Why Russia Needs an Exit Strategy in Syria

October 9, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: RussiaSyriaUnited States

Why Russia Needs an Exit Strategy in Syria

A Russia defense expert analyzes the Syria conflict.

Although the USA currently intends to intensify its campaign against IS all the way to a potential offensive by Kurdish and "moderate" opposition forces on Raqqa, the IS capital in Syria, such enterprise, it would seem, will probably fail. In my opinion, the Caliphate could only be destroyed through a large-scale military intervention of Western ground forces led by the USA, which is unlikely to be feasible in the next few years. On the other hand, given this situation, the Russian forces in Syria are able to only partially engage IS, leaving the principal goals of the anti-IS fight to the Americans, while Russia can devote itself to wearing out other anti-Assad groups.

Meanwhile, a more active involvement of the US and their allies in the fight against ISIS while simultaneously providing greater support to “moderate” Syrian opposition lays the ground for a further souring of the Russia-US relations.

In this light, the worst-case (yet quite realistic) scenario for the Russian side would involve Assad’s forces inability to radically improve the situation even despite Russian air support. At the same time, incidents between Russian and Western militaries could escalate, and the West could partially implement “no-go zones” above certain parts of Syria. The above sets the stage for a direct military confrontation between Russian and Western air forces in Syria, unavoidably making the civil war more intense and ruthless.   

An even less favorable development would be for Moscow to attempt to radically “double down” or try a quick turnaround in the Syrian conflict by putting boots on the ground in Syria. This threatens Russia with a quagmire of a “hopeless” war in a strange land that cannot be won, followed by further deterioration of its relations with the Western nations as the latter seek to bleed the Russian forces in Syria through extensive support for the Syrian opposition and Islamists along the lines of the Afghanistan scenario.

Therefore, the potential success of Russia's actions in Syria is predicated on its ability to perform a political high wire act of sorts, i.e., to strengthen Assad’s military and political positions while avoiding any deterioration (and, preferably,  even bringing about an improvement) in its relations with the US and the West going forward. Whether proclamations announcing a joint fight against the Islamic State would suffice to achieve that end remains unclear.

In any case, even though the deployment of the Russian air group in Syria will last many months, it is very important for Russia to avoid getting drawn into a protracted air war, to minimize its own losses in any possible way, to thoroughly and flexibly select “political” targets for air strikes, to avoid military confrontation with the Western forces in the region and, above all, to exit the campaign in a timely fashion.  

Mikhail Barabanov is editor-in-chief of the Moscow Defense Brief.

Editor’s Note: This piece was translated from the original Russian-language version.

Image: Wikimedia/Alexander Beltyukov