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Putin’s Syria Gambit Aims at Something Bigger Than Syria

What is Russia up to in the Middle East?

Dmitri Trenin
October 13, 2015
Thaer Ghanaim/PPO via Getty Images
In this handout image supplied by the Palestinian President's Office (PPO), Russian President Vladimir Putin (R), Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (C), Palestine's President Mahmoud Abbas (L) and Russian Grand Mufti Ravil Gainutdin attend an opening ceremony for the newly restored Moscow Cathedral Mosque on September 23, 2015 in Moscow, Russia.Thaer Ghanaim/PPO via Getty Images
Thaer Ghanaim/PPO via Getty Images
In this handout image supplied by the Palestinian President's Office (PPO), Russian President Vladimir Putin (R), Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (C), Palestine's President Mahmoud Abbas (L) and Russian Grand Mufti Ravil Gainutdin attend an opening ceremony for the newly restored Moscow Cathedral Mosque on September 23, 2015 in Moscow, Russia.Thaer Ghanaim/PPO via Getty Images

A quarter-century after its withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia is again at war in a Muslim country outside of the perimeter of its historical empire. Moscow’s intervention in Syria, however, is very different from its past uses of military power, marked by overland invasions and occupations. It is also happening in a regional environment which is new: a Middle East where outside powers, including the United States, are playing a much less dominant role than ever in the last 100 years; and non-state actors like IS are threatening to upend the system of states created after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Syria has become, at least for now, Russia’s first U.S.-style war. Russian military aircraft are bombing the enemy from high above, plus the Russian navy is launching cruise missiles from a thousand miles away. The enemy, again at least for now, has no chance to hit back at the Russians on the battlefield. The division of labor within the Moscow-led coalition provides for the ground troops in Syria to be furnished by Damascus, Tehran, and Hezbollah. Russian military personnel in Syria—other than advisers or technicians—have the mission of supporting and if need be protecting the Russian Air Force contingent and the naval facility in Tartus. Conceivably, Russia may employ Special Forces (Spetsnaz), airborne or marine units for securing, capturing or rescuing critical assets. However, Putin is adamant that full-scale involvement in the Syrian war is to be avoided, and regular Russian ground forces—or Chechen forces—do not appear to be part of the plan.

What are the reasons for Russia’s still-limited but clearly much deeper involvement in Syria? What are Moscow’s precise goals and objectives, strategies and tactics? What are the broader implications of its direct military participation in the conflict? And what does Russia’s raising of its profile in the Middle East mean for its already confrontational relations with the United States?

Russia decided to intervene directly in Syria in order to prevent the ouster of the Assad regime in Damascus. After four years of the grueling war, the Syrian government’s forces had grown weary, and the fall of Damascus—and the likely subsequent loss of Russia’s warm-water port in Tartus—had to be considered a possibility. This would have risen to a probability if the United States and its allies had established a no-fly zone in Syria and stepped up support to the rebel forces fighting Assad. Then, in the Russian analysis, Syria would likely have repeated the fate of Libya, with IS eventually emerging on top and making Damascus the capital of its caliphate.

IS, for the Russians, is a mortal enemy for two main reasons. First, it is a global jihadist organization that looks to all Muslim-populated areas, including Central Asia and Russia’s own North Caucasus, Tatarstan, and others. Second, a large proportion of its foreign fighters hail from former Soviet lands and from Russia itself. Once victorious in Syria and Iraq, these jihadis can move to their places of origin and start making trouble there. For Vladimir Putin, it makes much sense to pin down and kill as many of these enemies as possible now before their anticipated homecoming.

Shoring up the Assad regime and killing jihadi fighters are not, of course, the only objectives that Russia is pursuing in Syria. Moscow’s intervention is as much about Washington as it is about IS. Starting with Ukraine in 2014, Russia has broken out from the post-Cold War order dominated by the United States. In Eastern Europe, the Kremlin was insisting on its right to a sphere of privileged interests in what it terms as “the Russian world” and a security buffer between Russia and NATO. In the Middle East, it is claiming the right to co-equality with the Americans in fighting terrorism and managing regional security. To press both demands, Putin has used military force, and did it in novel ways. In Donbass, Russia engaged in a “hybrid war,” and in Syria it has employed its air and sea power.

Russia’s military strategy is aimed at softening up Assad’s enemies enough to allow him to begin a counter-offensive. While Moscow’s official statements refer to strikes against IS, in reality Russia is pounding all opposition forces, including those trained and equipped by the United States and its regional allies. This is hardly a product of faulty intelligence on the ground or imprecise ordnance. The Russians make little distinction between IS, Nusra Front, Fath, or others. The Kurds—now America’s latest recipient of aid in the conflict—are exempt from Russian strikes, but to the Russians there are no moderates on the battlefield in Syria.

