Analysis

A Year In, Putin Still Has Unfinished Business in Syria

Russia's military keeps Assad afloat, but still hasn’t proven strong enough to defeat enemies.

A Russian Sukhoi SU-43 on the tarmac in a Syrian air base in Latakia, May, 2016.
Vasily Maximov / MOY / AFP

Last weekend was the first anniversary of Russia’s deployment of its military forces to Syria, and if reports from Moscow are anything to go by, President Vladimir Putin is doubling down on his risky investment.

Last Friday the Izvestia daily reported that additional Sukhoi Su-24 and Su-34 bombers are to be sent to Syria. On Tuesday came a statement from the Russian Defense Ministry that a battery of S-300 air defense missiles had already been transported to its Tartous naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Meanwhile, the concerted Russian bombardment of rebel-held areas in besieged Aleppo and other areas continued, targeting hospitals and killing dozens of civilians daily.

And as Putin entrenches, the United States remains firmly on the sidelines. Secretary of State John Kerry threatened to end U.S.-Russia coordination on Syria if the Russians don’t end their bombing. The Kremlin dismissed the threat. Kerry announced that coordination was over, but it didn’t matter. He continued to demand that Russian and Syrian aircraft be grounded in “key areas,” without specifying how this was to be enforced – as if Moscow and the Assad regime would voluntarily give up their main strategic advantage over the rebels.

On Tuesday The Washington Post reported that the Obama administration was reconsidering its policy of not carrying out strikes against the Assad regime and “kinetic” options were now on the table. But the same report was skeptical that President Barack Obama would actually support such options.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of families and children buried under the rubble, Russia is sticking to its narrative that it is targeting “terrorists.” It blames the United States for not ensuring that the rebel groups abide by the terms of last month’s failed “cessation of hostilities” agreement.

AP

A year ago, President Obama warned the Russians that their deployment to Syria “is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire.” That obviously hasn’t happened, at least not yet. However, Putin has not achieved all his objectives in Syria either. Six months ago, he announced that the mission had been accomplished and Russia’s forces would be pulled back from Syria. Some aircraft did return home, to rapturous receptions and medal-award ceremonies, but some remained in Syria and new ones arrived. It is clear now that the level of Russia’s presence in Syria is not measurably different. So what has Russia achieved?

The Kremlin’s stated objective a year ago was to fight Islamic terrorism. This barely stands up considering that at least 80 percent of the Russian attacks were not against ISIS targets, but on areas held by relatively “moderate” rebels, some operating with Western support. However, it is part of a wider Russian strategy to push the threat of Islamist terror as far away as possible from Russia’s borders – which is why the Kremlin didn’t stop Muslim Russian citizens from traveling to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq, as long as they stayed there. 

Russia’s first objective was of course to save the Assad regime, which a year ago was on the brink of collapse, with the rebels advancing in key areas. That primary goal was achieved by the bombings in a matter of months. The front was stabilized and President Bashar Assad’s survival ensured, at least for now. Russia, along with Iran and its proxies in Syria – Hezbollah and other Shi'ite militias – helped Assad maintain control of Damascus, the corridor leading to the Lebanese border and the coastal region. On the coast, Russia expanded its own military presence and bases, particularly the warm-water ports that it has craved since the days of the Czarist empire. But other objectives proved more elusive. 

The preservation of the Assad regime was not followed by a significant advance on the ground by the Syrian army and its allies. Russian arms and advisers have not been enough to rebuild the army, its ranks depleted by casualties, desertions and a lack of new recruits. The Iranian-led Shi'ite militias have proven inferior to the battle-hardened rebels fighting for their homes. Russia’s generals have been forced to acknowledge that their air power alone has been insufficient to turn the tide of the war in Syria. Without significant ground forces, which the Kremlin is loath to endanger, the Russia-Assad alliance cannot regain control of most of the country. 

No joy on Ukrainian front

But the deepest disappointment for Putin from a year of fighting in Syria is that his investment there has failed to bear fruit in a war zone that is much closer to his heart. He hoped that deploying warplanes to Syria would be a step towards creating an alliance with the West in fighting Islamic terror there, and in return the Obama administration and European Union would give him a freer hand in eastern Ukraine, while canceling sanctions put in place following Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea in 2014. Not only has that not happened, but the growing criticism in the West of Russia’s operations in Syria make it even more difficult to ease the sanctions, as some European politicians have advocated. 

So far Putin is digging deeper in Syria. He has no reason to believe, for now, that the Obama administration’s rhetoric will be matched at any point with deeds. Even if the White House was to abandon its non-interventionist policy and adopt some of the proposals that, according to The Washington Post, are being proposed by the Pentagon and CIA, these include only attacking the Syrian Air Force, which is anyway only a minor player in the attacks on Aleppo and other civilian areas. As long as Russian bombers operate freely, the carnage will continue. 

While the leaders of Syrian civil organizations clamor for a no-fly zone as the only policy that can end the wholesale murder, the administration has continued to strenuously oppose such a move. Echoing the White House’s position, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have explained why such a move would be hugely costly, involving large forces and causing a clash with the Russians.

These arguments are valid but not entirely accurate. The U.S. and its allies already have a large airstrike operation ongoing in the region, against ISIS. Unlike Russia, it can swiftly reinforce these forces with all the necessary tactical and strategic assets necessary to enforce a no-fly zone. While the Russians could attempt to continue bombing civilian areas in northern Syria, they lack both the interceptor and support aircraft to withstand a U.S.-led air assault.

Russia now has two sophisticated batteries of air defense missiles, but should they be used against aircraft enforcing a no-fly zone, the U.S. has a wide range of stealth aircraft, electronic-warfare assets, special forces and armed drones with which to deal with them effectively. There are of course risks to any military operation, but in the absence of one, Russian bombers will continue to rain down death on Aleppo. 

As Putin continues to tend to his unfinished business in Syria, he has one crucial advantage: No one is trying to actually stop him.