October 6, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Russian Roulette in Syria

• Russia has taken center stage in the military campaign in Syria, launching airstrikes against a number of rebel targets

• Russia will not want its engagement in Syria to last too long; extended involvement in the over four-year war will likely have limited strategic payoff

• The dangers of unintended consequences are becoming more apparent, and the longer Russia is engaged in Syria, the less likely it is to achieve its objectives

• All the key international players have an interest in seeing negotiations start, but as the Russian campaign continues, it will become harder for them to work together.


On September 30, Russia began its air campaign in Syria, targeting those rebel groups that pose the most immediate threat to the Assad regime’s survival. For now, the so-called Islamic State is not among them, and so remains relatively unscathed. Even so, it is unlikely that Russia believes that its airstrikes can help Assad do much more than consolidate his hold over the territory he still controls. The Russian plan is likely, therefore, to maximize Assad’s strength in the run-up to peace talks, as well as to ensure that Russia itself is an essential presence at the negotiating table. All sides—Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United States—should hope that this happens soon, but it will require all parties to work together and control their proxies.

Russia cannot continue its engagement indefinitely at its present level of intensity. Targets will eventually run short; costs will mount; the danger of an accident involving Russian aircraft or personnel will increase; the rebels will work out ways to counter-strike; terrorist attacks will rise; domestic support, always highest at the start of a military campaign, will wane, despite massive propaganda efforts; the international mood will worsen; the risk of direct confrontation with the coalition will grow; and Russia’s control over the direction and duration of its engagement will slowly founder as the prospect of an early end to the war recedes.

Although Russia has been able to take advantage of the coalition’s lack of clarity about its objectives in Syria and the identity of its enemy, it will soon face the same problem. It too will know that it cannot degrade and ultimately destroy the Islamic State—or any other rebel group—without there being an acceptable alternative to the Assad regime for the Sunni majority to embrace, as well as the many other Syrians who cannot now return to life under the previous regime. If it is to emerge ‘victorious,’ Russia will have to figure out what this alternative could be.

Meanwhile, tensions are rising and the dangers of the air campaign are becoming more apparent. The Russian violation of Turkish airspace over the weekend—a long way from Islamic State positions—prompted NATO to issue a warning on Monday against any repeat. Turkey shot down a Syrian fighter in the same area in March last year, and again in May 2015 when a manned or unmanned aircraft violated its airspace. It might hesitate to take the same action against a Russian aircraft—and the Russians may have been making a point in regard to Turkish plans to impose a no-fly zone over northern Syria. However, even without a no-fly zone, the increase in the number of coalition partners planning to fly sorties against the Islamic State raises the danger of miscalculations and mistakes, even if Russia limits its flights in that area.

Beyond this, Russia has already noted that 2,400 of its nationals are fighting with the Islamic State, and the actual number is likely to be higher. These fighters, plus others tempted to join them from the North Caucasus, may well see easier opportunities to attack their enemy in Syria than at home. This will not play well among the Russian public. Russian mercenaries are also rumored to be on their way to join the fight on the side of the regime, so increasing the complications and risking embarrassment for Russia should one be captured.

Russia may find it hard to admit, but Assad’s refusal to negotiate until all his opponents are defeated is not in his interests. The Iranians will share this view. First, that time will never come, and second, both the Russians and Iranians— though perhaps for different reasons, need the war to end sooner rather than later. As well as the United States and Turkey, Russia’s involvement in support of Assad puts it at odds with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf states. If Russia ends up maintaining a pro-Iranian regime in Syria, the Gulf states are likely to resent its engagement for many years to come. This would run counter to a perceived Russian objective of undermining U.S. regional influence to its own benefit. As for Iran, allowing Russia to take over as Assad’s main protector threatens its ability to ensure that Damascus remains a safe and secured route to Lebanon. The continued strength of Hizballah is of more interest to Iran than the preservation of Assad. Hence there is a coincidence of interest between Iran and Russia to see negotiations start before Syria’s collapse traps them in the quagmire predicted by President Obama during his visit to the United Nations in September.

Secretary of State John Kerry said last week that all members of the international community shared the same objectives: to destroy the Islamic State; to maintain Syria’s territorial integrity; to ensure that its government remained secular; and to have a managed political transition. Achieving any of the first three would seem enormously challenging in current circumstances, but without the fourth, they will be impossible.


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