What Syria Ought to Teach America About Competition with Russia
Russia has quite the mess on its hands in Syria and any hope of a clean exit from the country is far-fetched. Moscow has achieved its top-line military objectives in Syria — the defense of the Assad regime — and has shown that it has the resources to intervene in a third-party civil war. However, it has yet to demonstrate a capability to negotiate an end to the war and it is anyone’s guess how well Russia will deal with an open-ended insurgency that will surely drag on in parts of Syria. If Washington is serious about engaging in an open-ended competition with Moscow, it is time to think about how to make Russia own the costs of victory by letting them win.
Since President Donald Trump ordered American troops to withdraw from the Turkish-Syrian border in October 2019, the Russian Federation has taken advantage, deploying their forces to locations along the border that the United States had once occupied. The sight of the Russian tricolor flag flying above abandoned U.S. military bases has come to symbolize the ongoing narrative of America’s retreat around the world and the rise of Russia in the Middle East. This imagery has fed a narrative in the United States that depicts Russian President Vladimir Putin as some sort of evil genius, running circles around the West, and Russian military police patrols in rural Syria as indicative of Russian regional supremacy and America’s regional defeat.
Russia has established itself as a major player in the Middle East, but this is not the result of some brilliant master plan. There are costs associated with Moscow’s actions in Syria, but Washington is not seeking to exploit them. Russia has achieved its goals — namely the defense of the Syrian state under Bashar al-Assad — but still faces years of combat to definitively quell the anti-Damascus insurgency. This does not mean Russia is mired in a quagmire. It is not. It also does not mean that Russia has gained nothing from its intervention in Syria. It has. But these gains are on the periphery of American national interests. Russia’s acceptance of open-ended and messy political processes can be turned into Washington’s advantage, but only if it accepts Moscow’s territorial gains in Syria and seeks to impose a cost in ways not currently being considered by officials in charge of American strategy in the Middle East.
At the heart of this is how the United States ought to adapt its thinking about competition with Russia in order to develop (and stick to) a strategy that seeks to reshape how Moscow spends finite resources. This approach is not new. It is derivative of traditional competitive strategy, outlined during the Cold War to frame how the United States should exploit its competitive advantages with the Soviet Union, and to try and shape how Washington would like Moscow to spend money. Syria is not — and never truly has been — a core American priority. There was reason to fight the Islamic State, but the group has been militarily defeated. ISIL is likely to return, either as a localized insurgent movement or a terrorist organization interested in attacking the West (or a combination of both). But when this happens, it should not fundamentally change U.S. strategy with respect to Russia and its pursuit of a policy of long-term competition with large state competitors.
This may seem strange, but the United States has ample incentive to encourage a large Russian military presence in Syria. Washington should realize that any such effort requires money, and a ruble spent on a broken state, or to support even a relatively small Russian presence to quell an insurgency to support a war that Moscow felt compelled to fight because its regional ally is so weak is advantageous for the United States. In an era where both powers are projected to have flat defense budgets, Washington should think creatively about how it would want Moscow to spend resources and then encourage them to do so. At the same time, the United States should evaluate how it sends its own finite resources to then determine how best to engage in long term competition with a capable adversary in areas defined as a core national interest.
Updating Assumptions: Looking Back at Russia’s Intervention
The United States overlooked a series of factors that, together, prompted Moscow’s military intervention in Syria. Russian-Syrian ties are far more robust than most had thought before the war, and Moscow’s gains in the country will have a favorable impact on its naval operations in the Mediterranean and have already yielded many lessons learned for Moscow’s ground and air forces. After years of investment, Russia has proved that it has made the investments needed to sustain expeditionary warfare and has made the critical political decision to test these capabilities far from its borders for the first time since the failed Afghanistan war.
Further, once Moscow did militarily intervene, most underestimated Russian military capabilities, focusing on their lack of precision guided munitions as the metric for military performance, with some analysis suggesting that Moscow had signed up for a military quagmire. Russia is not in a military quagmire and its intervention in Syria has been small and highly circumscribed, most likely to avoid the very types of state building boondoggles that have plagued the United States since 9/11 and which the Soviet Union faced in Afghanistan. Instead, Russian actions have featured small numbers of ground forces and overwhelming air power to enable offensive operations — tactics reminiscent of those favored in the United States.
