The Meaning of Russia’s Intervention in Syria

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Mideast Syria Russia
A Russian military support crew attaches a satellite guided bomb to SU-34 jet fighter at Hmeimim airbase in Syria. Photo: Alexander Kots/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday night in an interview on 60 Minutes, Obama spoke about his administration’s beleaguered Syria policy, indicating that despite Russia’s new aggression in the country — as well as the subsequent failure of a plan to train and arm some of Syria’s rebels — the U.S. policy moving forward would essentially stay the same: continue to bomb ISIS whenever possible, hope for moderate opposition gains against Assad, and under no circumstances escalate military engagement by U.S. forces. Obama also indicated that his administration had some warning about Russia’s intervention in Syria before it happened, and that the U.S would continue to try to pressure Russia and Iran to help push Assad out. Referring to Putin and the idea that Russia was challenging his leadership, Obama responded, “If you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership.”

Obama isn’t the only one comparing U.S. and Russian policy regarding Syria over the past few weeks, with many worrying that Russia’s foray would lead to a new Cold War — especially since Russian air strikes in Syria have mainly targeted what few opposition forces the Obama administration was comfortable supporting. But why is Russia finally intervening, and will they succeed in their aims? In addition, should the U.S. now consider an alliance with Russia, both to avoid a proxy war, as well as to combine forces against ISIS? Looking at commentary and analysis from a variety of experts, many theories abound.

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A fighter from the Free Syrian Army takes position following clashes with the pro-regime forces, in the old quarter of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.Photo: Ameer Alhalbi/Ameer Alhalbi/NurPhoto

Having watched the 60 Minutes broadcast, Middle East analyst Juan Cole remains deeply skeptical about Obama’s Syria policy, which Cole believes just maintains a modest goal of containing ISIS (also known by its Arabic name, Daesh), rather than pushing for any kind of real solution to the conflict there. However, Cole also acknowledges that among the assortment of mostly jihadist, anti-Assad and/or anti-ISIS fighters, there are next to no palatable allies in Syria for the U.S., a predicament Russia does not share:

In contrast [with Obama], Putin knows what he wants and has an idea about how to achieve it. He is giving air support with helicopter gunships and SU-35 fighter jets to the Syrian Arab Army, Hizbullah guerrillas who have joined the fight in northern Hama and southern Idlib, and Iranian special ops forces. And, there are glimmers of some success. The Syrian Arab Army has taken back several villages north of Hama, with an eye toward an eventual campaign to expel Daesh from Idlib.

The combination of aerial support and local on the ground forces worked for NATO in the former Yugoslava (Clinton got the Serbs to leave the Kosovars alone that way). It also worked for the US in Afghanistan. In the long run Russia may be getting itself into a quagmire. In the short term, they area already containing the western Salafi and al-Qaeda forces from taking Latakia, and perhaps even planning to roll them back. That would be a concrete achievement for Moscow of a sort Obama is lacking.

Put another way, as Fareed Zakaria noted earlier this month in the Washington Post, “the West is against almost every major group fighting in Syria, which makes for moral clarity but strategic incoherence.” A longtime opponent of U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war, Zakaria adds that the main precursor to a successful intervention is an alliance with a capable local force that can be seen as legitimate within the country. Taking a realist stance, he argues that it may be time to just live with Assad, but in doing so also officially break up Syria:

If Obama’s goal is a peaceful, stable, multisectarian democracy, then it requires a vast U.S. commitment on the scale of the Iraq war. If not, Washington has to accept reality and make some hard decisions. The two big ones are whether to stop opposing Assad and whether to accept that Syria is going to be partitioned. If defeating the Islamic State is important, then it has to become the overriding priority, allying with any outside forces that will join the fight. If Assad falls and jihadis take Damascus, that would be worse than if Assad stays. This doesn’t mean providing Assad with any support, but allowing him to create an Alawite enclave in Syria, of a kind that is already forming. The Kurds and moderate Syrians are creating their own safe spaces as well. Even if the civil war ends and a country called Syria remains, these groups will not live all intermingled again.

