The Russian Intervention in Syria: Policy Options and Exit Strategies

October 21, 2015

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Russia’s air campaign in Syria, along with a ground offensive led by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, are shedding light on Moscow’s military and political objectives. Where earlier there was only room for informed speculation we can now make firmer judgments. In Syria, as in Ukraine, the Western perception of Russia’s approach is often divorced from the course of combat operations. Commentators tend to fixate on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statements, which rarely convey true motivations, and are more often part and parcel of Russia’s political strategy. There is also a tendency to create a false dichotomy, portraying Russian actions as evidence of either a thought-through strategy or reckless gambling.

In Syria, neither is true. Russia is taking a calculated risk in a military effort, the outcome and length of which is uncertain, but it ties into a political strategy. Putin has framed this as an operation against the Islamic State, a fight against terrorism, but for Russia this is a game with words. Moscow has almost exclusively gone after the other various forces arrayed against the Syrian Army, classifying them all as terrorists and unlawful actors. Russian decision-making is opaque and it is still unclear if Russia has a plan for how this ends. The history of conflict in the Middle East — particularly America’s recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan — teaches us that getting mired in the region is far easier than extricating oneself from it.

Watching Russia’s air operations unfold, the prospect that Russia might get stuck in Syria is the only comforting thought resonating in U.S. policy circles right now, while more critical voices call this a debacle for American foreign policy. Though it is far too soon to judge the course of the Russian operation, many Western observers have been quick to pronounce it either an inevitable failure or a fait accompli. When it comes to military analysis of Russia in the West, where you stand often depends on where you sit.

Russia is engaged first and foremost to save Assad’s forces, support a counter-offensive while he still has an army left, and secure a strong hand to determine Syria’s future independent of Assad’s personal fate. Bombing the Islamic State is the officially stated mission used to frame this campaign for international audiences, but saving Assad means reversing losses of territory to various rebel groups in direct proximity to his forces. That entails focusing on the coalition of jihadist groups and more moderate rebels, whatever that may mean in the Syrian context, fighting alongside Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda in Syria) in its Army of Conquest, along with the various rebel groups supported by Saudi, Turkish, Jordanian, and U.S. intelligence agencies.

War Plans Coming into Focus

In an earlier piece analyzing this gambit, when Russia was just starting to deploy military assets, I argued that Moscow was unlikely to launch a major campaign on Assad’s behalf, due to the risks from MANPADS, infantry combat, and the expense of supporting such operations. Now that Russia has launched what for itself is a major air operation to support a Syrian–Hezbollah–Iranian ground campaign, that thinking looks at best half-right (or half-wrong for pessimists). Russia is risking its helicopter pilots in direct assaults on Syrian rebel positions with tactical aviation providing closer support. The air campaign is still limited to 34 aircraft and a squadron of helicopters, but its operational tempo has spiked sharply, straining maintenance and increasing the chances of mechanical failure. Russia is willing to take risks, on Assad’s behalf. However, this all points to a short and intense war effort, squeezing the Syrian rebel positions in Idlib province and near Homs. That is, Moscow could be planning to have its direct combat role over in weeks as opposed to months.

Syrian attacks in the northeast of Latakia province, near Hama, Homs and around Aleppo appear to be probing efforts ahead of the main offensive south of Aleppo. This last ditch effort will be akin to the Ardennes Offensive for Assad’s regime, with Russian air and Iranian ground support: They either win or become a spent force. If Moscow is planning military operations, then as in Ukraine, the objective will be to fix the rebels across a long front line, while concentrating the attack in a few areas to create pockets and surround them. Unfortunately, Syria is a much larger and more complex military problem than anything Russia faced in Ukraine, but it has Iran as an ally on the ground.