It is important to note that the Russian campaign has not been entirely successful. Instead, Russia has succeeded in its military’s core mission: The defense of the Assad regime. However, it is important to note that Russia has been involved in combat operations inside Syria for close to 4.5 years, performed poorly in remote areas far from its main base in Syria’s west, and still faces months of fighting in support of the Syrian Arab Army in Idlib. A narrow military victory over the remnants of the insurgents in Idlib is likely to happen this summer, or as part of some nebulous agreement with Turkey. However, once the regime retakes this territory, Moscow will still be faced with ensuring security from a diffuse and radicalized insurgency, marrying these military victories to a political outcome that Russia can live with, and, importantly, convincing the Syrian regime to accept.
On this front, Russia has had less success, largely because it is dependent on consensus between Ankara and Damascus, two hostile actors that share few (if any) interests. Turkey has given support to the armed opposition since 2012 and (in its diplomatic talks with Russia) has assumed a guarantor role for the anti-Assad opposition. Moscow in turn has guaranteed regime security, and is committed to making life so miserable for the opposition that their choices are either to surrender to the regime or face death at the other end of a Russian-made weapon. Still, Turkey and Russia are involved in a political dialogue, dubbed the Astana process, that is now centered in Geneva and focused on finding consensus on changes to the Syrian constitution. However, this process has little hope for success because the two blocks remain fundamentally at odds and the regime has pledged to completely defeat them.
The Russian state may be satisfied with these minimal political gains, believing that its entente with Turkey is a useful outcome to counter the United States, and that a military victory is “good enough” to have deepened Russian influence. This may be true. However, it also of secondary importance for the United States. Syria has been a Russian client for decades and that is not likely to change, nor should Washington anguish over its inability to realize such a change. The United States, too, does not have an incentive to micromanage a poorly run peace process. It does, however, have an incentive to increase the costs for Moscow of its own military victory. Thus, while Russia may have enabled the regime’s territorial defeat of an insurgency, there is no escaping that its future management of this failed state will have direct and indirect costs for the Russian government — even if those costs are manageable for Moscow.
Bending the Cost Curve: Calculating Costs and Imposing it on Others
It is this nuance that the United States and its allies should consider, especially when trying to craft an implementable strategy in Syria, and drive thinking about how and where it would be most beneficial for America for Russia to spend finite defense resources. As Michael Kofman and Richard Connolly wrote in these pages, “Measuring military power is fraught with difficulty because it can be so context-driven and scenario-based,” but that when analyzing Russian defense spending, as compared to the United States, it is best to use Price Purchasing Parity (PPP). Using this method, both Kofman and Connolly argue that Russia defense spending is more robust than is commonly believed, but also that it has plateaued in recent years because Russia is at the tail end of a procurement cycle and is committed to avoiding the runaway defense costs of the type that bankrupted the Soviet Union.
These twin insights are important mostly because they indicate that Russia will retain the capability to deploy and use force beyond its borders, particularly in areas where its interests are stake. This approach fits nicely with Kofman’s description of Russian policy as “raiding,” which rests “on deterring the high-end conventional fight and restoring nuclear coercive credibility” to allow for Moscow to intervene in more unpredictable and cost effective ways. To counter such a strategy, the first step requires identifying where Russian interests are most acute and areas where they could consider using force to drive outcomes in its favor. These assumptions should then inform American thinking about which of these potential areas are most critical for U.S. strategic interests — and where to invest in order to shore up areas vulnerable to Russian coercion. This strategy would assign more weight to, say, the Baltic states and Europe, over Syria. It also entails revisiting common U.S. assumptions about its own use of force abroad and considering how any such action could prompt Russian counter escalation in areas where there are competing interests, such as in Libya.
American and European policymakers should also think about how, in an era of flat Russian defense spending, its actions can coerce Russia into spending money in astrategic ways. This approach must also look inward and realize that American defense spending is high, while deficits are large (and growing) because of poor tax policy. This suggests that, in the near-to-medium term, it is almost certain that the U.S. defense budget will be cut, or remain stagnant, even if European defense budgets continue to grow to attend to the poor state of most European militaries.
As a basic measure, one has to ask: Is Syria worth it? And how can one make that determination? The standard counter, of course, is that Syria is a venue to challenge America’s regional foe, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and that any American withdrawal would empower a hostile foe. This approach, again, ascribes strategy to a zero-sum game, dependent on denying space to an adversary to measure strategic success. This way of thinking is not strategic at all. Instead, it falls victim to the same mindset that underpins thinking about American options in Syria and whether denying Assad a victory is advantageous for U.S. policy. It is not. Largely because the war in Syria and the “maximum pressure” campaign to economically isolate Iran requires significant investments in the American military presence in the Middle East, all of which decreases the availability of systems and equipment for deployment elsewhere in Europe. It also has secondary costs, all of which contribute to a poor allocation of U.S. resources, as compared to the priorities enumerated in the National Defense Strategy.
