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Russia’s Syrian Intervention: A temporary reprieve won with a heavy political sacrifice

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CDA Institute Research Fellow Richard Shimooka looks at Russia’s intervention in Syria and the long-​term prospects facing the al-​Assad régime.

By the summer of 2015, the fortunes of Bashar al-Assad’s régime in Syria appeared to be flagging. To the Russians, the slow advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the Free Syrian Alliance (FSA) forces into the government’s territory held out the possibility of the collapse of its long-​standing ally in the region. This would imperil Moscow’s only foreign outpost on the Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East, and it felt compelled to intervene.

On the surface, the intervention has been lauded as a success – to the point where Russia has announced a major drawdown of its air forces in March 2016. It reversed the Assad régime’s decline, enabling the Syrian government to retake a significant swath of territory it had lost over the past five years. Internationally, the intervention was viewed as part of the Kremlin’s new, assertive foreign policy, and a return to a region in which it had been an active player during the Cold War. Many initially argued that the intervention helped to deliver Assad’s support for a general ceasefire between his régime and the government. Finally, the military operation allowed Russia to demonstrate and test its new military capabilities, many of which were developed after a poor showing in Georgia in 2008.

However, the intervention came with a steep political price for Russia, and a frank appraisal of the situation suggests many of the gains are illusory in the long-​term. The Kremlin’s intervention failed to alter any of the underlying fundamentals of the conflict, and may have even exacerbated the weaknesses of Assad’s régime. While ostensibly aimed at ISIL, Russia’s air campaign focused heavily on opposition groups such as those that were part of the FSA and Turkmen militias. Many of these Sunni groups were supported by the Western nations and allied Gulf States, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Russia’s involvement further reinforced sectarian divisions within the country, as it also worked to reinforce Allawite dominated areas (a Shia sect that provides Assad’s primary base of political support).

In response to the difficult situation, the Kremlin chose to employ strategies that harkened to a previous conflict: Afghanistan. Then, as in now in Syria, Russia’s client possessed limited forces and territory, requiring Moscow to apply airpower as a surrogate for troops on the ground. It quickly became apparent that in addition to attacking military targets, Russian military forces also sought to terrorize their opponents’ supporters. Its air force, like that of the Syrian Air Force before it, carried out indiscriminant carpet-​bombing raids on opposition’s civilian centers, often deliberately targeted hospitals and other civilian targets. This was a successful strategy for the Russian-​Syrian forces: it depopulated rebel territory, which made it more manageable for the weak government forces to capture.

Although this strategy has been successful at pushing Assad’s opponents back, nothing close to a knockout blow has been delivered. Collectively, the rebel groups remain a viable military force and retain strong support from their regional allies. They still control large territories within Syria as well as sanctuaries outside of it, from which operations are conducted. These are essential prerequisites for any successful insurgency. Moreover the large refugee concentrations outside of Syria will become an important source of revenue and recruits for opposition groups going forward.

Perhaps most importantly, the coercive tactics employed by Russia has reinforced the deep resentment towards Assad’s régime among the non-​Allawite civilian populace. Indiscriminant (if not targeted) bombing of civilians has only made the possibility of a lasting peace even more remote, as has the government’s complete disinterest in reaching any political accommodation with the rebel groups. These factors make it unlikely that the peace will last in the long-​term.

For Russia’s broader international relations, the intervention has also been an abject failure. It has not remade the political order in the region: rather Moscow tried to preserve the vestiges of a Cold War era regional security architecture that has all but crumbled. Middle Eastern states now chart a more independent foreign policy and wield significantly more influence than before. By focusing its attacks on the FSA, Moscow has alienated many of the key players in the region. This is evident in the collapse of a major arms deal with Saudi Arabia and the deteriorating relations with Turkey in the aftermath of the shoot down of a Russian Su-​24 attack aircraft in November 2015. The relations likely hit their lowest point in late January when Turkey and Saudi Arabia made public statements that they were each considering a direct intervention to defend their allies in Syria from further government advances.

Finally, Assad’s long-​term prospects are poor. While his régime’s territorial hold on its territory is stronger than before the intervention, it remains weak and dependent on foreign support to remain in power. Its recent offensive to recapture the ancient city of Palmyra featured direct Russian support in the form of battlefield advisors, non-​combat support capabilities, and air strikes. The régime was also able to mount a large offensive because both it and most rebel groups are adhering to a weak ceasefire put into place in March. Some have lauded the agreement as a first step towards a more comprehensive peace process, however it is better viewed as a temporary alliance to exploit the ISIL’s weakened forces. The ceasefire has already been punctuated by a constant stream of attacks, bombings, and advances by both sides, as well as public statements that reflect deep animosity towards each other.

If the battle is renewed – as seems likely – and Assad’s régime is pushed back, Russia will again face the unenviable prospect of reengaging in the conflict and further damaging its relations in the region, or witnessing the collapse of its long-​standing ally. Given the cost and outcome of the first intervention, the question is whether Russia will be willing to pay it again.

Richard Shimooka is a research fellow at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute. (Image courtesy of Reuters.)

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