As we are wont to do these days, we cry out, “The Russians are coming!” But their next move is not further into Eastern Europe, where too many eyes are trained and a slowly gathering NATO grande armee is being assembled.
It is into another, older civil war that Russian power is now deployed: Syria.
And the best way to view such a move is through newspeak, for this one is, geopolitically speaking, quite the smart-dumb move.
Our wondrous cliff notes
- Sure, the Russians have been supplying Syria for decades, but this is a public escalation of support that includes troops, who are supposed to “advise” Syrian soldiers.
- This goes to show the dire straights Assad’s army is now in, with heavy losses meaning people are more valuable than equipment.
- But it’s a smart-dumb move, because while it serves some geopolitical necessities of Russia, in the long run it’s unlikely to pan out the way Putin wants.
- It’s “smart” because Russia must be seen as reliable and capable, but it’s “dumb” because Russia risks being seen as impotent as Assad continues to lose the civil war or, worse, Russia ends up feeling compelled to deploy power to Syria it needs elsewhere.
So let’s remember why Russia is even interested in Syria.
Since the Soviet Union, Russia has supplied Syria with weapons ranging from attack helicopters to tanks to machine guns. Back during the Cold War, Syria was a reliably anti-American Arab client and provided a naval base that bypassed the Turkish straits, then as now controlled by NATO.
After the fall of the USSR, Russia continued to maintain influence in Syria through regular arms deals and a personal relationship between the Kremlin and the Assads. The advantages were the same: Russia maintained a naval base at Tartus that gave the Russian navy a way to avoid NATO-controlled Turkey.
Up until Putin began to reorganize Russia in 1999, this relationship was maintained on the cheap: in fact, for the 1990s, it was necessary for Russia’s survival, since arms exports were one of the few industries that didn’t collapse along with Communism. The Syrians were always buying.
Once Putin returned Russia to the fore as a global player in the mid-2000s, Syria returned to its more traditional role: a foothold into the largely American-dominated Arab world and a naval base that jumped Turkey.
Which is why, when the Syrian civil war began, Russia saw the uprising as an American plot.
Russian strategic thinking remains colored by the Cold War, and its view of world events lacks the greyness of other great powers. To them, the Syrian civil war was clear: it was yet another American plot to overthrow a Russian-allied regime and replace it with an American one. This is how Putin viewed the Libyan war, which he’d authorized mostly because he had no use for the Ghaddafi regime.
But Putin had use for Assad; as he prepared to play a much bigger geopolitical game, Russia needed a reliable base in the Mediterranean and an Arab voice that could stand up to the Gulf Co-Operation Council and Egypt, both solid American allies.
So Putin was happy to supply Syria with regular arms so long as Syria had the people to use them.
But the “people to use them” part has become harder and harder. From the get-go of the Syrian uprising, Assad’s major disadvantage was that he couldn’t rely on numerical superiority: too many of his conscripts were Sunnis with connections in the very villages and cities he was busy bombarding. The nucleus of the Free Syria Army were former regime officers disgusted with the crackdown, who took troops and equipment with them as they defected.
That kept the amount of units available to the Assad regime down. (On a sidenote, it’ll be fascinating, once the war invariably ends, to hear the insider story of the Assad regime.) Outnumbered, Assad had to rely on superior arms and organization for victory. This is best exemplified by its air arm: the regime’s air force is crucial.
But the war is now nearly 4 years old, and casualties for all sides are heavy. The first sign Assad was in trouble was when Hezbollah entered the war in 2013. For a time after that, Assad was winning: reinforcements from Iran and Hezbollah bolstered his sagging army while Russia continued to supply the goods he needed to keep his Air Force flying and his tanks running.
But then the Islamic State happened.
The Islamic State’s blitz into Iraq captured a great deal of topline American equipment, allowing IS to go toe-to-toe with dwindling regime forces back in Syria. Worse, while IS continues to gather recruits from around the world, for Assad, each lost soldier has become increasingly irreplaceable.
Having already spent years trying to grind down various FSA factions as well as the capable forces under the command of al-Qaeda’s affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, the emergence of the Islamic State was just the thing needed to tip the balance away from the regime.
Unlike Assad, IS can replace its human losses IS suffers from dwindling equipment, not troops, the exact opposite of the regime. That’s a recipe for defeat in a war of attrition.
So now Russia is stepping into the maw to try to stem the bleeding.
