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

March 3, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Russian MilitarySecurityDefenseSyriaMilitary

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

Moscow's counterinsurgency efforts differ from Washington's in important ways.

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.

Unconstrained by democratic pillars like accountability and transparency, authoritarian counterinsurgents complement the use of extreme and indiscriminate violence with tight control over information and shrewd propaganda. Authoritarians care little for the hearts and minds of an insurgent-ridden population. Instead, they exploit humanity’s baser instincts, stoking fear and hatred to mobilize a chauvinistic domestic majority against a vulnerable, disaffected minority. The power of the “terrorist” label knows few bounds.

The authoritarian counterinsurgent needn’t fret over narrowly defined exit strategies or restrictive rules of engagement. Democracies, on the other hand, struggle to calibrate multiple narratives geared to voters, the international community and those afflicted by the insurgency. Authoritarians can generally sustain costs far higher and for far longer than casualty-sensitive democracies.


Russia’s Syrian Play

Shortly after Russia intervened in Syria on September 30, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church took pains to package the move: “The fight against terrorism—is a moral struggle, if you like—a holy struggle, and our country today is probably the most active in the world that resists terror.” Fast forward five months, and Russia is changing facts on the ground. A cursory look at Moscow’s Syrian intervention suggests that the Kremlin is channeling elements of authoritarian COIN to great effect.

By prolonging Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power, Moscow is signaling to the region’s despots that it is the most credible guarantor of authoritarian regime survival. Russia aims to establish itself as the region’s main power broker—especially at the cost of American geostrategic influence. The Washington Institute's Dennis Ross put Russia’s calculus succinctly. “You may not like our support for Assad, but unlike the Americans we stand by our friends," he wrote. "If you want to deal with problems in Syria or in the region, you deal with us.”  

Russia’s strategy rests on transforming the balance of forces in Damascus’s favor and translating those new ground realities into leverage at the negotiating table. As Harvard’s Joseph Nye recently observed, Moscow wants to extract from the conflict’s core stakeholders the highest price possible to abandon Assad. As Russia strengthens Damascus and weakens the moderate Sunni opposition, that price appreciates.   

To achieve these ends, Russia has deployed military hardware well suited to the delivery of indiscriminate violence. The Su-24M2 Fencer jet, Tu-22M3 Backfire bomber and TOS-1 Buratino multiple rocket launcher are three weapons systems commonly associated with imprecision and collateral damage. Russia’s tactics in Syria may strike observers as mindlessly brutal, but they are not without strategic logic. Brutal, yes; mindless, no.

The indiscriminateness of Russia’s air strikes drives a wedge between Washington and its local Sunni partners. Having shamelessly ravaged the anti-Assad insurgents, Russia assumed the role of mortal enemy in the eyes of many regional Sunnis. Every time the United States is seen paying respect to Russia, the feeling of betrayal among the besieged rebels metastasizes.

Russia’s behavior in Syria seems to follow a pattern. Step one: inflict heavy damage on “terrorist” targets, ideally facilitating the recapture of territory by Damascus. Step two: as a consequence of step one, alienate the opposition from the negotiating table while simultaneously injecting urgency into the U.S. desire to negotiate. Step three: shrouded in the facade of good will, negotiate ardently for a cease-fire. Step four: violate said cease-fire so as to return to step one and further alter the balance of forces in the regime’s favor. Russia’s advance on Aleppo since the initial February 12 cease-fire embarrases the United States, marginalizes the UN, severely compromises Washington’s anti-ISIS partners, invites Nusra intervention and projects to the world that Moscow is in the driver’s seat. Step five: blame Assad for resuming hostilities and claim to have no control over Damascus. Step six: repeat.

Zach Abels is assistant editor at the National Interest.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Russian Ministry of Defence.