Russia's Battlefield Success in Syria: Will It Be a Pyrrhic Victory?

AuthorJones, Seth G.

Just four years after directly entering the Syrian war, Russia has done the unthinkable. It has helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's retake much of the country from rebel control. (1) Moscow's air campaign in Syria was its largest outside of Russian territory since the end of the Cold War. (a) To be sure, there are still areas of resistance like Idlib, and Turkish and Kurdish forces control terrain in northern and eastern Syria. But the battlefield victories in Syria have been undeniable. With Russian assistance, Syrian- and Iranian-supported ground forces retook Deir ez-Zor in the east and Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, and other cities across the country. None of this looked possible in late 2015, when Russian policymakers assessed that the Syrian regime might collapse without rapid and decisive assistance. As Russian leader Vladimir Putin remarked in October 2015, "The collapse of Syria's official authorities will only mobilize terrorists. Right now, instead of undermining them, we must revive them, strengthening state institutions in the conflict zone." (2)

To retake territory, Moscow adopted a military approach that combined well-directed fires and ground maneuver to overwhelm a divided enemy. Instead of deploying large numbers of Russian Army forces to engage in ground combat in Syria--as the Soviet Union did in Afghanistan in the 1980s--Moscow relied on Syrian Army forces, Lebanese Hezbollah, other militias, and private military companies as the main ground maneuver elements. The Russian Air Force and Navy supported these forces by conducting strikes from fixed-wing aircraft and ships in the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas.

Moscow has used its battlefield successes in Syria to resurrect its great power status in the Middle East. Russia now has power projection capabilities in the region with access to air bases like Hmeimim and ports like Tartus. Russian diplomats are leading negotiations on regional issues like a Syrian peace deal and refugee returns, and every major country in the region--such as Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran--works with Moscow on foreign policy issues. As one Middle East leader recently told the author: "The Russians are now a dominant--perhaps the dominant--power in the Middle East." (3) Russia's resurgence in the Middle East has been facilitated by the confused picture over the drawdown of U.S. military forces inside Syria.

The Syrian war has also provided Russia's military with an unparalleled opportunity to improve its strike, intelligence, and combined arms capabilities. After a period of military reforms from 2008 to 2012 and a large modernization program, Moscow has been able to test its forces in combat. Over the course of the war, thousands of officers rotated through the campaign to gain combat experience and secure promotions. (4) Russia also hopes to expand its arms sales with weapons and systems tested in the Syrian war. (5) The experience will shape Russian military thinking, drive procurement decisions, increase arms sales, and influence personnel decisions for years to come.

Despite these battlefield successes, however, Russia used extraordinary violence against civilians, targeted hospitals, and provided diplomatic cover when Syrian forces used chemical weapons against their own population. (6) In addition, Moscow and its partners face significant challenges ahead in Syria. The Islamic State and al-Qa'ida-linked groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Tanzim Hurras al-Din still have a presence in Syria and neighboring countries like Iraq and Turkey. Syrian government reconstruction has been slow and inefficient, adding to the litany of political and economic grievances with the Assad regime. And Israel and Iran are engaged in a proxy war in Syria.

Fears of a Libya Redux

Moscow's decision to become directly involved in the Syrian war in 2015 was motivated by several issues. First, Russian leaders were concerned that Washington would overthrow the Assad regime and replace it with a friendly government. Syria had long been an important ally of Russia. In 1946, the Soviet Union supported Syrian independence and agreed to provide military help to the newly formed Syrian Arab Army. This cooperation continued throughout the Cold War and under Russian President Vladimir Putin. (7) Russian military leaders also wanted to maintain access to the warm water port at Tartus, used by the Russian navy for power projection into the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean.

