In-Depth: Implications for Russia’s Intervention in Syria

Russia’s military buildup in Syria both caught the West by surprise and elicited a sigh of relief from the Middle East. Is this the first indication of a Russian-led coalition being formed to counter ISIS? 

U.S. policies and action against the Islamic State (IS) are unraveling as numerous scandals highlight its inability to counter the growing jihadi threat.  A combination of ineffective policies, unwillingness to commit further resources, and the subsequent lack of leadership in the conflict is prompting Middle Eastern nations to look elsewhere for leadership. Russia’s buildup in Syria is indicative of both its growing influence in the Middle East and the West’s withdrawal, and Moscow has much to gain from its intervention.


The War So Far

For over 13 months, the U.S. has waged an undeclared air war on the Islamic State (IS) through Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR). For a limited engagement, the initiative has achieved some admirable results – as of 8 September, the U.S. and its Allied forces have flown over 53 thousand sorties, destroyed over 10 thousand targets as of 7 August, and virtually halted IS’s advance towards Baghdad and Erbil. These results have been achieved for the modest sum of USD 4 billion, a bargain for the war-weary Americans compared to the average cost of deploying a single brigade combat team to Iraq for a year (average USD 8.2 billion in 2008).

The bad news for the West is that, similar to the Vietnam war, which adopted similar body count policies as a measurement of success, virtually all other strategic aspects of the campaign against IS are being underemphasized or understated. IS recruitment continues to grow exponentially, its civil services provide an attractive alternative to established governments for local populations, and its diverse revenue stream is largely protected from losses in refined oil sales.

IS’s apparent strength is coupled with a lukewarm response from the West, which has hesitated to commit more time or resources for fear of mission creep. Even U.S. President Obama only announced an official strategy to combat the jihadist group in June 2015, 10 months after the air campaign began, and the strategy, which seeks to “harness all elements of American power across our government,” is ambiguous and generic at best. Where the West is faltering, however, Russia may be finding opportunity.


Carrying a Small Stick

A well documented but fundamental flaw of the West’s strategy has been its failure to outline objectives by which it can attain its long-term goal of toppling IS. Local divisions hinder the international community’s ability to present a unified front against the jihadists, and militias like the Peshmerga are understood to be unwilling to fight beyond their own borders.

IS emerged from the power vacuum left by American forces after the U.S.’s withdrawal from Iraq, putting the Obama administration in an awkward political position as far as determining how the inevitable post-IS void will be filled. If the U.S. does not support Assad, a likely scenario given Assad’s history of human rights abuses, then its only options are to support the fractured rebellion, which could factionalize upon receiving power and recreate the entire conflict, or to enforce peace through another long and costly intervention. None of these options are appealing to the U.S., possibly explaining its hesitation to intervene more directly like it did in Libya in favor of a “wait and see” containment strategy.

This also explains a number of serious allegations concerning intelligence analyses at U.S. Central Command, which maintains ownership of American military assets in the Middle East. According to the Daily Beast, over 50 analysts have submitted formal complaints alleging that senior officials purposefully altered analyses given to administration officials, including the President, to create the impression that OIR was successfully routing IS when the truth was actually the opposite. Investigations into the matter are ongoing and may reveal that the distortions were prompted purely by self-interested officials, though the implications of the alternate are worth noting.


Forming a Coalition

Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority, and the Syrian National Coalition have all held high-level talks with Russia over the last few months, and a number of those talks directly addressed forming a coalition against IS. More recently, and to the surprise of many foreign policy analysts, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu met with Putin and agreed to coordinate their countries’ military efforts in Syria.

Russia has not officially declared itself the leader of any coalition initiative, but it does appear to be the central entity in negotiations. King Abdullah of Jordan went on record to emphasize Moscow’s “vital role” in bringing together rival groups to find a solution for the Middle East. The fact that any leader of a Middle Eastern coalition must hail from beyond the Middle East can be assumed – bringing together nations with centuries of differences to fight a common enemy is one thing, granting one of them leadership over the others is another.

The outcome of these talks has been that - surprisingly - leaders from Shia, Sunni, and Jewish-dominated nations all support the idea of a coalition. This is not to say that a peaceful resolution to Islamic and Jewish sectarian differences is on the horizon, or that strategic maneuvering to gain the upper hand over rival groups will cease, but the significance of these agreements should not go unnoticed.


Waning Influence

In the context of U.S. involvement, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu talked over the phone for the first time in over a year to discuss the conflict. The order of events that occurred is extremely indicative of who has the upper hand – Russia made the first move by moving troops and equipment into Syria; the U.S. approached Russia afterwards to ask for some form of coordination.

