Does Putin have a plan for Syria?
US officials are expressing concern that Russia is stepping up its military involvement in Syria. Specific instances they cite include delivery of prefabricated housing units and a portable air traffic control station to a Syrian airfield near Latakia, recent Russian requests for military overflights from neighbouring countries and signs of greater Russian loadings of ships bound for Syria.
Some intelligence analysts, according to the New York Times, say Moscow is preparing to deploy 2,000-3,000 personnel to support the transport of increased Russian weapons supplies to Syrian forces as well as Russian air strikes against opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Those opponents include not just the Islamic State (ISIS), which has been the target of Western air strikes, but groups that US allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been supporting. The possibility that Russian forces might target these latter groups has heightened concerns in Washington.
Moscow recently confirmed that Russian military advisers are in Syria, though it did not specify what the mission might be. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said: “We have always supplied equipment to [Damascus] for their struggle against terrorists. We are supporting them, we were supporting them and we will be supporting them.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration, however, has a track record of downplaying its military moves. It denied that it sent its forces into Crimea in early 2014 (though later admitted that it did) and denied that Russian forces intervened in eastern Ukraine (admitting only to “volunteers” from Russia going there). Russian denials of increased military support for Assad, then, must be viewed sceptically.
Yet the presence of Russian military advisers in Syria and Russian military support for the Assad regime more generally should not be seen as a sign of growing Russian power and influence in the Middle East but, rather, of Russian desperation. Moscow would not be bolstering Assad if it did not see a growing possibility that his regime might lose control over even more of Syria or collapse altogether. Moscow’s aim in increasing military assistance to Damascus may be primarily defensive.
The problem for Moscow, though, is that this effort may be too little, too late. A few thousand Russian military personnel flying air strikes against Assad’s opponents and providing assistance to regime forces may not be enough to prevent the Assad regime from losing further ground.
And it comes at a cost: Increased Russian involvement may scuttle Moscow’s seemingly successful recent efforts to improve ties with Sunni-led governments in the Arab world.
Speaking during Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud’s recent visit to Washington, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir noted, if reports about an increasing Russian military presence are true, “this would represent a serious escalation and a very dangerous escalation”.
Increased Russian presence in Syria would also be a tempting target for many of the Assad regime’s opponents — especially Chechens and others from the North Caucasus fighting there who see Moscow, rather than Damascus, as their main enemy.
And unlike Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014 and eastern Ukraine today, a few thousand Russian forces in Syria would not enjoy an overwhelming military advantage over their opponents.
Moscow may discover that keeping the Assad regime in power in Damascus — or even in just the Alawite heartland along Syria’s Mediterranean coast — will require a much larger effort and, with Russian forces committed in eastern Ukraine, Putin likely wishes to avoid a sustained operation in Syria.
It is more probable that Putin hopes to provide just enough military support to keep the Assad regime afloat to advance his diplomatic aim of convincing Sunni Arabs, Turkey and the West that they should support Putin’s aim of forming a coalition between the Assad regime and non-ISIS opposition forces.
In response to calls from the West and the Middle East for Assad to step down, Zakharova raised a legitimate question: “What is the West planning to do right after? Do they have a magic wand that will transform Syria from civil war to economic prosperity?”
But Moscow’s coalition plan has serious flaws. First and foremost, the Assad regime has been so brutal and is so unpopular that few, if any, of its opponents would be willing to join a coalition with it. In addition, its opponents are rightfully sceptical that Assad would actually share power with them. Assad’s insistence on remaining president and Russian support for him to do so confirm their concerns about this.
And finally, any opposition group that joins a coalition with Assad — even at Western urging, as Putin appears to hope will be forthcoming — would only delegitimise itself and become a target for other opposition groups, including ISIS.
A Russian-backed coalition that the Assad regime dominates is not a realistic solution. While the West has not come up with a workable plan for resolving the conflict in Syria, Russia has not either.