Lowdown: Making Sense of Russia's Syria Strategy

October 11, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Middle EastRussia Tags: RussiaSyriaAir War

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.

Most importantly, at home, the Russian Sunni community (approx. 14 million people) leaders support Kremlin’s move and defy ISIS ideology. In September, Russia opened the biggest European Sunni Mosque in Moscow, strengthening support from Muslim clergy. Attending the opening ceremony Vladimir Putin expressed confidence that the mosque would help disseminate the “humanistic ideas and true values ​​of Islam” in Russia and accused “so-called Islamic State” of “compromising a great world religion of Islam”.

The risks of the involvement

The gains from the Syrian move seem to be solid for Russia. So are the risks. The path into Syria was marvelous, but the way out can be more difficult.

First, Russia risks deteriorating ties with an important regional partner – Turkey. Ankara is interested in having Assad go, and using the fight against ISIS to suppress Kurds militia on the Syrian part of the border. Despite claims that politics does not interfere with economic relations between the countries, that start of an ambitious “Turkish stream” gas pipeline was rescheduled for 2017. This is not the first time Russia and Turkey have differences on regional issues, but they managed to avoid confrontation in the past.

Second, Russia can get stuck in Syria, as did the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. That is why Moscow acting after careful considerations, with viable local allies and a clear exit strategy. Having had both the Afghanistan and Chechnya experience, Russia is well prepared for a low-intensity war dynamic.

Most important risk, though, is that Russia can be dragged into a regional Sunni-Shia conflict on the Shia side. Having a Sunni majority inside Russia, Moscow should be particularly careful. Critics say that fighting in ISIS Russia is bound to confront all Sunnis in the region. This would essentially mean that all Sunnis support ISIS – and that is not true.

This issue is taking us to the point that is currently lacking in Russia’s Syrian strategy – viable Sunni opposition to ISIS. Well-aware of its Chechen conflict experience, Russia would search for a resolution to the Syrian civil war by allying with a potent local Sunni leaders who would join the battle against terrorists. If such a Sunni potentate emerges triumphant, he would eventually fill the power vacuum left by ISIS much as did Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya.  

Applying the Chechen scenario in Syria is very tricky, but it the only way to reach a deep and comprehensive settlement in that war-torn country. That is the reason why Russia thinks that a French proposal – uniting Syrian government efforts with a “healthy opposition” in the Free Syrian Army – is an “interesting idea that is worth a try”. 

Andrey Sushentsov – associate professor at Moscow State Institute of International Affairs, director of programs at the Valdai club.

Image: Wikimedia/Aleksander Markin