Among Russian ground units, only the artillery seems engaged in fighting, while the rest are dedicated to base defense. Russia seems set to build a much larger base in Syria, signaling the intent for a permanent military presence, and perhaps a separate military command to be deployed there. That is an important infrastructure investment by Moscow, demonstrating that no matter what happens to Assad, Russia will have to be reckoned with in Syria and can quickly ramp up its presence. However, much of this campaign will be decided before any large Russian ground force arrives, if such a deployment is even in the cards. Sending ground units would not only be uncharacteristic for Russia, but may be impossible to sustain at this stage. The Russian Navy’s sealift capacity is already creaking from the requirements of this limited deployment.

While Russian air support has clearly gotten Assad back on his feet, fighting on the ground will determine the outcome. Air support has a tremendous impact on infantry morale, but the question today is whether or not the Syrian Army is already a spent force and Moscow has come too late. Alexei Pushkov, head of Russia’s foreign affairs committee in the Duma, suggested that there is always a “risk of getting bogged down, but in Moscow, we are talking about an operation of three to four months.” Despite his optimism that the war could be over in time for Christmas — not the first time such sentiments have been pronounced — it is evident that concerns about time factor heavily into Moscow’s plans. The second question unanswered is what Russia will do if this initial plan fails. How will Moscow adjust?

Russia seeks to make gains before the United States and coalition allies can adjust, throw further support behind their proxies, or apply pressure elsewhere on Moscow to derail its plans. By initiating combat operations so quickly, Russia has seized not only the initiative, but with it the air space over Syria. Unaccustomed to being challenged for the air domain by a near peer competitor, the United States is on the back foot. In the coming weeks, the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia will no doubt adapt, adjust policies, and resupply the fighters they’re sponsoring, but right now, Russia has a window of opportunity. The recent U.S.–Russian deal to establish safety procedures over Syria takes the edge off ambiguities that favored Moscow, but at the price of confirming on paper that these air operations will not be accommodated rather than challenged. However, if Assad’s forces can’t seize the momentum, recapture towns lost this past spring, and solidify their gains quickly, then this offensive will fall victim to attrition and 34 Russian aircraft will hardly make the difference.

The broader political objectives of the intervention are now clearer as well. First, Russia seeks to destroy anti-Assad forces, leaving no alternatives apart from the Syrian Army and jihadists. For the United States, that effectively will make the already dubious notion of supporting moderate forces in Syria impossible. This, in turn, will mean Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states may have to go it alone in this proxy war, a problem more manageable for Russia and Iran. As a result, Russia will accomplish its goal: ensure that the Syrian regime is the only legitimate and viable actor in Syria worth backing. In the process of crafting its own anti-ISIL coalition with Iraq and Iran, Moscow is attempting to legitimate Assad’s forces and in effect rebrand his regime. Assad may be beyond the pale for President Obama, but the next president might prefer such a formulation over the alternative of intervening in Syria.

The days of barrel bombs dropped on Hama may be over, as Russia attempts to normalize Assad’s image. Moscow will then seek to craft a new political process, likely working with European nations first, but with the ultimate goal of forcing the United States to accept the fact that Assad will stay in power for the time being.   That is, beyond President Obama’s time in office. Syrian gains on the ground would need to be codified via a political settlement, because they are otherwise reversible. If Russia can get the United States to agree, and accept Assad staying, that would be quite an accomplishment for Moscow, leaving Turkey and Saudi Arabia isolated. The challenge Russia is grappling with is, first, how to achieve the military success, and second, how to bring the United States on-board without making this appear as an obvious American foreign policy defeat.

Implications for the United States

Russia has already pocketed political gains. By brandishing the threat of an incident over Syrian airspace, Moscow forced Washington to reopen high-level military contacts, and is clawing its way out of Western political isolation, through high profile political coups like the meeting between Presidents Obama and Putin. A cavalcade of leaders from the Middle East flew to Moscow for meetings recently. Israel has already established protocols for de-conflicting operations, the United States has followed suit, and Turkey might move in this direction, despite its vocal objections to Russia’s intervention. Although perilously weakened by an economic crisis at home, the image of an isolated Russia crippled by sanctions is rapidly dissipating.

