Lessons from Russia in Avoiding a Quagmire

Washington can learn from Moscow’s clear-cut Syrian intervention.

As all sides weigh in on why President Putin decided to “withdraw” from Syria, Russian military action presents lessons for the United States on how to conduct future wars. The primary lesson seen in Syria was remarkably simple: clear and concise goals trump grandiose visions of regime change or nation building when intervening in conflicts. Washington’s unclear and changeable goals in Syria have enabled the Russians, a rival with drastically smaller military, financial and diplomatic tools, to deal an embarrassing blow to the Obama administration. Learning from these mistakes can enable the United States to make better decisions before engaging in future conflicts.

The first step Russia took to avoid a quagmire in Syria was identifying its interests in Syria’s civil war. Many analysts have examined this in recent months. The most convincing reason was to support the Assad regime. Some have argued that the announced pullout of Russian forces is due to soaring financial costs or war fatigue, but this does not address the fact that Russia’s stated war aims were met. As far back as October, Russian officials said that they sought to bolster the Assad regime and to help him take back as much territory as possible. While Syrian Army gains have been limited, they did succeed in putting the rebel forces on the defensive in key areas and have them worrying that Russian backed gains could be permanent. Despite speculation on Russia’s “true” intentions, the fact is that Russia felt its client was threatened with collapse, intervened, stemmed rebel advances, started counter attacking and now are leaving with loyalist forces stabilized and on the offensive. Russia may have hoped Assad could have taken all of Syria back, but Assad himself appears to be the only one to think this. Russia set out to preserve the regime for now and has stabilized Assad by reversing the tide against loyalist opposition, effectively completing the war aims it publically set out to accomplish.

The second step Russia took in Syria was focusing on who their allies and enemies were. Early on Damascus and Moscow made this very clear, all enemies of the Syrian regime are considered terrorists. The Syrian Ambassador to Russia explained this logic in that the goal was not just to destroy ISIS, but all of the other rebel groups in Syria, since they are purported to have the common goal of “spreading terror.” Clearly defining enemies ensured that allies were on the same page. These allies composed of those who had a stake in the Assad regime surviving, which is a mix of the Syrian Army, Iranian volunteers and Hezbollah. Analysts like Michael Kofman have pressed this point, saying that there are two wars going on in Syria, the U.S./Allied campaign to fight ISIS and the Russian/Syrian/Iranian war to fight all opposition. Moscow had flexibility in how to conduct its intervention in Syria due to these largely unified ground forces. Thus, not needing to deploy many ground troops, Russia was able to focus on other sub objectives, such as improving coordination between its service branches, testing new military systems and showcasing weapons systems for exports. The Russian military was able to focus on providing support for these players, with minimal worry of losing too many of its own forces.