Russia's Hybrid-Warfare Victory in Syria

Moscow improved its image without real change on the battlefield.

Dennis Ross rightly notes that Vladimir Putin now has the ears of Middle Eastern leaders despite the fact that Russia’s forces in the region are dwarfed in number by their U.S. counterparts. This is in large part because the Russians promoted the now prevailing perception that Moscow is willing to become involved in regional conflicts while America is pulling back. Most recently, Russia celebrated the retaking of the ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State/ISIS. Despite revelations that cast doubt on Russia’s military achievements in Palmyra, negative reports were overshadowed by Moscow’s resourceful use of public relations.

Although the future of the war in Syria is uncertain, what remains clear is that Russia is fighting a hybrid war, combining its military, diplomatic and media capabilities to achieve its goals using limited armed engagement.

It is true that Russia has experienced some successes on the Syrian battlefield, but these victories are far from establishing Moscow as the new power broker in the region. Russia’s achievement on the ground hinged mainly on the morale boost its backing gave the Syrian Arab Army. This allowed pro-regime forces to perform better in combat, while simultaneously weakening the resolve of rebel forces determined to depose the regime. By launching thousands of airstrikes, Russia has also effectively managed to stabilize a regime that was losing territory in the summer of 2015, and helped the Syrian regime push towards Aleppo and its surrounding towns by the end of the year.

However, when comparing maps of the current situation in Syria to the situation in Syria prior to Russian intervention, Assad’s territorial gains with Moscow’s backing appear negligible. Also, the intervention has yet to put an end to the regime’s setbacks; in just the first week of May 2016, regime forces lost the Shaer gas field to ISIS and the strategic town of Khan Touman to the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. The week prior witnessed the disastrous Russian airstrike on a hospital in Aleppo that killed over fifty innocents. Furthermore, thousands of Russian sorties over the course of eight months have yet to bring about the realization of Assad’s major strategic objective: taking Aleppo.

On the diplomatic front, Russia was seen as a promoter of a political negotiations between the regime and the rebel coalition, and as a backer of a truce between the sides. Yet these efforts did not yield a viable peace process and produced an unstable truce.

Palmyra is a prime example of Moscow’s modus operandi in Syria, in which successes on the battlefield, no matter how marginal or questionable, serve as grounds to promote Russia’s image of success. Damascus and Moscow highlighted the Russian role in the campaign: President Bashar al-Assad said that the Russian air support was “essential,” and the Kremlin’s spokesman said that “regaining Palmyra would have been impossible without Russia’s support.” This achievement received particular celebration due to the city’s historical significance and the devastation that ISIS unleashed on its antiquities.

However, recent revelations from Sky News indicate that Assad’s conquest of Palmyra may have been more an act of collusion than conquest. ISIS defectors claim that “Palmyra was handed back to government forces by Islamic State as part of a series of cooperation agreements.” While not authenticated, this claim is believable, considering the Syrian regime’s long history of partnering with jihadists when convenient: serving as a conduit for jihadists fighting the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the release of Muslim extremists from Sednaya prison in 2011, and an oil trade between ISIS and the regime valued at up to $40 million per month. Such a claim should be devastating for Russia, as one of the major achievements in its campaign against rebel groups has now been called into question. Beyond that, claims that the Syrian regime is coordinating with ISIS should embarrass the Kremlin, which legitimized its military intervention as a campaign to fight Islamic extremism.