The narrative of Russia being stuck in Ukraine is also breaking down, as its military appears able to sustain the deployment in Eastern Ukraine, conduct its annual military exercise, Center-2015, with thousands of troops, while also launching operations in Syria. Even if Russia remains economically weak, Putin’s personal brand of leadership appears strong to both domestic and international audiences. That being said, Russia didn’t launch this campaign for world power status. Nobody launches an intervention in the Middle East, a graveyard for military power, expecting an easy political victory, certainly not after America’s experiences there. Nor does Moscow need a distraction from Ukraine, where its plans are coming together quite neatly, and a clear alignment is emerging between the German, French and Russian positions on how to close out the conflict. These are all potential bonuses, if Russia can achieve military victory, and stabilize the situation on its terms.

What Russia has done is kicked in the door of a rotten American policy to do something about Syria, while keeping Washington as far as possible from any meaningful role in this conflict. U.S. policy has been rife with contradictions, in part due to the different aims and interests of its “coalition” allies, including and especially Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. From sponsoring groups of fighters that had to join al-Qaeda affiliates to survive against the Syrian Army, to supporting Kurds while letting Turkey bomb them, U.S. efforts have lurched from crisis to crisis. Nobody could paint a path forward after Assad’s defeat that did not look like the division of Syria simply into jihadist and Kurdish zones. Assad may be irredeemable in the eyes of the United States, but it is equally clear that a high human price would be paid when the Islamic State or al-Nusra seizes the major population centers in Syria that he still controls.

Russia’s diplomacy early on was a ruse. Moscow has shown Washington that it has no intention of actually cooperating with American aims; rather, it is determined to disrupt whatever vestiges of American strategy are left. Meanwhile, European allies are also disappearing from the field: Both German and Italian leaders indicated they now see Russia as part of the solution in Syria and would be willing to engage in negotiations. Their policies stand in stark contrast to the American position that Russia’s intervention is only bringing instability and prolonging the war, and that Assad must step down as a precondition for political settlement. An international contact group, reminiscent of the Contact Group plan for Bosnia, is a negotiations scheme that Russia supports and Europeans find attractive. If Europeans see Russia as part of the potential solution to the Syrian refugee crisis, the U.S. narrative falls apart right as Moscow strives to derail sanctions renewal discussions in December.

The United States has chosen to invigorate its campaign against the Islamic State by doubling down on airstrikes in support of Kurdish and Arab fighters on the ground. President Obama wants to show that American aircraft will not be pushed out of Syrian airspace, and that while Russia only pays lip service to fighting the Islamic State, he is the one who is willing to do it. While that operation may have a real military objective, it currently appears little more than an effort to “stay in the game.” It also reads like an abandonment of the forces sponsored by the United States against Assad. Russia will attack U.S.-backed forces with relative impunity, while the United States counters by focusing on the Islamic State in other parts of Syria. The end result is complementary operations, even if they are not acknowledged as such. The United States may incidentally help Russia, by occupying the Islamic State elsewhere, who’s forces would otherwise take advantage of this fighting and seize more ground north of Aleppo.

True military coordination between Russia and the United States is politically impossible. Washington can’t join an intelligence-sharing scheme because all information would be passed on to Iran and Syria. Cutting up sectors of operation in Syria would openly abandon American-backed rebels to Russian airstrikes in an outright and public betrayal. Outside of establishing procedures to ensure pilot safety, emergency contacts, and incident management protocols, the United States has few prospects for either creating a joint operation with Russia or stymieing Moscow’s campaign. Thus the battle against the Islamic State is quickly becoming a political football. Joint U.S.–Russian operations would essentially begin to normalize it as an actor internationally, and legitimize this intervention on Assad’s behalf. Meanwhile Russia has nothing to offer to the anti-ISIL fight; that is, there is nothing its less capable air force can add to the over 7,000 sorties the United States has already conducted.