Indeed, that might be an outcome that Assad, Russia, and Iran could all eventually accept, but if the suggested solution to the intractable mess in Syria and the dangerous rise of ISIS is to ally with Assad and Russia, others believe that would be colossal mistake. For instance, speaking with Foreign Affairs, author and Russia-watcher Gregory Feifer details his complete lack of faith in Putin’s as a potential partner:

Russia’s main military objective in Syria is to complicate the situation on the ground rather than help seek a resolution that would undermine ISIS. Propping up Assad, Russia’s sole Middle East ally, is part of Moscow’s effort to take international center stage. The opposite of cooperation, Putin’s overarching aim is to boost his public approval ratings by frustrating the West. The Kremlin sells this to Russians as restoring Moscow’s Cold War influence—a crucial element in propping up Putin’s corrupt, authoritarian regime at a time when the country is suffering increasing isolation and economic recession.

Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at Brooking’s Center for Middle East Policy, is equally skeptical:

That the United States should work with Russia to fight ISIS presupposes that Russia (and Assad) are genuinely interested in fighting ISIS, which they aren’t. Assad, with Russian backing, has from the beginning avoided targeting ISIS and instead focused his attention—and firepower—on mainstream rebel forces. Russia is now doubling down on that approach. To their credit, this strategy is effective because it persuades many in Western capitals that we should hold our noses and work with Russia, Assad, and Iran against the greater evil: ISIS. This is a bit like working with an arsonist to put out a fire, but some appear to find this sort of thing appealing.

International politics professor Allison Stanger counters with some cold water:

If we can make a deal with Iran, we can also explore the potential for working with Russia to contain the violence and despair that have produced the tidal wave of refugees. Like it or not, Russia is a player in Syria and has been for quite some time; despite the public outcry, there is nothing new there. In the months and years ahead, it will be a principal challenge of U.S. diplomacy to work with other regional state powers to forge some semblance of order out of minimal shared values. That coordinated approach is in the interests of the other major powers as well as of all people who do not embrace ISIS’ definition of a better world. Working with states committed to embarrassing us has been and will be difficult, but it has been done before and the potential to move in a better direction is there.

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A man comforts a woman whose relatives were killed, at a site hit by what activists were airstrikes carried out by the Russian air force in Maasran town, in the southern countryside of Idlib, Syria.Photo: KHALIL ASHAWI/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

But is Russia so far helping or hurting when it comes to ISIS? Regarding Russia’s targeting of almost everyone in Syria opposing Assad except ISIS, as the Guardian’s Kareem Shaheen reports, Russian air strikes have not only hammered opposition fighters and allowed pro-Assad ground forces to advance on rebel-held positions, they have likely led to significant territorial gains for ISIS as well:

Islamic State militants have scored their most significant advances in the province of Aleppo, the closest they have come to Syria’s former commercial capital in two years, as it becomes increasingly clear that they are taking advantage of Russian airstrikes against the rest of the opposition to march into new territory. As Russian planes continued to pound rebel forces in western Aleppo and other frontlines in the country, many of the opposition fighters who ousted Isis from the province at great cost last year found themselves pinned down and unable to halt the terror group’s largely unopposed advance towards the city at the end of last week.

The Daily Beast’s Michael Weiss, analyzing this news, makes the case that the Russians, like Assad’s forces before them, are in effect now acting as ISIS’s air force:

Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst and a military specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says that while he doesn’t doubt that the Russians will eventually set their sights on ISIS, for the time being, it behooves Moscow’s war aims to indirectly allow ISIS to devour U.S.-backed rebels. For one thing, Putin’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s domestic intelligence arm and one of the successors of the former KGB, has actually been helping jihadists in Dagestan emigrate to Syria to join ISIS, the better to lower the temperature on a homegrown Islamic insurgency and also enervate American-led coalition efforts.

Such cold and calculating tactics are already well known to Assad’s opponents in Syria, as analyst Benedetta Berti explained last month in Foreign Affairs. She suggests that “the displacement of people within Syria should be regarded as a deliberate instrument of war”: 

A key part of the Assad regime’s military strategy has been to incapacitate rebel-held areas by targeting the civilian population, destroying the civilian infrastructure, and withholding access to basic public goods. This strategy has been employed from early on in the conflict as a counterinsurgency tool to separate the civilian population from the rebel factions opposing the regime, resulting in mass displacement and sectarianism. As a result schoolshospitalsmarkets, and even refugee camps are some of the most dangerous places within Syria. Civilians have been also deliberately attacked, with 18,000 killed by the regime through bloody and prolonged aerial attacks, often relying on barrel bombs. This strategy has both generated and had an inordinate impact on internally displaced people.