Further highlighting the U.S.’s withdrawal from a leadership position, ambitions for America’s program of training and developing militia groups have been significantly scaled back. The initiative, which from the start was controversial because the rebels were tasked with fighting IS and not Assad’s forces, produced a meager number of troops who were immediately set upon by the Nusra front, an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. A few days ago, the Pentagon revealed that its fighters in fact not only surrendered to al-Nusra but also handed over large amounts of weaponry, ammunition, and several vehicles.

Currently, the Pentagon is debating whether to insert future graduates of its program into less volatile regions or to wait until a larger force can be produced; no official estimates of a timeline for this latter option have been released. As to the program’s current status, U.S. General Lloyd Austin, the commander of Central Command, informed the Senate Armed Services Committee that only four or five militiamen are still in the fight and only 100 to 120 are currently in training.

As to the status of the U.S.’s troops currently on the ground, the situation gets stranger. U.S. forces and an Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia group are sharing Taqqadum base in Iraq. The group, led by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of Hezbollah’s Iraq branch, is known to have participated in the Iraqi insurgency following Saddam Hussein’s overthrow. Even stranger, political backlash in the U.S. has been minimal and limited to a number of little-publicized political statements made by several Congressmen.

The main takeaway is that the U.S.’s appeal to Moscow, acceptance of hostile groups in proximity to its own, and scaling back of training programs suggests that it currently does not and will not seek to play the leading role in the conflict. Moreover, Middle Eastern entities, spanning both international and religious divides, have agreed to temporarily act in unison against a common enemy, however remain unlikely to accede the leading role to one another. This role appears to be Russia’s aim, and Russia has much to benefit from shouldering the burden.


Looking Forward

Though Russia’s long-term support for the Assad regime has been well documented, it now appears Russian military personnel and aircraft are actually reconnoitering and possibly engaging with the enemy. Furthermore, construction is underway to establish a new forward operating base complete with an airfield, and some powerful Russian weaponry is being moved into play. Initial concern from the international community quickly faded into the background, so it’s virtually certain that Russia’s buildup and actions will go relatively unchallenged by the other world powers. The question that remains to be answered is simply, why?

Concerning short-term implications, Russia is heavily invested in Syria. The country plays host to Russia’s last military base in the region, has been a significant, though not critical, trading partner, and is perhaps the last Middle Eastern nation over which Russia holds enough influence to instigate a regime change for its own political gain.

More importantly, intervention is Syria is potentially vital to Russia’s domestic security. Thousands of Chechens, predominately Islamic Russians hailing from the North Caucasus, have flocked to join IS in Syria. Unlike Western nations, however, there is no discussion of reintegration in Russia, and many now find themselves more amenable to taking up arms against their country in Ukraine than returning home to face the consequences. Chechnya has been both a thorn in Moscow’s side and the subject of incomprehensible brutality from the Kremlin for centuries; the region’s history of revolt means that any rise of militarism can be expected to be taken extremely seriously.

Moreover, Russia’s participation in Syria creates a multitude of new possibilities and angles to leverage in the international arena. Fighting IS will no doubt draw attention away from Assad and Russia’s own human rights issues, and allow Putin to negotiate from a stronger position. A full, or even majority, repeal of international sanctions remains highly unlikely, though a number of the more damaging ones will likely be quietly lifted.


Looking Farther Forward

It’s tempting to draw parallels between Russia’s current deployment and those of it’s 1980s engagement in Afghanistan or the U.S.’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to argue that Russia will inevitably become overwhelmed by the strains of unconventional warfare, however one vital difference will likely produce a more positive outcome. Every previous foray into the Middle East by outside powers has sought to create and sustain a puppet government – this time, Russia is supporting a regime that has held power since the turn of the century and has shown its willingness to brutally suppress rebellious populations. Assad, though deplorable for the human rights abuses committed by his government, no doubt has the ability to enforce and retain sovereignty in recaptured lands.

Furthermore, a number of interesting side discussions have popped up concerning the possibility of Russia joining OPEC. So far Moscow has either responded with a definitive ‘no’ or avoided commenting, though its answers thus far have been given from positions of weakness; its intervention and potential leadership role would allow Putin to bargain from a much stronger position. This is not to say that Russia will formally join OPEC, merely that its future involvement with the group could be predicated upon developing influence over the cartel’s actions. After all, the collapse of oil prices hurt Russia far more than Western sanctions. It logically follows that Russia will seek to mitigate threats to its largest export.


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons