Russia’s costly success in Syria
A number of observers — including US President Barack Obama — have said Russian actions in Syria is leading Moscow into a quagmire. However, as Michael Kofman of Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Centre recently argued, Moscow’s intervention has succeeded in protecting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and reclaiming territory it had lost to the opposition. Russia appears to be in position for further success.
There are many factors to explain this state of affairs but one of the most important is that the Obama administration has pursued disparate, even conflicting, goals in Syria while Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies have been focused on one specific end.
The Obama administration has three goals in Syria: 1) Assad’s downfall; 2) the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and; 3) the avoidance of major direct American military involvement.
The Obama administration’s actions have revealed how it prioritises these three goals: The highest priority has been to avoid becoming bogged down in a military quagmire. The emphasis that the administration has placed on this goal has severely limited the extent to which it can pursue the other two goals.
After this, Obama has prioritised the fight against ISIS over the downfall of Assad, as demonstrated by the administration’s allocation of military resources to the fight against ISIS but virtually none to dealing with Assad.
Some of Washington’s Middle East allies are far more serious about the downfall of the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia, though, has been distracted from pursuing this goal by its military intervention in Yemen, which clearly must be a higher priority to Riyadh than is Syria. Indeed, the problems that Riyadh is experiencing with its military intervention in Riyadh raise doubts about its ability to effectively intervene in Syria simultaneously. Similarly, while Turkey also seeks the downfall of Assad, it is increasingly prioritising its conflict with the Kurds, both in Syria and in Turkey.
Putin, by contrast, has focused on protecting the Assad regime against its most immediate threat: the non-ISIS opposition forces, including those receiving (relatively little) support from the United States and (relatively more) from regional allies.
But protecting the Assad regime (if not necessarily Assad himself) is not Putin’s only goal. He undoubtedly wants to avoid getting militarily bogged down in Syria. His ability to support Assad while avoiding a quagmire has been greatly enhanced by the Obama administration’s making avoidance of a quagmire its foremost goal and by the unwillingness of US allies to become further involved in Syria independent of larger US involvement.
Putin has stated repeatedly that ISIS is a threat, not just to the Assad regime but to Russia as well. That the United States and its allies are devoting their limited military efforts in Syria to combating ISIS has meant that Moscow has not had to focus on targeting ISIS to defend the Assad regime. In any event, ISIS is less of an immediate threat to Assad’s survival than are his non-ISIS opponents.
Moscow, then, succeeded in defending the Assad regime because the United States and its allies have pursued diffuse goals in Syria.
Nevertheless, while Russia has taken advantage of Washington’s lack of focus, it remains to be seen how far Putin can go with this strategy.
If, for example, Russian and Assad regime forces (along with those from Iran and Hezbollah) succeed in defeating the non- ISIS opposition, will Moscow be willing to fight ISIS, which, like Assad, benefits from Moscow’s focus on targeting the non-ISIS opposition? Or will Moscow make an ignominious, even if tacit, deal with the devil and allow ISIS to have free rein in eastern Syria in return for not challenging Assad regime rule over western Syria?
Even if Moscow stabilises Assad’s rule over all or part of Syria, will control by an oppressive, unpopular minority Alawite regime mean that Russian forces must remain in Syria indefinitely to prevent the Sunni Arab majority and other opponents from rising up again after they depart?
How will Russian intervention in Syria, no matter how successful it is, affect Russia’s relations with predominantly Sunni countries that see Moscow’s actions as not just supporting an anti- Sunni regime in Syria but also strengthening Shia Iran? And what will be the consequences for Moscow of continued hostile relations with Turkey, which need not have deteriorated had Moscow not allowed its aircraft to fly so near the Turkish-Syrian border?
Finally, the extent to which Russia has been militarily successful in Syria, and may continue to be, has not improved Russia’s dire economic straits resulting from low oil prices and Western sanctions. Ultimately, Putin’s success in Syria may well result in significant costs and relatively limited long-term benefits for Russia.