The Misadventures of Russia and the United States in Syria: Complete Strategy Implosion Edition
The current situation in Syria is the civil war’s most dangerous and arguably tragic phase. Months of U.S.-Russian efforts to arrange a nationwide ceasefire in Syria and set up a military coordination agreement have collapsed spectacularly, leading to venomous recriminations as a Russian-backed coalition renewed its assault on Aleppo. The tone of official rhetoric — Ambassador Samantha Power called the renewed bombing campaign “barbarism” — together with a suspension of military contacts raises the risk of a military clash that much further. Meanwhile, interventionist circles in the West have renewed their cries for the United States to use force, while Russia signaled that such a move would lead to uncertain consequences and possible military conflict, reminding the United States to “think carefully” before hitting any Syrian regime forces. If this is not the greatest foreign policy train wreck of 2016, it will certainly do until that calamity arrives.
On October 3, the United States suspended its attempts to implement a ceasefire with Russia and scrapped the proposal for a joint military coordination body. Russian President Vladimir Putin retaliated by shelving a 2000 deal on disposal of weapons-grade plutonium and canceling a bilateral agreement on research cooperation between nuclear sectors. The two countries have since cemented an escalatory cycle of tit-for-tat blows, as U.S. intelligence agencies publicly blamed Russia for its hacking of the Democratic National Committee to interfere with U.S. elections. The prevailing impression in policy and media circles is that Russia has abandoned efforts at peace, instead making a bid for military victory on the ground. Increasingly, many in Washington are certain that Russia strung the United States along in negotiations to help Syrian forces recapture Aleppo in the closing days of the Obama administration. References to the Cold War abound as tensions increase.
These well-structured narratives are built upon grains of truth, but they miss more than they capture. Important facts get in the way of this story. Since the first day Russian planes took flight over Syria in September 2015, analysis in Washington too often flailed between declaring the Russian intervention a hopeless quagmire and decrying that Russia is winning at everything. These depictions suffer from being wedded to merely tactical snapshots. They bend whichever way the wind is blowing that day in Syria. At times, we have been treated to contradictory strategic assessments based on the same battle.
In late August, Reuters told us that fighting in Aleppo exposed the “limits of Russian airpower,” and a few days later The New York Times explained how Syrian forces made their gains in that siege thanks to Russian help. This results in great stories but poor analysis. I offer a different perspective on why the ceasefire collapsed and what it tells us about the Russian intervention. Essentially, Russia got caught selling something they did not have — Assad’s agreement to a ceasefire before the Syrian Arab Army subdued Aleppo — and U.S. Secretary of State Kerry accidentally trapped them by conceding to a grand deal sooner than Moscow expected.
There’s Something Wrong with This Story
Setting aside popular misunderstandings in Washington, many experts and analysts in Moscow also do not seem to understand why the ceasefire collapsed. That is what makes the current situation so dangerous: It was actually unplanned on the Russian end. “Unplanned” may be the defining characteristic of U.S. policy on Syria, but it has not been similarly true of the Russian approach. Since September 19, when the ceasefire was visibly on life support, experts and intelligence officials have opined that Moscow’s strategy is to seize Aleppo in the coming months and present the next U.S. administration with a fait accompli. They are working the problem backwards from what happened in the last two weeks.
Russia may not have expected for the ceasefire to last — and most in the West did not either — but this entire episode is not a Kremlin-managed scheme. To start, there is little evidence of Russian preparation to support Syrian forces in their campaign to seize Aleppo. There was no Russian military buildup in Syria to better enable an attack on the city or a large-scale expansion of the air wing based at Hmeimim Airbase. While Russia’s air force has been flying more sorties over the city, its presence in-country is arguably lower than it was during heavier fighting last winter. Following the March announcement by Putin that Russia was “withdrawing” from Syria, there was a visible reduction in both fixed- and rotary-wing aviation deployed. Russia’s newspapers reported that Russia was sending aircraft back to Syria, including the 12 Su-25 ground attack aircraft that were previously withdrawn. Yet, at the peak of this deadly air campaign against Aleppo, we have satellite footage from IHS Jane’s showing that they have not arrived back in Syria.
