Lowdown: Making Sense of Russia's Syria Strategy

A view from Moscow on Russia's strategy behind its Syrian move.

Russians are once again proving to be cold-blooded strategists. The Kremlin’s recent move in Syria has caught off guard not only ISIS, but also most Western intelligence services and analysts. Russia’s ability to alter the strategic situation on the ground with minimum efforts and maximum maskirovka deserves appreciation. However, Moscow fights ISIS not out of noble consideration. It is a practical issue of Russian national security.

Russian security connection with Syria

Russia was weighing its involvement at least since 2013 when it first proposed to replace outgoing Austrian peacekeepers with Russians at the Golan Heights. Since 2013, Moscow took a major role in disarming Syria of chemical weapons – and the first serious contacts with Damascus on battling Islamists started then. Parallel to this Russia engaged in a strategic military dialogue with Iraq, reaching a 4,2 billion USD weapon deal with Baghdad in 2012 and supplying much needed Su-25 fighters in 2014. In July 2015 Russia reach agreement with Iran to joint efforts in securing victory for Syria in the battle against ISIS. From that time question of assaulting ISIS was not “if”, but “when” and “how.” The Ukraine crisis did not change the calculus, but postponed the move.        

Security interests at stake motivated Russian agitation. Allowing ISIS to consolidate its control in Syria and Iraq would mean that in 5 years a new spurt of well-prepared terrorists would return to the North Caucasus and Central Asia. By Russian estimates, out of 70,000 ISIS fighters up to 5000 are Russian and CIS natives. Thinking strategically, the effort of battling them in the Middle East will deliver bigger long-term gains at a relatively low-cost then facing them off at home.

Limited involvement strategy

Russian strategy in Syria has two scenarios. The first one is limited in scope and posture. Its advantage is that by applying minimum resources and keeping the bar low, Moscow still gets a lot.

First, Russia can disrupt the terrorist infrastructure and prevent it from holding ground without the necessity of defeating it completely. North Caucasian terrorists are eliminated at home, but in Syria’s “no man’s land” they can rebuild training facilities and launch the export of terror to Russia – as they did in Afghanistan under Taliban.

Second, Moscow seeks to sustain a friendly regime in Syria.  Russia can invest in its first major military naval facility in Mediterranean and secure primacy in gas extraction projects on the Syrian, Cyprus and Israel shelf.

Third, Russia is asserting itself as a leading Middle East power capable of effective expeditionary military operations. Before that, no one else besides the U.S. could have projected power so far from its borders. In Syria Russia has displayed its renewed ability to affect events in far-away regions and thus significantly changed calculus in the Middle Eastern capitals. By hitting ISIS in Syria with cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea, Russia also cemented its presence in that region.

Lastly, Syrian operation is an exhibition of Russian armament, satellite communication and geolocation system GLONASS – its deadly effectiveness, high-preciousness and reliability. This show is staged primarily for the customers of the biggest and growing weapon market in the world – Middle Eastern countries. However, it also certifies that Russia maintains full sovereignty in matters of the 21-st century war.          

Shifting attention from Ukraine to Syria was not among the Moscow’s top aims, but since it is happening as a consequence of recent events, we can also consider this as Russia’s gain.

Extensive involvement possibility

The above-mentioned goals are the minimum achievements Russia can accomplish, provided its bombing campaign go smoothly. The high bar of the second strategy is bigger – and riskier – than this. And it promises less. 

With assistance from Syria, Iraq and Iran, Russia can aspire to defeat and eliminate ISIS in the region including its CIS fighters. If attained, this monumental achievement would pave the way for a restoration of the traditional borders of Syria and Iraq and secure their allegiance to Russia for the future. Bringing stability to Syria and Iraq will mean fostering conditions to normalize life there. This will relieve the refugee Syrian crisis in the region and the European Union.

However, these challenges can be realistically tackled only by applying much more formidable resources and in coordination with a broader coalition, which should include Western powers and Arab states of the Persian Gulf. In the absence of the latter, the second scenario benchmarks are bigger than Moscow’s current plan.

Resource management for the war with ISIS

Does Russia have sufficient resources to go its way in Syria?

Moscow secured full support of Syria, Iraq and Iran and can now act independently from the West. Russian allies are vitally interested in battling ISIS and were doing so prior to Moscow’s engagement. It seems that by numbers Russia is the least involved partner in this coalition, yet its participation is decisive.

Russia’s military resources are sufficient to maintain an effective long-term commitment in Syria. Critics forget, that Russia has been deeply involved in conflict management in Georgia, Moldova, and Tajikistan in the 1990s when Russian economy was particularly weak.