March 5, 2018

Costly Victory: Russia in Syria

Putin in Syria
Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses Russian troops at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, Dec. 12, 2017. (Mikhail Klimentyev/Pool Photo via AP)

Shortly after the beginning of the Russian military intervention in Syria in September 2015, then-U.S. President Barack Obama predicted that Moscow would soon find itself in a quagmire there. Two and a half years later, though, Russia appears to have been far more successful with far fewer of its forces in Syria than the United States was with far more forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Although fighting continues between the Russian- and Iranian-backed regime of President Bashar al-Assad on the one hand and its domestic opponents on the other, the opposition forces appear to be gravely weakened and are no longer in a position to threaten the downfall of the regime. And while the Syrian Kurds remain relatively strong, thanks in part to U.S. military assistance, they do not aim to topple Assad but to carve out some form of autonomy or independence for themselves in northern Syria.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey – the states that had been the principal supporters of Assad’s domestic opponents – no longer seem as willing or able to support the opposition forces as they did previously. Riyadh has been focusing more on the conflict in Yemen, its dispute with Qatar, and internal reform issues than on Syria. Doha has become preoccupied with its dispute with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt. And Turkey’s priorities have shifted from seeking the downfall of the Assad regime to combating the rise of Syrian Kurdish forces along the Syrian-Turkish border. In addition, Moscow’s relations with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have improved despite their differences on Syria. Riyadh especially values cooperation with Moscow in limiting oil production in order to boost prices (something Russia had not been willing to do until recently). With Moscow’s relations with the United States and the West increasingly tense, Turkey and Russia are pointedly increasing their bilateral cooperation, which had suffered dramatically in the wake of the November 2015 incident in which Turkish forces shot down a Russian military aircraft. Riyadh, Doha, and Ankara have all expressed their intention to buy S-400 air defense missile systems from Russia (Moscow has only sold the older S-300 version to Iran).

Indeed, things seem to be going so well for Moscow that in December 2017, Putin announced “that a significant part of the Russian military contingent in the Syrian Arab Republic is returning home to Russia.” Putin, though, has previously announced partial military withdrawals from Syria that did not seem to materialize. Seeking to show that this time is different, the Valdai Discussion Club (Moscow’s forum for dialogue on international affairs with foreign specialists) distributed a position paper to the participants in its February conference containing the chart “The End of the Russian Military Operation in Syria,” listing which men and equipment would first be withdrawn and which would remain.

Yet while the Russian intervention has succeeded in propping up the Assad regime and defeating opposition forces seeking to topple it, Moscow still faces important challenges in Syria. Despite Moscow’s claims about how its efforts to mediate between opposing sides in Syria have made progress, media reports indicate that very little has occurred. Indeed, Moscow’s very success in protecting the Syrian regime has relieved the pressure on Assad to make any concessions to his opponents. And while the weakened state of the opposition forces might have been expected to make them more willing to compromise with Damascus just to survive, this has not occurred.

While U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds has had the welcome effect for Moscow of exacerbating Turkish-U.S. relations, Turkey’s intervention against the Kurds in northwestern Syria has led to apprehension in both Damascus and Tehran. In addition, a widening conflict between Turkish and Kurdish forces decreases Moscow’s ability to control the situation around Afrin in northwestern Syria. Russia’s call to the Syrian Kurds to join forces with the Assad regime as better protection against Turkey than what the U.S. provides appears neither credible to the Syrian Kurds nor welcome to Turkey, which was evident in a heated discussion during a panel on the Kurds at the Valdai Club conference.

Similarly, while Israel largely stayed out of the Syrian conflict so long as Iran and its Shia militia allies from Lebanon and elsewhere were preoccupied with fighting Assad’s opponents, the weakening of the opposition, especially the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, has led to increased tension and even conflict between Israel on the one hand and Hizballah, the Assad regime, and even Iran (which Israel accused of sending a drone over Israeli-controlled territory) on the other. In one sense, this may not be an unwelcome development for Moscow if it sees competition with Tehran as the next phase in Syria now that Assad’s opponents have largely been defeated. According to a March 1 Israeli media report, Russian-Iranian differences in Syria have already begun to emerge, with Moscow blocking Tehran from establishing a base in Tartus. Moscow and Tehran have very different visions for Syria and the broader Middle East, with Moscow seeking good relations with Israel and Gulf Cooperation Council governments that Tehran sees as opponents. Even if Moscow and Tehran both seek to work together in Syria, an intensification of Israeli-Hizballah hostilities that draws in Iran could lead to an increased U.S. military role in Syria in defense of Israel. Moscow could then be faced with the unpleasant choice of supporting Iran and risking greater conflict with the United States or not doing so and risking deterioration in its relations with Tehran.

Russian-U.S. tensions over Syria recently increased as a result of a firefight between U.S.-led coalition forces and Russian contract forces in which the latter suffered many casualties. This may have contributed to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent threatening statement about an increased Russian ability to target its enemies with new nuclear weapons systems that he claimed the United States will be unable to defend against. But the more tense Russian-U.S. relations grow over Syria (and elsewhere), the less able Moscow will be to persuade the United States and its allies to contribute to Syrian reconstruction. And without reconstruction, Moscow’s desire to co-opt, many if not all, of Assad’s opponents into a peace agreement are unlikely to succeed, thus necessitating a continued Russian military presence in Syria in order to assure the Assad regime’s survival. Other factors requiring continued Russian military support for Damascus are the Assad regime’s unwillingness to allow the return of Syrian refugees, many of whom are hostile to the regime, and the unwillingness of Western and Gulf Arab states to contribute reconstruction funds to Syria so long as Assad remains in power and his opponents and the return of refugees are not accommodated.

Thus, while the Russian military intervention in Syria has largely been successful, it is at best a qualified success. Even if Assad’s domestic opponents are completely defeated and their main regional supporters (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey) reduce or end support for them, Moscow’s inability to prevent increased Turkish-Kurdish, Israeli-Iranian/Hizballah, and even Russian-U.S. conflict will pose serious risks. Perhaps Obama was right about how Syria would become a quagmire for Russia after all.

Mark N. Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. He is currently a Fulbright Scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.