Russia’s attempt to use Iran’s Hamadan airbase back in August, which would have greatly increased the payload its Tu-22M3 bombers could carry into battle, failed embarrassingly in a public spat with Tehran. Because they thought the arrangement should be kept secret, Iran’s leadership bristled at Russian attempts to turn cooperation into a public relations opportunity, claiming Moscow “betrayed trust.” There is also no visible increase in Russian ground forces present in Syria to suggest that a “final solution” to Aleppo had been in the works all these months, while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov kept Secretary of State John Kerry distracted with notions of peace. If there is a Russian strategy to make timely gains with Aleppo as the primary operational objective, the Russian military does not seem to have been informed.
Typically, militaries build up assets in theater for an offensive operation beforehand, but in this case, we cannot discern a substantial increase of Russian support to Syrian and Iranian forces even after the ceasefire’s collapse. Instead, Russia had been busy with its annual strategic exercises in September that simulated amphibious landings in Crimea, and much of the country’s national attention had turned to the situation in Ukraine. Russia has engaged in a dizzying number of troop movements, multinational exercises, wargames, and military events in August and September, many centered around contingencies in Ukraine or with NATO but none resulting in additional combat capabilities transferred to the campaign in Syria.
Following fiery exchanges between Russian and Western officials, Moscow has become noticeably wary of a possible U.S. lurch toward considering military intervention. The calls to do something grow louder in U.S. policy circles. America’s penchant to meet such calls by lobbing cruise missiles as a low-risk form of military action is well known. To ready for such a development, the Russian General Staff sent an S-300V4 air defense system, along with several missile corvettes from the Black Sea Fleet, hoping to deter any inclinations the United States may have toward a campaign of strikes against Syrian forces. This complements the S-400 system that is already in theater. Moscow’s generals, such as Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, are not leaving much room for doubt as to what these systems are for: “Any missile or air strikes on the territory controlled by the Syrian government will create a clear threat to Russian servicemen.” Although Russia continues to block for Syria, the bloody battle for Aleppo and this subsequent political maelstrom does not appear to be the product of a deliberate strategy.
If the Kremlin wished to take advantage of the Obama administration’s closing days to consolidate some sort of gains in Syria, then why was Lavrov permitted to spend so much time negotiating the intricate technical details of a ceasefire agreement going back to mid-July when Kerry first flew to Moscow with a proposal to establish a joint military coordinating body? What was the point of agonizing delays in announcing a deal, delving into the minutiae of who is positioned where around Castello Road? This is a Rube Goldberg theory of Russian scheming in Syria, and one that does not make much sense if Moscow simply sought a military solution in the last months of the administration.
Instead, what we have is a case of policy capture and, as I explain below, a reasonably well-thought out Russian political strategy unraveling at the hands of its allies. In September, the contradictions inherent in Russia’s approach and the divergent interests of its allies finally came home to roost. We may assign blame to Russia, but what is happening right now in Syria is Russian-led in name only.
Russia’s Military Campaign: A Retrospective
To understand what broke in recent weeks, we need to rewind the clock. Over the past year, Russia’s military intervention had an outsized effect on the course of the conflict, shaping facts on the ground. The Kremlin holds most of the cards in Syria today. Yet the original Russian strategy, as I have described it in previous articles for War on the Rocks, was to secure the Syrian regime’s future not by fighting to recapture territory but rather by shaping the opposition. Russia correctly identified that the West would not back al-Qaeda affiliates or other jihadist groups against Assad’s regime and therefore its forces simply had to focus on killing the moderate opposition. In terms of military strategy, the Islamic State, Ahrar al Sham, and Jabhat al-Nusra had far more fighters, but only the non-jihadist opposition represented an alternative to Assad’s regime.
Another significant factor was the Syrian population’s perception that the West remains committed to Assad’s departure. Moscow has been killing its way to victory by destroying and fragmenting the Syrian opposition on the battlefield, with the goal of leaving extremists as the only true fighting force opposing Assad. All the while, Russian diplomacy locked the United States into a political framework for resolving this war that is set up to outlast the current administration. In both respects, the campaign has been more successful than we wish to give it credit and at a minimal cost to Russia’s forces.
