The Buzz

What's Behind the Effectiveness of Russia's Syria Strategy

Two popular refrains pervade the debate over Washington’s Syria policy. First, there is no military solution to the crisis; and second, Russia’s intervention is “doomed to failure.” Both, more or less, miss their mark.

In stark contrast with President Obama’s much-maligned policy of gradual escalation, Vladimir Putin’s “scorched-earth tactics” in Syria have brought Washington face-to-face with a disturbing realization: coopting hearts and minds may be less effective than bombing them to oblivion. Given Russia’s evidently growing influence in negotiations over so-called cease-fires, it’s important to frame Moscow’s behavior not as an aberration but as the next chapter in the bleak tale of authoritarian counterinsurgency (COIN).


Authoritarian COIN

Conventional wisdom holds that democracies are better positioned than authoritarian regimes to combat insurgencies. Broadly speaking, when democracies conduct counterinsurgency they subordinate killing bad guys to winning over the hearts and minds of the local populace, thereby depriving the insurgents of their base of support. Intuitively, a democracy should be more capable than its authoritarian counterparts of providing community security, ameliorating grievances and fostering good governance. Pepper in some economic development and a pinch of nation building, and you can kiss that loathsome insurgency good-bye. Or so the thinking goes.

Gen. David Petraeus and his fellow COINdinistas brought this population-centric, “clear-hold-build” rationale to America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, dramatically shifting the focus away from the use of conventional military force. The rest is history. And speaking of history, the “hearts and minds” narrative is not without its stalwart critics. Indeed, democracies such as France, the United Kingdom and, yes, even the United States have doled out distasteful coercion while waging counterinsurgency.

The authoritarian approach to counterinsurgency, in contrast, is best characterized by one key tool—repression. Modern history is littered with case studies illustrating authoritarian COIN’s dominant characteristic. Consider Saddam Hussein’s tactics against Iraq’s Shia and Kurds, Hafez al-Assad’s eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama and any number of Soviet and Russian campaigns. Moscow crushed Ukrainian nationalists (1944–59), rained fire on Afghanistan (1979–89) and razed much of Chechnya (1999–2009).

Granted, there is by no means academic consensus on the utility of violence in COIN, but it is clear that authoritarians bear certain advantages. Authoritarians employ repressive measures on a vast scale. Traditionally, authoritarians will torture, deport, murder and arbitrarily imprison insurgents, their supporters and anyone unlucky enough to get caught in the crossfire. Such tactics, in many cases, succeed in coercing the insurgents’ supporters into submission, ultimately draining the insurgency of popular and logistical support. That, or they simply cripple the insurgents’ military capability directly.