This spin, however, does not consider the cumulative cost of American-led wars after 9/11, and how continued military action drives up indirect costs, such as the of military equipment and the deleterious impact that near-constant deployment has had on the entirety of the armed forces. With this in mind, the better way to judge the costs of intervention is to consider how the use of force has contributed to a lack of military readiness, driving up the costs of maintaining current military assets as newer systems come slowly online. Thus, to more accurately measure the cost of intervention, beyond the notional risk of unintended escalation, is to weigh the total costs against a value assigned to a political or military outcome, and then make a determination about whether the use of force makes strategic sense. This debate would, in theory, attach values to American interests, allowing for some metric to be used to more accurately capture the total costs of U.S. military action. This measure could help to enhance the debate before force is used and, importantly, to underscore how elements of the budget are spent in support of such actions.
At the same time, the cost to maintain the Russian armed forces is less than those in the United States, making the comparative cost of small military operations — as is the case for both Moscow and Washington — greater for America, and less for Russia. This cost, then, has to be married to unquantifiable strategic outcomes, which in the Syrian case also favor Moscow because Russia need only provide foreign internal defense (a straightforward task), while the United States is mired in a complicated unconventional warfare campaign. Thus, if one truly stops and thinks about the cost curve, the United States is spending more than Russia when it intervenes, and the outcomes of its intervention are just as murky as those in Moscow. This is a losing proposition for Washington.
Knowing this, it would be better to only commit resources to conflicts where American goals are clear, and where the total costs of action outweigh those of inaction. And, in areas where Russia has intervened, consider whether Moscow’s own expenses can be deemed advantageous. There are clear benefits to a large Russian presence in Syria for the United States if one thinks about the total costs of these deployments, as compared to the expected outcome. If, as Kofman and Connolly argue, Russian defense spending is flat, and if Moscow is at the end of an expansionary budgetary cycle, it behooves the West to consider how even a small Russian expenditure in Syria impacts overall military spending. And that the money being spent is allocated to a conflict Moscow has not yet won, and which will require some form of open ended commitment to rebuild the core pillars of the state once major combat is over.
Coercive Diplomacy and Playing the Long Game
This does not mean that Washington stands aside and invites Russia to intervene around the world, or that America plays no role on diplomatic talks surrounding the conflict in Syria. Instead, it should be used to challenge simplistic, zero-sum thinking about regional influence, and whether the fact that Russian troops deploy to places the United States has vacated in Syria is anything more than Moscow taking on a greater burden to police areas in Syria that ISIL was once dominant. This task is not easy. It entails working with antagonistic local actors, and is dependent on expanding military capabilities further east. Russia’s decision is not cost-free and, if Moscow remains committed to defending Assad and assuaging its wary neighbor, Turkey, it is not something that can be wound down easily.
The United States, in this regard, shares considerable interests with Europe — and this very basic fact should frame how Washington thinks about coercing Russia. Both Washington and Brussels care more about the residual ISIL threat than does Moscow. The two sides also share an interest in codifying existing arrangements to share information about suspected ISIL members that traveled to the conflict zone, but may now be part of the refugee population in Turkey and are seeking to return to their countries of origin. These synergies, however, are often lost amidst ongoing political dysfunction in Washington. The Trump administration has a tendency to dismiss European concerns, either because they do not care or because they are unwilling to compromise on ancillary American security interests — like Iran policy — which have clouded the Syria debate and undermined efforts to re-allocate resources to deploy in more geo-strategically important locations, like Asia and Europe.
This is a shame because there is, in fact, considerable overlap and avenues for diplomatic engagement. Inside Syria, the United States could try and narrow its goals, focusing only on ISIL, and accepting that the regime will remain in power. This approach would allow for more productive dialogue with Russia, which will eventually inherit indirect responsibility for security in Syria’s east. If one accepts this inevitability, it becomes easier to reconcile talks with Russia geared toward preventing the release, or managing the repatriation, of ISIL fighters in some sort of coordinated fashion.
As part of this effort, it would be beneficial to harmonize the American and European positions, before ultimately having to grapple with the future of the Syrian Kurds, whom the United States have partnered with and whose political future remains murky. To truly address this topic, Washington would have to accept that the current political status quo would remain in place, and work to shape the post-conflict outcome in a way that is most beneficial for its partner force.