The Russian intervention rendered U.S. discussions on a possible no-fly zone unrealistic — at least among people who understand how these operations actually work — and weakened the arguments made by voices more hawkish than the administration. This constrained U.S. options, or, more honestly, liberated the president from a host of policy arguments he had long rejected. It became clear that the West would not use force, which largely ceded the battlespace in western Syria to the Russian-led coalition, while the U.S.-led coalition instead focused on the fight against the Islamic State to the east. Although Syrian military victory remains very much in question, the opposition cannot topple Assad as long as Russia and Iran are actively involved. Without Western intervention, the rebels are fighting a hopeless battle. The moderate Syrian opposition is steadily becoming a mythical creature on the Syrian battlefield. In 2017, I expect it will go extinct.
Russia intended for these gains to be locked in with ceasefires as it slow-rolled negotiations to make enough time for eliminating the opposition. Under this design, Russian diplomats would negotiate a compromise with few genuine concessions. Eventually, the West would come to see it Putin’s way once the Russian-led coalition’s path was the only remotely viable one. Those expecting a Russian quagmire, including the U.S. president, have thus far been disappointed. Yet, Moscow has indeed been confronted with its own set of unpleasant realities in Syria, chiefly that it intervened too late. The Syrian Arab Army was no longer a worthwhile fighting force, if it ever had been.
Russian leaders quickly realized that the regime could not hold ground and that fighting for cities or terrain was senseless, since these victories were temporary at best. Assad grossly oversold what he had to work with. Mikhail Khodarenok, a longtime Russian military analyst, wrote a scathing and uncharacteristically public account of the disastrous state of Syria’s forces, venting pent up Russian frustration. Forces on both sides are exhausted and largely dependent on proxies. Military operations are slow and fitful, and gains can be easily reversed. This is why Russia and Iran cannot seriously consider getting rid of Assad: He is the only thing conceptually gluing the Syrian regime’s effort together. Without him, the regime would completely implode, crippled by infighting absent a clear leader.
In Washington, I often hear observers of the conflict say that the Russians will eventually realize they cannot win and come to some sort of epiphany. I would not wager too much money on this cause. Autocracies can indeed kill their way to a desired political outcome and, contrary to popular belief, this is how many wars have been won in the past. Russia has extensive experience in this department.
However, in my view, it became clear to the Russian military several months into the intervention that outright victory was impossible. This is not because the opposition was so strong, but because Syrian and Iranian forces were too weak to hold and defend what they seized. Syrian and Iranian proxies had finally encircled Aleppo in September, but Russia has watched them lose this fight before, most recently in successful counterattacks led by Jahbat al-Nusra in August. It could not last. The repeated battles for Aleppo had paradoxically convinced Russia that the ground forces of its allies were not up to the task of total victory.
The Music Stops: Russia Runs Out of Time
The Russian announcement of a withdrawal in March signaled that very realization. It was a scheme to recast the military campaign for its domestic audience as the new normal in Syria. Russia would entrench in Syria for the long haul, but it would no longer join exhausting and uncertain battles over cities such as Aleppo. Syria and Iran do not seem to have reached the same conclusion. This point is crucial to understand what is happening in the war today. Both Tehran and the Assad regime remain convinced that a battlefield victory is possible and that the best time to finish off the Syrian opposition is now. While they grudgingly went along with Russian negotiations and accommodated the various other imperatives Moscow possesses, they remain principally committed to a military victory that the Kremlin now believes is costly and unattainable.
When Russia turned its gaze to the Islamic State-held city of Palmyra in March, angling to make itself relevant to the U.S.-led campaign against the jihadist group, the Syrian fight for Aleppo increasingly appeared divergent from Moscow’s preferences. Yes, encircling the Syrian opposition would cut the knees out from under them at the negotiating table, but it was also proving difficult to accomplish, and the game of negotiating a ceasefire with the United States while killing the opposition could not be continued in perpetuity.
Russia’s principal problem is that the clock will soon run out on the Obama administration, making it hard to keep the cycle of ceasefires going. Eventually, the United States would make a big diplomatic push to freeze the conflict, even if it took a serious concession like proposing a joint military body, which is exactly what Kerry ended up offering up in July. His proposition effectively legitimized Russia’s intervention, distanced Washington from the opposition, and publicly acknowledged that Moscow is an equal in Syria, which by all accounts is what Putin wanted. Ironically, in the Kremlin they wished to keep this cycle going longer, while the United States ran out of time and ruined this scheme by offering them what they desired. For Moscow the negotiations were an end in and of themselves: keep the West talking with Russia front and center on the world stage, all the while the opposition was steadily losing on the battlefield.
What Went Wrong
Taking Aleppo is ultimately unnecessary for Russia to achieve its war aims, even though it would be an important political victory and potentially fatal for the Syrian opposition. The high civilian death toll risks the political framework Russia established with the United States. It also provokes the Europeans into linking sanctions imposed over Ukraine to the conflict in Syria. It’s not worth it for Moscow. Thus, observers of this conflict cannot credibly explain why Moscow suddenly took the deal it wanted, held it close for an instant, and then threw it out the window along with what is left of its leadership’s credibility. They cannot explain it because Russia did not seek this outcome, but instead got cornered.
Leonid Bershidsky, a respected Russian journalist and analyst, wrote in September that Moscow “probably doesn’t want an agreement with the U.S. to stick just yet.” This is true, but it was not up to the Kremlin this time. There was no sign that Syria or Iran planned to abide by the truce. When the ceasefire was due to enter force on September 12, Assad vowed publicly to retake “every inch of Syria from the terrorists.” He continued: “Some were betting on promises from foreign powers, which will result in nothing.” When the United States inadvertently bombed a Syrian Arab Army position several days later, killing 60 to 80 soldiers, Damascus publicly declared an end to the ceasefire.
From then onwards, Moscow could not keep the Syrians in the deal, and they thought that the U.S. strike offered an opportunity to blame its unraveling on the West. A more cynical reading is that Assad and Putin had coordinated this, but the Syrian leader has never made an effort to play along, or give public credence to Russian diplomatic initiatives. If anything he has always undermined Sergei Lavrov’s efforts with statements to the contrary.
The construct of Russia as a great power negotiating on behalf of Syria may be convenient, but it is not the reality. This is an aspirational role for the Kremlin. There was little to indicate that Syria was onboard with this deal and Russia knew it. When the agreement was announced on September 9, Kerry said:
The United States is going the extra mile here because we believe that Russia, and my colleague, have the capability to press the Assad regime to stop this conflict and come to the table and make peace.
Lavrov’s statement, in contrast, was barely lukewarm:
We and the United States take obligation to do our best to engage and make the stakeholders comply with the arrangements in our document, and the Syrians have been informed and agree.
Lavrov’s phrasing is careful not to suggest Russia was giving its word, putting it all on Syria’s credibility. His comments imply Russia knew Assad was unlikely to stick with the deal and tried to keep it at arm’s length.
Syria and Iran bolted from truce at the first opportunity, leaving Russia to pay the political costs. Moscow tried to defray these by blaming the United States. This is what happens when your team includes star players like the Syrian regime, Iran, and Hezbollah. Once the U.S. Air Force mistakenly bombed Syrian troops, they had their pretext.
Russia has wanted it both ways: to keep killing the opposition and recycling ceasefires into 2017. America’s proposal for a joint operation represented a catastrophic victory come too soon. If anything, it would be better for Russia if the Obama administration stuck around for another year and was not pressured into big overtures to settle this conflict. Vladimir Putin is certainly in no rush. That is what the March withdrawal announcement signaled. The real arrangement inside Syria is likely that Assad gets his way in Aleppo, crushing the opposition, and then Putin can play Middle Eastern peacemaker — not before. Despite his precarious position, the Syrian dictator has retained the better part of leverage in this relationship and Moscow seems stuck with him.
