More Chechnya, Less Afghanistan

What Vladimir Putin hopes to make of his Syria intervention.


Russia launched its first airstrikes in Syria on Sept. 30, roughly 36 hours after a rare meeting between Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. The timing and targeting signaled Moscow’s determination to directly counter Washington’s Syria policy, as factions backed by the CIA were among the first hit. Moscow’s boasts of combating the Islamic State aside, the overwhelming majority of Russia’s initial strikes have targeted rebel factions opposed to the group. Now, a regime ground offensive with Russian air support aims to regain territory from those anti-Islamic State factions along key front lines in Syria’s northwest, far from areas controlled by the Islamic State.

There are two major takeaways from Russia’s intervention. First, Moscow’s strategy is now more than ever in sync with that of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Secondly, the obstacles to the United States formulating a coherent Syria policy have become even more formidable. The regional backers of the opposition, in particular Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, are on their own — and that promises to be messy.

That Moscow is playing hardball should come as no surprise. Since 2011, Russia has worked to prevent Syria from becoming another example of Western-backed regime change. It has done so not only to protect a long-standing ally and its toehold on the Mediterranean, but also to deter Western interventionism, which it views as undermining Russian power within the international system. Toward that end, Moscow has employed its U.N. Security Council veto and has provided significant political and weapons support to the regime since the beginning of the revolt. Whereas Russia’s abstention in March 2011 on a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya paved the way for a NATO intervention ending in regime-change, Moscow’s intransigence on the Syria file has preserved its ally while elevating its own global standing.

Yet the Assad regime has lost significant ground in the past year, shifting Moscow’s incentives. The Islamic State gained in central Syria, Islamist factions hostile to it advanced in the northwest, and a mainstream rebel coalition seized new ground in the south. While increased support from Iran and Hezbollah have helped slow the pace of decline, Assad’s regional allies cannot compensate for the regime’s dwindling manpower. Insofar as they have helped, they have done so through empowering militias — thus accelerating the erosion of state institutions and further decentralizing what was already a fractured power structure beneath Assad. In addition, Washington’s blend of verbal backing for the opposition with weak material support may have encouraged Russian escalation by making it appear less risky for Moscow.

Moscow looks at Syria today and sees a messy array of hostile forces on one side and a declining, fracturing ally on the other. Russian officials have shown little interest in the ideological and strategic differences distinguishing transnational Salafi-jihadi groups such as the Islamic State and al-Nusra Front from self-described “revolutionary” factions, which may seek a political future within a pluralistic Syrian state. Instead, they have labeled all the regime’s armed opponents as “terrorists.”

That assessment led to a single conclusion by Russian and Iranian officials: Whatever their complaints regarding Assad, securing his hold on power offered the best chance of protecting their interests in the Levant. The conflict’s trajectory was working against them; beyond the territorial losses, the growing Western focus on the costs of horrific regime air attacks on civilian areas, plus the likelihood of a more hawkish U.S. president in 2017, suggested that the Western policy vacuum that had worked in their favor might not last much longer. From Moscow’s perspective, this was the moment to take matters into its hands.

The result is that Russia has dropped any pretext of serving as a mediator and instead has joined the conflict directly. Its immediate goals are clear: to strengthen and expand the regime’s zone of control in strategically vital western Syria, while weakening opposition groups supported by state backers — in particular, those that could eventually partner with the United States, should it expand its role. Like Damascus, Moscow can be expected to strike Islamic State targets in order to burnish their joint “counterterrorism” narrative, as well as when the group threatens regime control. The focus, however, has been and will likely remain elsewhere.

Moscow may believe that it can help achieve what it eventually did in Chechnya — brutally subduing an Islamist-led insurgency — while escaping the humiliation that befell it in Afghanistan. True, the Syrian opposition enjoys only lackadaisical backers, unlike the Afghan insurgents of the Cold War. Yet Syria doesn’t resemble the Chechnya precedent either. First, there is no prospect of partnering with capable allies in the communities from which the insurgency has grown. Instead, Russia has hitched its battlefield fortunes to a regime that, through collective punishment and sectarian militias, is viewed within opposition-held areas as an external invader — and, where it seizes ground, as an occupying force. The same is doubly true, of course, for the foreign personnel upon which the regime is growing increasingly dependent: Hezbollah fighters, Iraqi and Afghan militiamen, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and now Russians.

Second, while rebels fighting Russia in Chechnya enjoyed little external support, Syrian opposition factions receive substantial (albeit poorly coordinated) backing from their regional allies. Perhaps Russia is betting that by significantly escalating its role and potentially intimidating Washington into diminishing its own support, it can convince the opposition’s regional backers that their efforts are not worth the costs and risks. But while these states have little objection in principle to a deal with Moscow, they are currently unlikely to accept one with Assad and Iran — the very two forces with which Russia is now deepening its cooperation and conflating its objectives. The Russian decision to focus strikes on opposition forces allied with Ankara, Riyadh, and Doha — rather than the Islamic State — is more likely to encourage them to counter-escalate than capitulate.

If left unaddressed, Russian airstrikes and the Iranian-backed ground offensive could do real damage to mainstream opposition forces, upon whose survival any eventual political resolution depends. Beyond the casualties these forces will suffer, they are likely to face increased competition for manpower from groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, which will no doubt use the Russian-Iranian escalation as a powerful recruiting tool. That appears of little concern to Moscow, which is now increasing its investment in a regime-designed strategy aimed at crippling mainstream rebels, so as to leave itself as the lone supposed bulwark in Western eyes against the Islamic State.

That is precisely the scenario the opposition’s regional backers seek to prevent. As a result, they will see clear reason to escalate their own support. To ensure there is a viable opposition at the negotiating table whenever talks occur, these nearby powers should tailor any increased aid to convince non-jihadi factions to be more cohesive and to strengthen their standing relative to Salafi-jihadi groups. Yet given the history of poor coordination and the further deterioration of Washington’s credibility as an intermediary within the pro-opposition camp, there is an obvious danger that additional support will be distributed haphazardly.

If Moscow and Tehran hope to elicit compromise rather than counter-escalation, they need to step back from two key positions: the continuation of Assad’s rule and Syria’s attachment to Iran’s regional axis. That seems highly unlikely, unless and until they find the costs of intervention outweighing the gains. In the absence of such an about-face, Russia is initiating a new phase in this war — one with higher costs and risks for all and offering no greater prospect of a resolution.


Noah Bonsey is the senior Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group. Follow him on Twitter: @NoahBonsey.