Earlier this month, 51 mid-level officers at the U.S. State Department wrote a “dissent cable” arguing for the limited use of U.S. military force against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. By using standoff weapons and airstrikes on regime targets, they said, the United States could force regime compliance with Syria’s nationwide “cessation of hostilities” and compel the regime to participate in political negotiations to resolve the country’s bloody years-long war.
Yet these diplomats seem to have mostly ignored Russia’s role in Syria — and at least for now, it is Russia, not America, that is the decisive force in the Syrian war.
Russia has leveraged its September 2015 military intervention on behalf of the Assad regime to establish itself as the central military actor in Syria’s war. With its punishing air campaign in January and February of this year, Russia gave the opposition and its backers a lesson in the destruction Russia can inflict on rebel factions, civilian centers, and key infrastructure. Russia’s intervention successfully stabilized the regime and served to deter the sort of unilateral U.S. action advocated by these State Department officials. Russia has used its military primacy to oblige others — including the United States — to treat it as the gatekeeper to a negotiated solution to the conflict.
But not all is well for the Kremlin. Russia finds itself in the middle of a war that seems impossible to resolve military or politically — on Moscow’s terms or anyone else’s. Russia is invested heavily in a political process that, thanks to uncooperative Syrians on all sides of the war, seems unlikely to succeed. Yet Russia also appears convinced that a purely military victory by the regime is impossible. Now, with negotiations stalling, Moscow must grapple with how to deliver “success” in Syria.
Russia has used its intervention in Syria to reshape the military and political contest for control of Syria and to deliberately constrict the space for countervailing American action. The idea that America can menace Russia’s regime partner in Syria unilaterally and without consequences is an unreal one. And unless America is willing to risk a dangerous and unpredictable confrontation with Russia, the course of Syria’s war hinges on what Russia does next.
Russia on the Battlefield
In interviews in Turkey and Lebanon and conducted remotely over social media and messaging apps with a range of actors on all sides of the conflict — including Western diplomats, Syrian rebels and jihadists, pro-Syrian government journalists, and others — interviewees described Russia’s military backing for the Assad regime and its allies as the decisive factor on the Syrian battlefield. Russian air and artillery support has enabled the regime’s most important advances. On fronts where Russia has provided minimal support or declined to engage, the regime and its allies have lost ground and suffered grave casualties.
Russia’s initial intervention in September of last year met with mixed results, as ground forces fielded by the Syrian regime and its local and foreign paramilitary allies proved incapable of capitalizing on Russian air support. Russia reacted by escalating its air campaign, bringing it to a destructive crescendo in January and February. The intensity of Russia’s airstrikes overwhelmed the regime’s rebel opponents, allowing the regime to make dramatic territorial gains and Russia to announce the cessation of hostilities and the resumption of indirect negotiations from a position of strength.
Russia subsequently announced the partial withdrawal of its forces from Syria. Yet Moscow has retained substantial capabilities inside Syria — either through formally deployed forces or private military companies — and it has continued to provide air and artillery support for the regime on specific, strategically significant fronts.
Leith Abou Fadel, founder and editor of pro-Syrian government news site Al-Masdar News, told me over social media that Russian support remains decisive. Russian airstrikes had been instrumental in the Syrian government’s recent gains, he said, including the capture of the city of Palmyra from the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
But Russia’s selective involvement has meant that regime and allied forces in other areas have been left vulnerable. Russia has provided minimal air cover in the countryside south of Aleppo, for example, leaving the Iranian forces and Iran-backed militias spearheading the fight to lose a series of towns and suffer heavy casualties.
“As we have seen recently in southern Aleppo,” said Abou Fadel, “when the Russians are absent from a battle, it becomes very difficult for [the Syrian military and its allies’] infantry units to maintain their front lines.”
The regime’s insurgent enemies say they have managed to adapt somewhat to Russian airstrikes. But their most visible success has been in areas such as south Aleppo, where they can capitalize on dissonance within the regime camp.
Syrian opposition faction and Islamist movement Ahrar al-Sham has continued to fight the regime in south Aleppo, as well as in areas along the Syrian coast. Ahrar has taken a sort of half-in, half-out position on the negotiations process and the cessation of hostilities. Russia, for its part, has pushed repeatedly for Ahrar al-Sham to be designated a terrorist organization.
Speaking to me over a messaging app, an Ahrar al-Sham official said that Russia airstrikes would not cow them and other rebels. Yet he acknowledged that Russian air power and any resumption of bombing at the levels displayed in January and February was a serious threat.
“If the Russians were to continue bombing the way they were bombing at the beginning of the year, the level of destruction for civilians and infrastructure would be unbelievable,” he said.
The memo filed to the State Department’s “dissent channel” seems to have assumed that Russia would basically remain passive if the United States intervened further in Syria. In a leaked draft of the cable, its signatories caveated their advocacy for military action by saying, “We are not advocating for a slippery slope that ends in a military confrontation with Russia.” They acknowledged “the risk of further deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations” and the possibility of “a number of second-order effects” from military intervention.