A recent Daily Beast report even made the claim that when looking at what the Russian air strikes have actually hit, Russian forces seem to be using suspiciously imprecise weapons in their campaign thus far, even though they clearly possess the advanced technology capable of greater accuracy. Yet, as The Atlantic’s Adam Chandler pointed out last week, it also seems at times like Russia is not only conducting military operations in Syria, but holding a kind of pageant for its newest and highest-tech (yet never-before-tested-in-wartime) weaponry — though the rest of the world has surely seen America’s past military adventures in a similar, cynical light.

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The launch of a Russian cruise missile at a target in Syria.

Filing for The New Yorker, Masha Lipman checks in on how Putin and his propagandists are selling the Syrian intervention back home:

Watching Russian TV coverage of the operation in Syria, one gets the impression that Putin is emulating not only America’s interventionist policy but also its approach to warfare. A report on Wednesday morning by Channel One, Russia’s most popular TV broadcaster, showed a perfectly sterile war: military jets taking off the tarmac, technicians in neat uniforms servicing the planes, and heavy clouds of smoke above successful strikes. The spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense appeared on air to talk about “a series of high-precision air strikes hitting ammunition depots, armored vehicles, and command posts of the ISIS terrorist groups, which caused panic among the fighters.” The voice-over mentioned “drones and aerospace reconnaissance,” as well as “new losses suffered by the fighters.” This TV image was a war reduced to technological efficiency, with no blood and no unintended casualties. The BBC defense correspondent Jonathan Marcus has suggested that even the use of the sea-launched cruise missiles—which had to fly over Iran—may be “an element of Russia demonstrating that it has the full military panoply of any other ‘superpower,’ ”—because such missiles have been a “U.S. weapon of choice in interventions overseas.”

Furthermore, following her own survey of the Russian media’s coverage, Anna Nemtsova highlights another uncomfortable similarity:

[The message of the] official pro-Kremlin press was relatively simple, and not unlike the refrain of the Bush administration more than a decade ago: “We’re fighting the terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them here.” Or, as Vladimir Soloviyov, a leading commentator on Rossia-1 TV, told his audience, Syria is less than 1,000 kilometers from the Russian frontier: “This is not some faraway conflict. Once finished with Syria, Islamists will come after us.” Even Russian audiences with little idea what jihad might mean, and virtually no concept of Shia versus Sunni, much less the Alawite Assad regime versus the self-proclaimed “caliphate,” could grasp that basic idea.

Satirist Victor Shenderovich said he was convinced that the Kremlin needed the Syria news as an opiate for the masses, to make the public forget internal issues. “War in Syria is a perfect picture: explosions, airplanes,” said Shenderovich. “These are very exciting scenes to watch: Our MiG and Su planes bombing everything makes people feel a bit more confident about their attitude to life, so that they do not want to check what they have in the fridge.”

One televised weather report in Russia even noted the climate in Syria, and how it was a perfect season for some bombing. In addition, the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, now closely allied with Putin, came out in support of the Syrian intervention, calling it a sacred “holy war” to protect Christians in Syria from terrorism.

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A Syrian soldier wrapped in a Syrian flag stands in a damaged house in Achan, Hama province, Syria.Photo: Alexander Kots/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

Meanwhile, Sunni Muslims around the world are less than pleased with Russia’s aggression on behalf of Assad and in alliance with Iran and Hezbollah. One faction of opposition fighters in Syria has already promised to suicide-bomb Russian troops, and in Saudi Arabia, 55 Wahhabi clerics signed a call for jihad on the Russian occupiers of Syria, calling them “fanatical people of the cross” and deliberately reminding some of the Muslim reaction to the Soviet Union’s disastrous invasion of Afghanistan more than three decades ago. That connection is not lost on Russia expert Alexander J. Motyl, who last month foresaw disaster for the country at the end of their new Syrian road, something that would be part of an error-laden pattern for Putin:

Russians used to joke that Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika was a CIA plot to destroy the Soviet Union. I’m beginning to think Vlad Putin is a sleeper agent of the Company. A few more years of his bumbling, and the Russian state may become history. The bottom line is that Russia’s security and strength are significantly worse off today than they were two years ago. And Putin, whom Russians adore, is to blame.