No International System for Old Policy Elites
There is a striking similarity in US-Russia relations at the closing days of the Obama administration to that of another disaster eight years ago during the Bush presidency. Then too the Russian-Georgian War in August of 2008 led to a breakdown of military and diplomatic ties, with U.S. foreign policy towards Russia left in shambles. The Obama administration found little positive to work with in terms of the U.S.-Russian relationship when it took office, and its successor will inherit a razed wasteland. As Andrew Weiss recently noted, this bid at cooperation was “the Obama administration’s last and best shot for arresting the downward spiral in the bilateral relationship with Russia.”
There is one important difference: Despite public threats and accusations the Russians know Washington cannot walk away from this one. Maybe this is why hospitals get bombed, because they figure that Washington cares and will return to negotiating the ceasefire so as to not abandon the civilians in Syria to a grim fate. Sure enough, within days of breaking off negotiations and suspending military contact, Washington called Moscow to discuss the situation in Syria. There are no serious alternatives to negotiations.
The discourse in Washington, D.C. makes one skeptical that the U.S. policy community today is up to the task of dealing with Russia in Syria. Large parts of this conversation are trapped in some sort of alternate 1990s reality, when the globe fit comfortably in America’s hand. Their ideas consist mostly of calling for what has been tried and proven ineffective, such as sanctions, missiles, and more aid to the opposition. It was those measures that indecisively prolonged this war to the reality we find ourselves in now. Calls from many, including U.S. diplomats, to use force for coercive effect simply place the United States in a credibility trap wherein Washington ultimately has to attack Assad, even if it does not have a positive effect on the conflict. For now, there will be no military intervention and no cooperation with Russia either.
Pointless proposals are only outdone by reckless calls for a military intervention that risk direct confrontation with a peer nuclear state. The notion that Russia is “bluffing” — advanced by Charles Lister in a recent piece — is most worrisome, demonstrating how far from the Cold War we have come that so many members of the “commentariat” do not understand escalation dynamics and the consequences of their proposals. They think the conflict is one between the small Russian contingent in Syria and U.S. forces in the region rather than a military exchange between the world’s primary nuclear powers. For them, a Russia outside Syria does not exist. I assure you, it does, and we can become painfully familiar with it.
The potential harm of such gambling is far greater than the prospective good that can come of it. Note Russia moving Iskander-M missiles to Kaliningrad as signal of intent to horizontally escalate any conflict in Syria to Europe. Expecting Moscow to bluff in this sort of high-stakes game is like banking your retirement on winning the lottery. I do not want to discourage the responsibility to protect crowd, and perhaps some humanitarian air drops are in order, but when it comes to talking about a game of chicken with Russia, they are in over their heads.
Moscow doubles down because its hand is often weaker, and, thus, they must demonstrate resolve. If you tell them to stop bombing hospitals, they will bomb two the next day. If you threaten a war crimes investigation, they will hit civilians with abandon to show international law has no coercive power. Point being, you are going to get far more people killed than you are liable to save with best intentions. This is an element of Russia’s leadership that our policy community fails to appreciate, its spiteful resolve and capricious escalation. They are playing by a different set of rules.
The sad fact is, it is up to Russia to figure its way out of this mess, corral its allies back together, and make a new proposal. Moscow wanted to play the role of great power in the Middle East, but it seems the crown is a size too big for its head. The Kremlin can deter U.S. intervention, but cannot yet resolve the conflict on its own terms. Whether or not Syrian forces take Aleppo, Russia still has to come back to negotiate a political settlement. There is no alternative for them but to deal with the United States if they do not want their military gains to disappear in the sand.
Believe it or not, I think they will pitch another ceasefire before the year is out. And after all the talk of barbarism and war crimes, the White House will seriously entertain it. With hindsight, we now know that Moscow is not in a position to deal on Syria until Assad has Aleppo. The Kremlin is selling something they do not have in hand in a bid to stall for time. Unfortunately, the United States has no options in Syria but to negotiate with them. Ultimately, the leverage of local actors is the problem in dealing with Russia to resolve this conflict. In the Middle East, neither Moscow nor Washington wields the power it did during the Cold War. Polarity has a much weaker charge these days.
Michael Kofman is a Research Scientist at CNA Corporation and a Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. Previously he served as Program Manager at National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.
Correction: This article originally called the air defense system deployed to Syria as the S-300VM when in fact it is the S-300V4.