Russia's military adventurism in Syria is about guaranteeing its own long-term future in the Middle East.
MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin wants Syria to know it still has a friend in Russia. Last week, more than a dozen military flights from Russia to Syria reportedly delivered six T-90 tanks, 15 howitzers, 35 armored personnel carriers, 200 marines, and housing for as many as 2,000 military personnel. Moscow has also reportedly delivered surveillance drones, attack helicopters, armored carriers, over two dozen fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles (including an SA-22 air defense system), and four Su-30 aircraft. Russia also established a new base south of Latakia, Syria’s northern port city, and is continuing the expansion of its naval base in Tartus, about 50 miles south of Latakia.
Despite this serious uptick in military assistance to Damascus, Russian government officials and analysts in Moscow noted in conversations over the past few days that the Kremlin is not planning a major military offensive in Syria, belying recent press reports. Nor does Moscow plan to send ground forces to Damascus to shore up Assad’s flank. Rather, with Assad’s forces continuing to lose ground, Moscow wants to ensure it has a voice in any effort to reach a political solution to the conflict. Its military presence is designed to force Assad’s foes — the United States included — to respect its interests in Syria, while strengthening its hand as a regional power broker.
Moscow has provided significant diplomatic and military support to the Syrian regime since the 1970s. This support has included training and equipping the Syrian military, as well as intelligence cooperation. In exchange, Moscow has enjoyed access to the Tartus naval base (currently, its only military facility outside the former Soviet Union), while Syria has long supported Soviet and Russian efforts to limit the influence of the United States and its mostly Sunni allies in the Gulf. In the current conflict, Moscow has portrayed Assad as the most effective bulwark against the type of radicalism that animates the Islamic State, arguing that Washington’s insistence on Assad leaving power is dangerously naïve, given the lack of viable alternatives. Earlier in the conflict, the Kremlin did invite members of the Syrian opposition to Moscow; but Russian officials were reportedly disappointed with the outcome of their conversations.
When it comes to inserting itself directly into the Syrian conflict, however, the Russians are careful. Still smarting from their experiences in Afghanistan a generation ago and cognizant of the America’s more recent forays in the Middle East and Central Asia, Russian officials said that Moscow is reluctant to embroil itself in a seemingly intractable conflict outside its traditional sphere of influence, even to save Damascus. If Assad is one day forced to abandon power, some Russian officials privately suggested that he could retreat safely to the Alawite stronghold of Latakia, and continue the fight.
As for Russian personnel in Syria, Moscow argues that they will serve in advisory and training capacities, and to protect their supply routes and military positions. But the terrain and terms of this conflict are unfamiliar to Russia. Recent experiences conducting hybrid war in Ukraine aside, Syria presents a much different challenge, lacking a common border and an ethnically or culturally similar population into which Russian forces can blend. While Putin has not shied from sending troops to fight small wars in Russia’s post-Soviet neighbors, the Syrian maelstrom is on a wholly different scale, occurring in a much less familiar environment.
According to conversations with officials and experts in Moscow, Russia’s military presence has several goals. First, Moscow aims to reinforce Syria’s beleaguered military over the coming months to ensure that it can continue functioning as a capable fighting force. Though Assad’s military has suffered significant reversals in recent weeks, Moscow believes it can hold out more or less indefinitely, if sufficiently armed. By beefing up its assistance to Assad now and reinforcing its own military presence, Russia can buy him space and time to facilitate a negotiated political settlement that secures Moscow’s interests: a strategic foothold on the Mediterranean and a position of influence inside Syria and in the wider region, one that prevents the state from further devolving into a breeding ground for terrorism.
The second aim of the Russian deployment is to establish Moscow as a power broker with whom the competing factions inside Syria and across the wider region — as well as the large, U.S.-led, anti-Islamic State coalition — will have to contend. Within Syria, Russian military assistance helps strengthen Assad’s position not only against his Sunni enemies like the Islamic State, but also among a range of Iran-backed proxies such as Hezbollah that have assumed a more prominent role in the government’s campaign in recent months. Senior Syrian Army officers have noted in conversations that Russia is the predominant trainer of their air force, and that there are deep military-to-military relations between Moscow and Damascus.
They have also expressed a deepening concern over the ongoing conflict’s rising costs, their dim prospects for victory, and the deepening role of Iran and its militias. While Tehran has provided military and financial support to Damascus — reportedly as much as $35 billion — it has largely preferred to support its own militias and Hezbollah, rather than boosting the beleaguered Syrian Army.
With Moscow now taking a deeper military stake in the conflict, Tehran will have to accommodate Russia’s interests to a greater degree. Iran wants to maintain Syria as a coastal conduit for arming Iran’s proxies in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories, while Moscow is more interested in expanding its influence in the Middle East and ensuring its position in a post-conflict settlement. As Putin stressed in his meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sept. 21, Russia is also not interested in supporting Iran’s conflict with Israel, which means that Moscow does not want to see Hezbollah’s influence grow at the expense of the government in Damascus.
At the same time, some Russian officials acknowledge privately that Assad’s days as ruler of anything resembling a united Syria are likely numbered. But Putin wants to avoid the sort of uncontrolled chaos that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya. Instead, he wants to ensure that any transition in Syria remains as orderly as possible, and that a post-Assad government respects Russian equities — notably, maintenance of the Russian naval base at Tartus, which is critical to Moscow’s efforts to project power into the Mediterranean as the United States pulls back from the region, and taking a hard line against Sunni extremists.
As Russian officials have said since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, their support for the status quo has not been about keeping Assad in power. Moscow, instead, has opposed the removal of Syria’s elected government by force, and has advocated for change through a political process. (As early as December 2012, Putin noted, “We aren’t concerned about Assad’s fate, we understand that the same family has been in power for 40 years and changes are obviously needed.”) A political settlement that preserves the Syrian state, perhaps with Assad serving out the remainder of his presidency and then retiring or agreeing to new presidential elections, would be acceptable to Russia. Moscow fundamentally disagrees with the oft-stated U.S. position that Assad cannot be a part of any political settlement, or that his departure is a precondition for a settlement, but it also does not see his continued leadership of Syria as a vital interest.
Such a settlement, though, will require the buy-in of a number of regional actors. Unfortunately for Russia, many of the Gulf states, in particular, do not see Moscow as a serious regional player and are wary of its intentions and actions, including supporting Damascus and potentially selling the S-300 weapon system to Tehran, not to mention its free-riding behavior in global oil markets. Russia’s deployment of forces reminds Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations that Moscow is an important international power that cannot be ignored, and will have to have a seat at the table in resolving Syria’s future.
Of course, Moscow’s supposed intention to avoid direct participation in the conflict may well be tested. Should limited assistance to Assad fail to stem his collapse or should Russian units find themselves under fire and taking casualties, the possibility of mission creep remains very real. The risk Moscow faces is that, in the absence of a political solution, it could find itself drawn deeper and deeper into Syria’s civil war.
Photo credit: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP