication, Assad’s forces would eventually lose.  That is not something Russia or Iran are going to allow.  Russia’s move to bolster Assad may appear hasty, but it is more likely Russia has been planning for such a contingency for at least a year.

Russia is signaling a substantial, and perhaps long term military deployment, by upgrading the Port of Tartus and a large air base south of Latakia.  Shipments of hardware via Russian landing ships have increased several fold, while in the past two weeks, 15-20 An-124 Ruslan transports have been bringing in equipment by air.  According to U.S. government sources cited in the New York Times, Russia has deployed a half dozen T90S tanks, 15 howitzers, 35 armored personnel carriers, 200 marines and is setting up housing for as many as 1,500 personnel, while more equipment is on the way.  Su-30SM multirole fighters and Mi-17 helicopter transports have also appeared in Latakia.

Some of the information on Russian military presence in Syria, sensational though it may appear, is likely repackaged old news.  Russia owes Damascus equipment after taking a $400 million advance for the sale of the advanced air defense system, S-300PMU2, that it never delivered on due to  opposition from Israel. Russian advisers have been present in Syria throughout the war, its naval infantry has always had a mission to secure Tartus, and there was a military operation launched to secure Syrian chemical weapons that used a large number of Russian vehicles.  Indeed, according to official Russian sources, from December 2013 to March 2014, a Russian unit with a large number of Kamaz and Ural trucks, along with 30 BTR80 APCs and an untold additional number of support vehicles, was in Syria.  However, reports on social media and elsewhere of Russian forces on the ground in Syria are rife with speculation, but low on facts.

What is the Russian plan?

Russia is signaling that it is deploying for an air support and a train-and-equip mission in Syria.  Given the prevalence of MANPADS in Syria, Russian forces are unlikely to launch a major air campaign on Assad’s behalf and put its assets at risk.  Air campaigns are an expensive business to support logistically, and risking its brand new tactical air fleet over Syria is not something the Kremlin would be eager to do.  The introduction of Russian aircraft is likely a feint, disrupting Washington’s plans for a no-fly zone in Northern Syria and imposing a situation that necessitates the restoration of military contacts between the two countries.  Furthermore, it now places Washington before a difficult question: What happens if Russia conducts air strikes against U.S. backed rebel forces that may be protected by U.S. airpower over a “safe zone”?  Moscow’s goal is to present this scenario as a potential problem to push Washington to reconsider its policies in Syria.

Russia was cautious in the way that it sent its forces to fight in Ukraine and settled on an economy of force approach.  We should expect Moscow will be even more reticent about direct combat in Syria.  Ground combat is unlikely because deployments on a large scale would quickly rekindle not-so-distant memories of years spent fighting Islamic militants in Chechnya and Afghanistan, both of which were highly unpleasant experiences that left marks on the Russian psyche.  Moreover, since the various groups fighting against Assad, are awash with anti-tank and anti-air guided munitions, direct Russian participation in ground combat would get ugly fast. But, perhaps more significantly, a sustained Russian ground campaign in Syria is unrealistic because the Russian military lacks the logistics to maintain a large ground presence in the country. Russia’s navy depends on an arsenal of older Soviet landing ships supplemented by expensive air lift via transports.  A large military presence requires supplies, troop rotations, and an expeditionary capability that Russia would find difficult if not impossible to support.

Russia’s pledge to consider Syrian requests for additional troops does not mean it is eager to send forces to fight alongside Assad’s army. Instead, Moscow’s preference remains having Iranian Shiite militias and Hezbollah supplement Syria’s army on the battlefield.   Russia’s intervention in Syria is more of a strategic disruption to Western plans than a larger commitment to Assad. At home, Russia is trying to demonstrate that it is more than a regional power and hopes to leverage its intervention to achieve larger strategic goals, but the plan only works if that the intervention stays small.  We are once again looking at a limited, but decisive, use of force to achieve political ends.

The big game

U.S. chiding and awkward attempts to deny air clearance to Russian transports aside, the White House appears blindsided by Russia’s new Syria policy.  Moscow’s speed of action and decision-making remains an advantage.  Russia has pressed the United States to resume military-to-military consultations, which were suspended a year ago.  That was stated as a request, but by installing tactical aviation in Latakia, just a few miles away from the U.S.-imposed no-fly zone, Russia clearly plans to leave the United States no choice .  The White House already agreed and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter spoke directly to Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu on Friday to discuss mechanisms for de-confliction of effort.  This is likely a prelude to a larger proposition.  The ideal scenario for Moscow a meeting between Presidents Obama and Putin while the latter is in New York to speak at the UN on September 28th.

To go from what is often touted as international isolation of Russia to a presidential meeting may be a bridge too far for the White House.  Whether or not Moscow succeeds in this political coup, the more important takeaway is that eventually, the United States will find itself negotiating with Russia on the future of Syria as equals.  By deploying quickly to change facts on the ground, Russia has presented the United States with a fait accompli. Even if Assad’s forces falter, the United States and its coalition partners will now have to deal with a long-term Russian presence.  The effort is lofty and sweeping in its objectives.

The timing of Russian moves should not come as a surprise, as Washington seems to be in a Syrian policy drift.  Moscow appears comfortable with the trajectory of developments in Ukraine, which is likely becoming a  frozen conflict on highly favorable terms for Russia, while Syria appears to be faltering. Moscow intends to turn the Syrian geopolitical problem into an opportunity.  The expansion of Russia’s role in the Syrian war is a good time for introspection in Washington.  However you choose to define the American policy in Syria, and it is not an easy thing to express coherently, Russia’s decision to take a more active role in the conflict is bringing the chapter of an unchallenged American military presence in the region to a close.  The United States may first balk at the thought of being co-belligerents with another coalition in Syria, led by Russia, but in time that proposition may begin to seem tempting.

Some have argued there is a grander scheme afoot, to restore Russian power in the Middle East.  These are fantastical fears of hawks in the U.S. foreign policy community, where losing even a little means losing everything.  Geopolitical analysis of Russian actions in the Middle East needs to let go of the Cold War lens. Russia is not the Soviet Union, and it has no grand global or ideological ambitions, particularly in a volatile and hazardous region like the Middle East.  Moscow can hardly piece together a standing squadron of ships in the Mediterranean whose only resupply point is a tiny port in Syria’s Tartus.  The recent story of the Middle East is less of Russian successes and more of U.S. policy failures.  The interaction between the United States and its traditional allies in the region in the wake of the Arab Spring had unfrozen the board, allowing Russia an entry point with defense sales to countries like Iraq and Egypt, and perhaps even the Saudis.  These are mainly transactional relationships, based on money, but they stem in part from the disgruntlement of Arab leaders with American foreign policy.

It is important to remember the European context as well.  Russia will likely present itself as a positive actor with a plan for Syria to European leaders, and given how well the U.S. strategy has worked out thus far, that may appeal to them.  The Syrian refugee crisis has emerged as Europe’s paramount security problem this year and shows no signs of abating. Russia is looking to capitalize on this.  More than likely, Vladimir Putin will seek to tie the issue of Ukraine-related sanctions to the common causes of fighting terrorism and stemming the tide of refugees into Europe.  When the renewal of sanctions is discussed in December, Moscow will demonstrate that in contrast to “feckless” U.S. policies, it could have answers to the Syrian civil war.  At the very least, Russia will pitch that its own plan to fight the Islamic State can’t be worse than whatever the Americans have been doing.  This will serve as more of a diplomatic wedge than a realistic proposition to settle the Syrian conflict.

Coincidentally, the countries in Central and Southern Europe that appear least interested in accepting refugee and migrant flows, are also the ones who were unenthused about sanctioning Russia.  There is a growing list of nations that Germany convinced to show European solidarity on the sanctions policy who wish to see it ended.  With the war in Ukraine quieter, and Russia moving to address the conflict in Syria, it may provide good ammunition in December for those wishing to cancel sanctions.  Either way, with the Russian economy suffering from low oil prices, it will be looking to incentivize the suspension of sanctions.

Where does it go from here? 

Assad should not be gleeful, as Moscow has come to save the Syrian Army but at the price of assuming direct control.  He is dealing with a purely realist power, and if the plan changes, Russian tanks could find their way to his palace.  Hafizullah Amin’s fate when the Soviet Union took over Afghanistan is a good historical lesson to ‘be careful what you wish for.’  Russia will try to reframe the Syrian Army as part of an anti-Islamic State coalition, seeking to take advantage of the empty space created by the U.S. policy in this conflict.  If that should fail, Russia and Iran may agree to dispense with Assad as the price of maintaining their ability to influence Syria’s fate.

The United States faces a conundrum.  Once Russia completes its deployment, it can completely undermine the U.S. effort in Syria, from no-fly zones to opposition proxies.  The two sides are no closer to agreement on a framework for political settlement, but Russia and the United States are both backing the minority powers in this conflict now, while jihadists represent the dominant powers in Syria.  That is a low bar for common cause, but it should give Washington pause.  Meanwhile neighboring countries and Europeans are paying an increasingly high price in terms of refugees.  Letting this bloody civil war continue is becoming increasingly intolerable for the West.  Somewhere in the future, under the next administration, could be a large U.S. Army deployment to the Middle East as a result of how this war is being handled today.

Vladimir Putin may pocket a strategic victory, depending on how Russia’s expanded role is received at home, and whether or not he is successful in pressing the U.S. into collaboration.  By forcing the U.S. to deal with him as an equal, he has already demonstrated at home that Russia remains a global player capable of decisive action.  If he is able to achieve a lifting of sanctions in January then this will prove a major political coup for Moscow.  At the least, it will serve as a useful distraction from the disastrous economic situation in Russia.  Of course, no military intervention is without risks, which are perhaps even more perilous when in the Middle East.  Russia will have to perform a delicate balancing act, keeping the stakes low and maximizing the strategic impact of its presence, while retaining the ability to withdraw quickly if the situation unfolds unexpectedly.


Michael Kofman is a Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute and an analyst at the CNA Corporation. Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University. The views presented here are his own.