But the State Department dissidents devoted no real space to gaming out how Russia might react to U.S. strikes or how to mitigate dangerous fallout. Yet the risk of confrontation cannot just be waved away. Russia has positioned itself militarily to guarantee that any unilateral U.S. military action against the regime seriously risks at least a great power shooting match over Syria, if not an apocalyptic nuclear war.
Russia’s December 2015 deployment of the advanced S-400 air defense system on the Syrian coast is a potentially lethal threat to U.S. pilots attempting to strike the regime. The deployment of the S-400 covers much of Syria, including the entirety of the country’s west, and can also intercept cruise missiles. This deployment contributed to forcing the United States to “de-conflict” its operations in Syria with those of Russia.
Capt. Ryan Hignight, a U.S. military spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, reported to me over e-mail that the coalition does not coordinate specific operations with Russia, but does hold daily phone calls with the Russian military and maintains a memorandum of understanding with the Russian Ministry of Defense to ensure safety of flight by aircrews over Syria.
In practice, de-confliction has mostly limited the U.S.-led coalition to operations over eastern Syria, the heart of the Islamic State’s Syrian territory. Aside from a few isolated positions in the east, the Assad regime’s territory is almost entirely in Syria’s west. “We have provided a geographical area to the Russians and asked them to stay away from it and they have honored this request,” wrote Capt. Hignight. He assured, “Coalition operations have not been constrained in any way due to Russian operations in Syria.”
An American move against the regime in western Syria would be different, however. If the United States were to unilaterally attack regime positions, it would likely either have to hope that Russia would not use its air defenses to shoot down American pilots or preemptively hit and neutralize those Russian defenses, which could itself spark a larger confrontation. U.S. officials have so far been unwilling to call what may or may not be a Russian bluff.
Speaking over e-mail, Chris Kozak, a research analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, acknowledged that American action in western Syria would entail a risky military contest with Russia but still expressed frustration at U.S. officials’ reluctance to act:
The block on our action stems from the political front and an unwillingness to even contemplate a confrontation with Russia in Syria despite the cost of inaction to our strategic objectives. In private conversations with government officials, there seems to be an instinctual reflex to jump to the worst-case scenario and ignore the wide array of action that falls below the threshold of direct conflict – [they say,] “Any unilateral action risks open conflict with Russia, and Syria is not enough of a core U.S. interest to justify that risk.”
The conversation very rarely seems to consider whether the inverse proposition also holds true for Russia – [the idea that] “Syria is not enough of a core Russian interest to justify the risk of open war with the U.S.”
In addition to a direct confrontation with U.S. aircraft, Russia could also retaliate asymmetrically against U.S. allies inside Syria in response to U.S. airstrikes on the regime. Russia has already hit U.S.-backed rebels, including airstrikes earlier this month against Pentagon-trained rebels fighting the Islamic State in the Syrian desert. After a teleconference called by the Americans, Russia claimed its actions were in line with its memorandum of understanding with Washington and that it had been asking for months for more information sharing on forces in active in Syria, but that America had not cooperated.
Russia’s Political Project
Although Syria’s ongoing negotiations are nominally sponsored by the broad International Syria Support Group, both the negotiations and the cessation of hostilities are primarily a bilateral arrangement between the United States and Russia.
Within that U.S.-Russian dyad, it is primarily Russia that has agency. The negotiations and the cessation of hostilities have already broken Russia’s diplomatic isolation and drawn the United States into stepped-up military and political cooperation. But the United States can still hold out various carrots to Russia, including a further thaw in relations, consideration as a great power peer, and closer military coordination.
There is no parallel stick. America is currently unwilling to test Russia and directly press the regime militarily, leaving it to Russia to ensure its allies’ compliance with the cessation of hostilities and deliver their buy-in for a political settlement.
But Western diplomats who discussed Syrian diplomacy on the condition of anonymity said that while their Russian counterparts remain somewhat inscrutable, they seem to be making a real effort to foster a political solution. (“Kremlinology is not my strong point,” one Western diplomat joked before telling me, “The Russians hold counsel pretty privately.”)
“They want a political process, even if they don’t want a political process on our terms, or what we would see as a positive outcome,” said another diplomat.
Russia seems to understand a stabilizing political resolution to the Syrian conflict in different terms than many of its Western counterparts. In a phone interview, Nikolay Kozhanov, a nonresident scholar with the Carnegie Moscow Center, told me that Russia’s prime concern is stabilizing Syria. Russia wants to prevent Syria from becoming another Libya adjacent to Russia’s near abroad — recall that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called Libya a “black hole” radiating militancy to its neighbors.
Russia believes it would be impossible to restore the Assad regime’s control over all of Syria by military means, said Kozhanov. Russia’s military action is therefore geared to push for a negotiated settlement, albeit one on Russia’s terms. Russia has, in theory, reconciled itself to a “post-Assad Syria” and the need for some reforms to the Syrian system. But the Russians, said Kozhanov, “would like to build the post-conflict Syria around those government institutions that are still in place. So, as a result, Russia is interested in, say, a stronger Assad and a weaker opposition at this table for negotiations.”
