The shadow of Russia’s Afghan disaster hovers over Syria

Moscow’s policy of ethnic divide-and-rule and of bolstering the authoritarian state risks backfiring.
Sunday 25/03/2018
Russian soldiers stand near a vehicle bearing images of Syrian, Russian and Chechnyan leaders in the area of Abu al-Duhur, on March 4. (AFP)
Risky gamble. Russian soldiers stand near a vehicle bearing images of Syrian, Russian and Chechnyan leaders in the area of Abu al-Duhur, on March 4. (AFP)

Three months have passed since Russian President Vladimir Putin lauded his forces’ victory in Syria. Yet, Moscow remains more enmeshed within the Syrian quagmire than ever before, whether in lockstep with Syria’s government forces battling a mostly Sunni insurgency or in the north and south of the country where a myriad of peripheral wars appears to be emerging.

Across Syria the stakes are rising, evidenced not least by Russia’s threat to retaliate in case of a US attack on Syrian government interests.

The further Russia becomes involved within Syria’s war, however, the more vivid the public memories of the Soviet bloc’s disastrous intervention into Afghanistan become.

Many differences exist between Moscow’s experiences in Syria and that of the Soviet Union’s 1979 intervention in Afghanistan. Unlike Afghanistan, where the Soviet Union was fighting several anti-Soviet Islamic forces, united against what they perceived as a foreign aggressor, in Syria Russia is battling different opposition factions with various and competing agendas.

A further complication in Syria, yet one that plays to Moscow’s advantage, lies in its relationship with the region’s equally diverse powers. Countries such as Israel and Turkey, all deeply vested in the Syrian conflict, regard Russia as a credible interlocutor and a buffer to Iranian aspirations.

Further differing the current conflict from its Afghan predecessor is the extent of Russia’s deployment. The Moscow discussion group Valdai said that as of 2017 Russia’s military commitment to Syria extended only so far as special forces units, 25 aircraft and helicopters, SU-35 fighter jets, air defence, police and engineering troops. All told, a figure markedly short of the 30,000 or so troops sent to Afghanistan in 1979.

The reaction of the West to Russian intervention in Syria has been more muted than to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. In the Afghan war, the CIA along with Arab countries supplied the mujahideen with funding and military hardware. However, in Syria, Western and Arab support has decreased significantly over the past two years as priority has been given to the war on the Islamic State (ISIS) and that in Yemen.

For Putin, the main aim of Russian involvement in Syria — the consolidation of Assad’s rule over the country — appears to be drawing near, with the Syrian president in control of about 65% of the country.

Putin’s gamble appears to be paying off. However, as in Afghanistan, several false assumptions could return to dog his heels. In the late 1970s, the Soviet Union did not fully appreciate the complexities of the Afghan culture and society that it was imposing its vision upon.

Likewise, in Syria, Putin believes he can institute peace by force.That the Sochi peace process has been replaced by blunt force can be seen in the slaughter in Eastern Ghouta.

Putin has also labelled the majority Sunni opposition as “terrorists” and the Alawite regime as the “legitimate Syrian government.” In doing so, Moscow’s policy of ethnic divide-and-rule and of bolstering the authoritarian state risks backfiring if the war continues for much longer.

However, Russian International Affairs Council expert Max Suchkov said Russia’s peace efforts may not be entirely dead in the water. Suchkov explained via e-mail how the US response to events in Eastern Ghouta might provide observers with a “litmus test” of how a potential “post-ISIS American Syria policy” might pan out.

In addition, should the war continue beyond its current stage, the escalating conflict risks drawing Moscow away from its intended surgical intervention and into a much larger military commitment.

Earlier this year, Turkey began Operation Olive Branch in north-western Syria, determined to reclaim the Kurdish Afrin region. Similarly, Syria’s north-east has also proven problematic, with the United States occupying much of the fertile and oil-rich territory that Russia, the regime and its allies sorely need.

In February, heavy US artillery targeted pro-government forces attempting to capture an oil refinery to the east of the Euphrates, resulting in heavy casualties among the Russian mercenaries from the so-called Wagner group supporting the regime forces. This, combined with the dire warning of retaliation in the event of a US strike on its forces in Damascus, provides an indication of how distant total victory remains and of how tangible the shadow of Afghanistan lies.

“That certainly is a risk that top decision makers in Russia are aware of and would like to avoid. My sense is after the March 18 Russian election, Moscow is likely to be amending its Syria policies; yet I don’t think it would imply a departure from Assad,” Suchkov said.

Without reverting to a legitimate peace process, with or without Assad, the current situation is untenable. Even if Assad is capable of recapturing all of Syria, he will be faced with a low-level insurgency that will do little to advance Russia’s long-term goals.

As the Soviet Union learned in Afghanistan, big countries rarely wage small wars. For Putin and contemporary Russia, the gamble remains and the stakes are increasing.