To top it off, Putin has decided to jump from the frying pan into the fire by intervening in Syria. Not just with weapons, but with actual troops. The Assad regime is either doomed, or it can be saved only with massive outside intervention. Wisely, neither the West nor the Arab states want to send in troops. Russia will have to, increasingly. Will Russia be able to defeat ISIS? Probably not. Even if it does, the price it’ll pay in lives and money will be high. You’d think that Putin might have learned from the USSR’s misadventure in Afghanistan and America’s in Iraq. Evidently not—which is exactly what you’d expect from a paranoid, narcissistic, solipsistic fascist leader who doesn’t understand that a declining economy is a brake on foreign interventions.

So why does Putin really want to be there? Many believe it’s a simple regional power play, meant to differentiate Russia from the West and rebuild its stature. As Arab-politics analyst Andrew Tabler theorized to Foreign Policy’s Colum Lynch:

The region is falling apart, and states are collapsing, and the Russians are willing to intervene to protect their interests and assert their power, and the United States is not … [Middle Eastern countries] want assertiveness and consistency, and they have not found that from the Obama administration. Even if you don’t back what the Russians are doing in Syria, people admire them because they are willing to put their money where their mouth is — as well as troops.

In the same FP piece, Egypt expert Michael Hanna adds that Russia is earning “a bizarre kind of grudging respect in parts of the Arab world for what they see as Russian steadfastness and decisiveness in contrast to what they perceive as the dithering of the United States.” He also says that a relationship with Russia is made easier by the fact that “Moscow asks no questions about human rights and democracy and elections — they just don’t care.” 

Elsewhere, The New Yorker’s Masha Lipman sees Putin’s Syria moves as a kind of revenge fantasy against the West for its various interference in Russian affairs, or, at the very least, a kind of trolling of the U.S. and its limitations. Others see it as a ploy to re-seize superpower status and make the world talk and trade with Russia again, or get new concessions in Ukraine — a far more important conflict for the Russian homeland. In The Atlantic, Edward Delman argues that the Russian naval base in the Syrian city of Tartus is of utmost importance to Russia’s long-term defense goals, and indeed the two countries have been military allies for a very long time, so there is considerable precedent for Russia protecting Assad — especially if they thought his regime was finally in real danger after recent opposition gains. Then again, some people just think Putin is insane, or a genius, or a moron, or — if you’re a Republican presidential candidate — smarter than Obama. Time will tell.

One thing seems certain, however: This intervention, like all interventions, is unlikely to go as Russia plans. Foreign Affairs’ Dmitry Adamsky explains:

Making waves is easier than controlling them. For Moscow, the main risk in Syria is overextension. During the initial surge against ISIS, the coalition is likely to rally around their common goal. But as the campaign wears on, and especially if situation in the Assad-held parts of Syria stabilizes, the interests of coalition members may diverge. Iran and Syria may seek to take the battle further eastward and northward, hoping to fully restore Syria to Assad. Moscow may have more limited goals and will seek to switch to settlement and stabilization as soon as possible. If Moscow is unable to facilitate a political solution and cannot impose its will on its allies, they may drag Russia deeper into fighting. The same may occur if the campaign, for whatever reason, does not progress as planned and demands more investment. The Kremlin probably realizes that its Shia coalition with Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, and Iraq may galvanize the Sunnis against them, even precipitating an alliance of ISIS and other radical armed groups. The risk is all the greater given that Moscow does not differentiate between moderate and extremist rebels and qualifies any anti-Assad combatants as terrorists—as the targets of strikes to date make clear.

Even if Moscow is aware of the dangers and wants to avoid the culminating point of intervention, it is unclear whether the current campaign in Syria will go as smoothly as Russia thinks. Still, it is worth keeping in mind an old adage: Russia is never as strong as it seems and is never as weak as it appears.