Russian leaders like General Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces, worried about U.S. regime change in Syria based, in part, on the United States' role in overthrowing regimes in Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011. (8) Gerasimov viewed the Libyan war as a textbook example of the United States' new way of warfare, combining precision-strike operations using special forces and intelligence support to non-state groups--what Gerasimov referred to as the "concealed use of force." (9) As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also remarked, Moscow was alarmed "that foreign players [like the United States] will get imbued with this problem and will not only condemn the violence [in Syria], but subsequently repeat the Libyan scenario, including the use of force." (10)

Losing Syria--or, at the very least, watching Syria further deteriorate into a bloody civil war--was particularly worrisome because Moscow had just lost its ally in Ukraine. The 2014 revolution there had ushered in a pro-Western government in Kiev, further fueling Russian fears of U.S. activism. As General Gerasimov remarked, "The experience of military conflicts--including those connected with the so-called color revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East--confirms that a perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months and even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention, and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war." (11) According to Russian officials like Gerasimov, the primary culprit in most of these campaigns was the United States. (12)

Moscow's fears of a U.S. military intervention were seemingly confirmed when U.S. President Barack Obama called for Assad to step down in February 2015 and vowed to aid rebel groups. "We'll continue to support the moderate opposition there and continue to believe that it will not be possible to fully stabilize that country until Mr. Assad, who has lost legitimacy in the country, is transitioned out," Obama remarked. (13) Throughout 2015, U.S. policymakers debated greater involvement in Syria by aiding rebel groups. In early 2015, for example, a delegation of U.S. senators led by John McCain visited Saudi Arabia and Qatar to discuss increasing support to Syrian rebels. (14) McCain had also secretly visited rebel leaders inside Syria about the possibility of providing heavy weapons to them and establishing a no-fly zone in Syria to help topple Assad. (15) Near the end of 2015, McCain and U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham publicly supported the deployment of 10,000 troops to Syria. (16)

Second, Russian leaders were concerned that the Islamic State, al-Qa'ida, and other terrorists could use territory in Syria and Iraq to attract more fighters, improve their capabilities, and spread terrorism in and around Russia. After all, an estimated 9,000 fighters from Russia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia had traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight with groups like the Islamic State and al-Qa'ida. (17) Russia had also suffered several terrorist attacks from Islamist extremists linked to--or inspired by--the Islamic State and al-Qa'ida, which put its security agencies on high alert. In 2011, a suicide bomber detonated at Domodedovo International Airport in Moscow, killing 37 people. In 2013, there were two suicide bombings in the city of Volgograd perpetrated by jihadis from the Caucasus Emirate. In 2015, Islamic State operatives in Egypt exploded a bomb on Russian Metrojet Flight 9268, killing all 217 passengers and seven crew members. (18) In late 2015, Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), expressed grave concern about the evolving threat and warned that terrorists in Syria were plotting to conduct attacks in Russia. (19)

Russian leaders were understandably concerned about the situation in Syria. Al-Qa'ida's affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, had driven back Syrian government forces in the northwest and threatened major population centers in southern Syria in 2015. Islamic State forces also controlled significant amounts of territory in eastern and northern Syria, and they were conducting attacks in central and western parts of the country. (20) For Moscow, the stakes in Syria were high.

Russia's Grand Entrance

In late 2015, Putin finally put his foot down. In a speech at the United Nations in September 2015, Putin vowed to support the Assad regime. "We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its Armed Forces who are valiantly fighting terrorism face-to-face," he said. (21) Over the summer of 2015, Russian, Iranian, and Syrian leaders discussed ramping up military operations. Syrian officials and the head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), Qassem Soleimani, flew to Moscow to coordinate direct military engagement in Syria. (22) To facilitate operations, Russia and Syria also signed a treaty stipulating the terms and conditions for Russia's use of Hmeimim Air Base, southeast of the city of Latakia. (23) Russia then began to pre-position air, naval, and ground forces in and near Syria in preparation for military operations. (24)

At the end of September 2015, Russia conducted its first air-strikes in support of Syrian forces around the cities of Homs and Hama. While Russia had conducted some air operations during the First and Second Chechen Wars in the 1990s and...

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