Are there policy options?

Now that Russia’s Su-30SMs have aggravated NATO by violating Turkish airspace and its Su-34s feel free to fly in proximity to American F-16s and drones over Syria, U.S. strategy appears dead. Russia is showing America the door in Syria. No doubt many are willing to take it. Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates may think that no-fly zones are not “half-baked” ideas, but these are the policy recommendations of the 1990s. The intervention of a near-peer competitor like Russia nullifies them as meaningful options. There is already a no-fly zone over millions of Syrian refugees, called Turkish airspace, and Russia has violated it. What is the legal basis for a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone anywhere over Syria? Would anyone be willing to shoot down a Russian jet in order to enforce it? The answer is there is none, and in this uncertain chapter of U.S.–Russian relations, President Obama is unlikely to risk a direct conflict over Syria, a place he has studiously avoided getting entangled.

Washington seems to have trouble adjusting. The question is does it have to? Fareed Zakaria had a valid point when he wrote, “Washington’s foreign policy elites have developed a mind-set that mistakes activity for achievement.” It is true, Vladimir Putin has yet to achieve anything by intervening. The problem in D.C. goes back to 2011: strategically choosing to avoid this conflict, while at the same time staking a loud and unachievable policy position that Assad must go. From this perspective, Russia is doing the United States a favor, though it comes with bruised ego attached.

As in Ukraine, American policymakers must ask themselves whether it is worth getting into a bidding war with Russia over Syria. By all appearances the answer is no, suggesting that Washington would be better served finding a way to stay relevant and hoping Moscow’s effort runs aground. The natural impulse is to come up with something to do in Syria, or as Rice and Gates suggest, create our own facts on the ground. The recent history of facts on the ground created by U.S. military intervention in the Middle East is not good. Thousands of sorties against the Islamic State have accomplished little. Russia may have the will to see this intervention through, but war is uncertain and chaotic, potentially offering the United States plenty of opportunities if all does not go Moscow’s way.

However, the price of continued restraint will not be cheap. For the United States, staying out of Syria came at relatively low cost until now. Doing nothing in response to Russia’s intervention could mean allies in the region become wobbly. The Turkish and Saudi foreign ministers recently held a joint press conference at which they made their anger clear. Turkey must wonder what this means for its future. Despite public rhetoric, NATO may be ambivalent about defending Turkey. The United States and Germany are withdrawing their Patriot air defense systems from Turkish soil. Even Saudi Arabia, Assad’s staunchest opponent, may be walking back its expectations after discussions in Moscow.

The Russian position is not simply that the United States must accept its operations in Syria, but that regional members of the coalition should come to terms with Moscow on a bilateral basis. That is, if Washington refuses to coordinate its efforts and aims with Moscow, the potential for accidents will present an increasingly hazardous situation not only for American leaders, but also for its allies like Turkey. Iraq, which set up a joint coordination cell with Russia, Syria and Iran, is clearly pursuing its own interests at the expense of American preferences (as countries in the Middle East and elsewhere are wont to do). An indiscernible response from Washington heightens chances that Russia will fragment the U.S.-led “anti-ISIL” coalition.

In between the foolhardy “do something for the sake of activity” mentality, and the overly convenient “doing nothing is a strategy” approach, the smarter answer in this conflict is that United States should play for the breaks and mitigate the human costs. Whether it fails or achieves something, Russia will need the United States to make any political outcome in Syria stick. The U.S. has leverage here, there is a deal to be made, depending on how the Russian intervention fares. The problem U.S. leaders must consider for the long term is that the arrival of another major power, willing and capable of intervening abroad militarily, is a game changer for its freedom of action, or inaction, in the world. Future planning discussions will stop asking “what will the Russians think?” and begin considering “what will the Russians do?” There is a silver lining in that, however. This may not be the beginning of the end for U.S. leadership in the world, but instead a return to smarter and more considered foreign policy from Washington, D.C.

Russia’s Exit Strategy

Ultimately Moscow will improvise a solution in Syria, which offers it some flexibility. President Obama’s statements that Russia is bound to get itself involved in a quagmire read as a projection of American fears after Iraq and Afghanistan, the same dread that kept the U.S. administration on the sidelines in this conflict. Some in the U.S. national security establishment look on Russia’s intervention in the region with smugness, assuming that where Washington has failed no one else can succeed. Russia’s intervention is an uncomfortable moment for U.S. policy circles, because it tests a premise that many would prefer not to see examined. That is, whether or not the use of all military power in the Middle East translates poorly into desired political outcomes, or just America’s.

With only 34 aircraft and a few thousand personnel on the ground, Russia is unlikely to become trapped, and its military objectives are quite limited. Moscow has much more capable and forward-leaning allies in this conflict — Iran and Syria. Conversely, the U.S. efforts to corral Turkey, the Gulf States, and Kurdish fighters have been fraught with challenges. But Moscow can easily be wounded in Syria. Indeed, this venture carries real political risk. Outside of its aircraft crashing or being shot down, Russia’s greatest fear is no doubt a retaliatory terrorist attack in Moscow.

This may not necessarily come from Islamic State sympathizers in Russia. Putin has dealt a serious blow to Saudi plans, and Riyadh may respond elsewhere on Russia’s periphery by leveraging its extensive network in the world of radical Islamic fighters. The Russian presence is also vulnerable to a bombing akin to the 1983 attack on the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut. A devastating hit could send its forces packing or force Moscow to double down to save face. To paraphrase Nietzsche, the longer Moscow gazes into the abyss that is Syria, the greater the chance that conflict will inflict costs on Russia.

Russian–Turkish relations may also reach a nadir, as happened between Moscow and Berlin over the war in Ukraine. Having seen that the United States is not the real obstacle, and anticipating a strong Saudi resistance, Russia’s greatest concern is the Turkish response. If successful, the operation may forge an alliance between Russia and Iran, but at great cost to its relationship with Turkey. Having damaged its relations with Germany over Ukraine, Moscow can ill afford destroying another vital economic and security relationship with a major power on its southern flank.

Ultimately, if things go terribly wrong, Moscow’s exit strategy would rest upon the United States and the European Union. All Russia needs to do is agree to push Assad out of power and leverage its UN Security Council position to support both a political settlement and an international military presence. In such a process, Russia could convert its forces into a multinational “peacekeeping” presence or simply exit while still declaring political victory. Removing Assad may not have been a possibility before, but now Moscow and Tehran are truly the sole arbiters of his fate. Since Putin almost completely controls all major media in Russia, winning is frankly as simple as saying you’ve won, handing out a few medals, and then changing the media coverage back to Ukraine. For Putin, the public perception of his brand of leadership is as important as the actual results of his foreign policy.

Russian leaders continue to craft statements with precision that indicate support for the Syrian state, but not for Assad personally. Assad will be the political price of Russia’s retreat if its plans fail. Unlike the war in Ukraine, a Russian withdrawal might not necessarily be seen at home as a Western victory. Now that Moscow has forces in place and more direct influence in Syria, it could orchestrate a political transition together with Iran. A scenario whereby Assad leaves and Russia supports a multinational force in Syria under a UN resolution is one that the United States and regional allies would accept and that European leaders would leap at. Moscow’s likely play is to duplicitously pitch Assad’s departure, in an effort to launch a political process with a long-term transition, if the military effort is successful. However, if the intervention fails to produce gains, Assad is a price Russia is willing to pay to save face.

 

Michael Kofman is a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute and an Analyst at CNA Corporation. Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.

 

Photo credit: Russian Ministry of Defense

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