To truly coerce Russia, the United States would have to offer Moscow some incentives for positive outcomes. The question then is where and how can the United States do this. At a very basic level, the United States has two interests in Syria: The management of the residual ISIL threat and stemming the use and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Russia has hindered these twin efforts, despite maintaining that it also has an interest in counter-terrorism and nonproliferation.
Exploiting Russia’s Hypocrisy with Action Is the Best Available Option
The lowest-hanging fruit is to focus, again, on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and continued violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). In 2013, as part of a bilateral U.S.-Russian agreement, the Syrian regime agreed to declare its chemical weapons stockpiles and for those stockpiles to then be destroyed. The regime lied when it made its chemical weapons declaration and after efforts were successfully undertaken to destroy its declared stockpiles, it continued to use chemical weapons. Russia has failed to uphold its end of the bargain. This provides the United States with some leverage that it should exploit. The United States should sanction Russian entities that support Syria’s chemical weapons delivery systems, which mostly utilize Russian vintage aircraft. Any maintenance support from Russia for these aircraft should be targeted, until such a time that Assad verifiably disarms, per Russia’s pledge in 2013 and as outlined in the CWC. Until such time, the sanctions would remain in place, driving up the cost for Russia to support rogue chemical weapons use.
The United States, however, ought to accept the limits of sanctions and realize that coercion depends on a pathway to reward. Russia has been sanctioned many times, but continues to act in Syria and to project power in its near abroad despite sanctions that have negatively impacted their defense industry. The lesson, of course, is that sanctions do not stop a determined actor, even if they do impose some modicum of cost for negative action. Knowing this, the United States has a much more difficult task ahead of it: defining how it would remove sanctions on Russia and what Washington would demand in return. This approach would offer a positive inducement to win concessions on a conflict outside of America’s core interests. It also has the advantage of flipping the dynamics in Syria so that the United States had less to lose than Russia. A U.S. concession for a Russian pledge to tackle core priorities, like terrorism and WMD proliferation, costs America very little and shunts the responsibility for outcomes to Moscow. This is the very definition of playing with house money because the expected Russian counter-ask would be to not meddle in Syria, or to cooperate with them on these two issues. The United States can and should explore how to reinvigorate work on WMD nonproliferation. However, Moscow is on the hook for keeping the peace in Syria, including managing the likely an open-ended insurgency.
The United States has the tools to take advantage of Russian missteps in its own wars of choice, but only if it acknowledges that any such competition requires rethinking how outcomes are measured. Washington does not have the power to “deter” Russia in every part of the globe and, if Moscow makes the choice to intervene, the United States has few tools to stop them from acting. This aspect of Russia’s raiding policy is effective, but also has the potential to be costly. At its core, brigandry requires constant action for little gain. In Syria, the ultimate prize is assuming greater responsibility for a broken state, rebuilding elements of the state, and remaining embedded with Syrian forces to secure territory taken.
The Russian government’s recent emphasis on intervention has yielded some positive results, but the reality in Syria suggests continued combat before transitioning to a more pronounced counter-insurgent campaign, and open-ended negotiations with Turkey on behalf of the last vestiges of the opposition. These talks will not be easy, nor straightforward, and will entail some tradeoffs that will require Russia to deliver the regime. Russia has managed to control the costs and risks associated with its interventions because it has used force in places where it can safely assume that Western pushback will be limited.
Western restraint stems from the facts that Russian actions are outside core areas and that the secondary risks to the Alliance’s interests are manageable. Washington and Brussels have also chosen to respond asymmetrically, spending resources to defend Europe rather than to chase Moscow in Syria. This is a valuable lesson, precisely because it breaks free of treating small wars as a zero-sum game, and it should be used as a template for thinking about how best to compete in the future. Ultimately, Washington should consider that even a small Russian financial outlay spent on a faraway war could be beneficial for the United States, precisely because it forces choices on Moscow’s future procurement, perhaps making it more costly to purchase increasingly threatening military hardware.
Further, to then account for the gains that Russia has made, the United States should use Moscow’s regional raiding to allocate resources towards core national interests in Europe. This approach would necessarily accept that this effort will be open-ended and take time to implement, but would be part of a broader effort to effectively counter Russia’s current regional strategy. It is also contingent on taking a longer view of this competition, recognizing that in the near term, the United States has an incentive to try and effectively use resources to its own advantage, as well as try to exploit where Russia may be spending in ways that are less concerning for core American security interests.
Aaron Stein is the Director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
(Image: Russian Ministry of Defense)