Syria’s main problem is the lack of trained troops. It has its volunteer National Defense Forces who number many thousands, but that’s more of a militia than an army and of dubious quality and reliability.
So who can be trusted to run the regime’s heavy equipment properly? The best answer is the very people who build such equipment.
And this gets to why this is a smart move for Russia.
It’s very likely some of these “advisors” will advise the way U.S. troops “advised” South Vietnam. Doing so bolsters the professional Syrian army. It also, most importantly, demonstrates that Russia will go the distance for its allies, up to deploying troops, as the old Soviet Union once did.
This is critical for Putin’s worldwide strategy. Russia must be seen as reliable as the USSR was if it’s to maintain its shrunken network of allies, let alone if it’s to expand its influence. Saving the Assad regime will remind Russia’s allies in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America that Moscow will do more than veto resolutions in the UN.
Moreover, Syria is the only Middle Eastern client left over from the Cold War, and to lose it will be to surrender the region entirely to the United States.
But that leads to the “dumb” part of the move.
Because the Russian view that the Middle East will “fall” to the U.S. is not wholly true. There are many, many, many indigenous anti-American forces that the superpower has had trouble managing. This misreading of the Middle East in general, as well as Syria in particular, is what will burn the Russians in the end.
Syria’s civil war didn’t begin as an American plot: it was a genuine popular revolt that armed itself when the regime started shooting. The civil war accelerated because regional powers armed their favorite factions, with the main culprits being the GCC and Iran rather than the U.S. Believing otherwise is to give the U.S. power it doesn’t actually have. While the U.S. semi-benefits from the chaos in Syria, it certainly does not like how it’s become the Islamic State’s homeland.
And what’s worse is that it will only become more expensive over time to keep the regime alive.
The risk for Moscow is that Syria becomes its second Afghanistan or, more accurately, a Russian Vietnam. The Vietnam analogy is better than the Afghan one because the Soviet Union suddenly and fully invaded Afghanistan, as opposed to the U.S. in Vietnam, which escalated and dithered until it found itself in a full-blown war.
The amount of power necessary to reorder Syria is staggering. The price tag on the refugee crisis alone can’t yet be calculated. To bring regime power back to all of Syria’s provinces would require a commitment of troops and power that could well cripple Russian efforts to carry out any of its basic defense needs, including holding Ukraine and keeping a lid on Chechnya.
Even to carve out an Assad enclave will be terribly expensive and dangerous. No faction is content with such a slice of the pie: everyone is fighting to the death. To convince the FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Islamic State to leave the Alawite homeland alone will require an open-ended commitment of troops and equipment that Russia can ill-afford.
Worse, if Russian troops are killed in some headline-grabbing attack, Putin may face pressure to either escalate, as he did in Chechnya, or pull out. He can’t manage Syria as he does Ukraine, where he holds the leash to the Donbass rebels’ collar.
Compounding that risk is the Islamic State. Without a doubt, Islamic State forces, especially its Chechen volunteers, will relish an opportunity to fight Russian forces on yet another battlefield.
If Putin chooses to escalate, it will doubtless bring another conflict with NATO. While NATO hasn’t a clue to what kind of Syria it wants after the civil war, it does know that Assad can’t be part of it, even if parts of his regime are. For Russia to enter the civil war more fully will threaten the Turks, who hate Assad, and possibly cause run-ins with the coalition air force currently bombing the Islamic State. In already crowded skies, who’s to say that an American F-22 might not have an accidental dogfight with a Russian MiG-29?
In other words, the short term gains are not worth the long term risks, but Putin has painted himself into this corner.
For now, Russia will seem a valuable ally; its support will, perhaps, change the battlefield calculation and halt the rebel advance into the Alawite heartland. But the long term risks are great: the longer Russian forces are in Syria, the more likely someone will try to kill them. And should Russia succeed in holding the frontline, it will create a need for Russian forces to remain there until the end of the civil war. That kind of open-ended commitment is precisely what the U.S. is trying to avoid in its war with the Islamic State.
It’s possible that a peace deal emerges that allows the Russians and the U.S. to cooperate on reordering Syria, but with much of Putin’s reputation staked on being an anti-NATO strongman, that seems unlikely. The U.S. wants Assad out and Putin wants him in; that isn’t likely to change.
Instead, the U.S. merely needs to wait for Russia to bite off more than it can chew. That, unfortunately for Moscow, is more than probable.