Russia’s more limited objectives seem to put it at odds with the Assad regime itself and with primary regime-backer Iran.
Assad and representatives of the regime have repeatedly expressed maximalist goals that go far beyond Russia’s stated aims. In a February interview, Assad said he was working to recapture the entirety of Syria. He was rebuked days later by Russian U.N. envoy Vitaly Churkin, who said Assad’s remarks “do not chime with the diplomatic efforts that Russia is undertaking” and reminded Assad of Russia’s substantial diplomatic and military investment in a political resolution to the war. Yet in a June 7 speech to Syria’s new parliament, Assad again promised to “liberate every inch of Syria” from the forces of terrorism.
In a recent article in regime- and Hizbullah-leaning Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin and Elie Hanna described a strategic push-and-pull between a Russia working toward its own ends and a unified “axis” consisting of the Assad regime, Hizbullah, and Iran.
All those I spoke to, regardless of their politics, were convinced of a strategic disconnect between Russia and the regime.
Muhammad al-Mustafa, director of the opposition-leaning Toran Center, told me in an interview in his research center’s office in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli:
The regime wants to use the Russian intervention to eliminate the opposition, whereas the Russians want to use it to weaken the opposition and to engineer its behavior, so it’s possible to reach an agreement with it.
And as Al-Masdar News’s Leith Abou Fadel told me:
Russians are more concerned with ending the war through diplomatic means, whereas Iran tends to lean more towards a complete military victory… Iranians and Syrians still have a great relationship… I don’t see Iranians and Syrians butting heads any time soon.
Even from its position of military and political strength, there are limits to how much Russia can bend the Syrian conflicts’ various interested actors into its preferred shape.
So long as the negotiations process is limping along, Russia seems likely to restrain itself militarily. But new progress is unlikely if the Russians cannot compel the regime to adopt a more conciliatory line. The regime’s military dependence on Russia should theoretically guarantee Russia extensive leverage over its regime ally. But in practice, Russia seems either unwilling or unable to exercise that leverage to stop the regime from violating the cessation of hostilities, for example.
“I believe that Russian leverage and influence on Assad are very limited,” said Carnegie’s Kozhanov. “But they are limited, I would say, psychologically.”
Diplomatic sources have told me that Russia has been convinced that Assad is basically indispensable — that the decapitation of the regime would result in the collapse of the Syrian state institutions Russia wants to preserve. Assad seems to have recognized this and used it as a sort of reverse leverage on Russia.
As one Western diplomat put it, “I don’t think the regime is an easy ally.”
There are also limits to the common ground between Russia and the opposition’s state backers. The Russians “want a political solution on their terms,” said one Western diplomat, “but ‘their terms’ are more important than the ‘political solution.’”
Russia has argued that much of the armed opposition is hopelessly entangled with irreconcilable jihadists like Jabhat al-Nusrah. According to another diplomat, “[The Russians] say, ‘Don’t you understand? We need to be killing terrorists. They hate us, they hate you, we need to be killing them.’”
If negotiations stall further, Russia may ratchet up its military pressure on the opposition. But a Russian re-escalation would be a gamble. A repeat of January and February’s airstrikes could force opposition concessions, or it could be a deathblow to the political process.
“The ferocity of attacks at the end of January were completely on another level,” said one diplomat. “That round of Geneva, which hadn’t really started, just blew apart.”
A return to the sort of bombing Russia had carried out early this year would make opposition participation in negotiations impossible, said the official in Ahrar al-Sham. The Russians “can’t present themselves as the co-chair of this process – I won’t say ‘fair brokers,’ I think we’re beyond that point – if they step back in,” he said.
But if negotiations are doomed, military victory is unachievable, and Russia’s preferred mix of military coercion and politics is impossible to properly calibrate, then it is unclear what sort of endgame Russia can realistically pursue in Syria.
For a United States whose avenues to a negotiated resolution to the war now run through Moscow, Russia’s dilemma means that America’s prospects for achieving peace in Syria are similarly dim. But given that a negotiated peace in Syria is – if we’re being honest – impossible, then withholding the political recognition Russia desires and spectating as Russia tries unsuccessfully to solve Syria may be the least worst option.
Without a clear path to political or military victory, for its part it seems Russia can either fuel the conflict indefinitely or try to force a resolution by stepping up its involvement and risking a repeat of the Soviet Union’s costly intervention in Afghanistan.
And some in Syria are waiting for Russian intervention to collapse under its strategic contradictions — including Jabhat al-Nusrah, apparently.
Asked how Jabhat al-Nusrah and Syria’s rebels could cope with Russian airstrikes, a Nusrah media official said earlier this year that the answer was mostly patience.
“Did the Americans accomplish anything with their air force in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere?” asked the official, who uses the nom du guerre Abu Khattab al-Maqdisi and who spoke over a messaging app.
“In the end, every army has only limited energy,” said al-Maqdisi. “There will come a moment when it runs out. Then everything will be overturned, and this land’s people will continue to fight. The foreigner always leaves in the end.”
Sam Heller is a Beirut-based freelance writer and analyst focused on Syria. Follow Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem.
Image: Russian MOD