Complete military victory for Assad, however, is impossible, and the Russians know it. Military success is only worth as much as can be translated into political leverage at the negotiating table. In 2014 and 2015, Russia has held two rounds of talks, “Moscow 1 and 2,” between the representatives of the Assad regime and some members of the opposition. The problem is that major opposition groups refuse to talk to Assad’s people or participate in anything facilitated by Moscow. To try to break the deadlock, the Russians are now seeking to cooperate with the Germans and the French to bring Damascus and its opponents—minus IS, Nusra, and several others—to agree on some power-sharing formula. For the Russians, it is not a problem if Assad eventually departs, but he should not leave as a result of U.S. pressure or of a U.S.-backed rebellion. No matter what happens, Russia understands that the strongly centralized Syria that existed until 2011 is a thing of the past.

Russia’s spectacular cruise missile attacks launched from ships in the Caspian Sea, as well as earlier massive deliveries of weapons to Damascus have only been possible due to Moscow’s alliance with Tehran and Baghdad, who offered the Russians the use of their airspace en route to Syria. The United States was formally notified of imminent Russian air attacks in Syria by a Russian general operating from Baghdad, the seat of the join Iraqi-Iranian-Syrian-Russian anti-terrorist information center.

Moscow’s entry into a de facto alliance with the Shia regimes in the Middle East carries serious implications for its standing in the region. With the outside powers increasingly sidelined, the center stage in the Middle East is being taken up by the two would-be regional hegemons, Iran and Saudi Arabia, representing the Shia and Sunni communities, respectively. Until now, Moscow has been careful to stay away from sectarian strife in the Middle East, but the prevailing geopolitical realities and strategic considerations leave it little choice but to enter into a working alliance with the Shiite regimes.

Yet Russia is working hard to maintain relations with the Sunnis. It has kept intensive contacts with the Saudis and the Turks, even though disagreements over Syria run strong in both relationships, and it has solidified its newborn ties with Egypt. In the run-up to the Syria campaign, Putin sent his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to the Gulf. He has also played host to virtually all important regional leaders, including Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Over the past two-plus decades, Russian and Israeli leaders have developed a rapport that allows for mutual candor and a fair degree of understanding, though not necessarily agreement. Russia has a history of recognizing Israeli security interests. In 2014, Putin himself admitted having had to cancel the sale of the S-300 air defense system to Syria due to Israeli concerns. Similar assurances must have been made to Netanyahu during his recent visit to Moscow, on the eve of the Russian air campaign in Syria. The Kremlin finds its Israeli counterparts to be brutally realistic about the region—in contrast to the White House and State Department. One can therefore surmise that informal exchanges between the relevant departments of the Russian and Israeli governments have been quite intensive as of late.


It is also not irrelevant here that, further away from the Syrian battlefield, Russia-China strategic coordination is growing closer, with both countries’ leaders sharing a common worldview, a similar resentful attitude toward the United States, and a range of security and other interests. Islamist extremists, in particular, threaten both Russia and China. The failure of U.S. military engagements in the Middle East and Afghanistan leave it to Moscow and Beijing to try to sort out the resulting mess in the areas of their vital national interest. In both cases, Russia takes the lead in the security domain, due to its regional experience, military capabilities, and willingness to take risks, but China observes the Russian actions closely. It may be remembered that early in 2015, when the decision on intervention in Syria must have already been taken in Moscow, Chinese and Russian navies engaged in joint exercises in the eastern Mediterranean. Now a Chinese aircraft carrier has joined the Russian fleet off the coast of Syria. With Moscow no longer looking at Washington and NATO as security partners, but rather as sources of trouble, new Eurasian security arrangements are being created on the basis of bilateral and multilateral relations involving Russia, China, Iran, India, and Central Asian countries.

In the context of these larger arrangements, and given the potential for unrest among Russia’s own Muslim ethnicities, Putin has been very careful to stress Russia’s respect for Islam. On the eve of the Syria strikes, he opened Moscow’s cathedral mosque, the country’s biggest Muslim place of worship. In addition to Turkey’s Tayyip Recep Erdogan and the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, he was flanked by all Russia’s Muslim leaders, spiritual and temporal, including Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov. The message from the Kremlin and the official Muslim clerics is that Russia is out to help good Muslims against those who use Islam for ulterior, non-Islamic purposes. So far, this message has not provoked a backlash, but Islamist radicals and extremists within Russia will surely be working to portray the Russian intervention as a “crusader” aggression against Islam. This message can be supported by the unwise actions of the Russian Orthodox Church, which in its patriotic fervor is blessing Russian arms destined to be used in Syria.

Within Russian society more broadly, the Syrian intervention has produced a mix of sentiments, from fears of being sucked into a “new Afghanistan” to satisfaction with the display of Russian military prowess. The population is generally allowing the government to prosecute the war, but will take exception to the dispatch of ground troops, particularly conscripts, to Syria, and to the casualties, whether on the battlefield in Syria or as a result of terrorist attacks in Russia. The economic burden of the Russian intervention so far has been relatively light and bearable, even under the current conditions of recession.

Finally, Putin has used Russia’s military build-up in Syria to force his way through to a direct dialogue with President Barack Obama in New York, their first substantive meeting after the U.S. drive to “isolate” Russia diplomatically. Since the Obama Administration is reluctant to accept the Kremlin as a co-equal partner, the “fight for terms” of engagement in Syria is likely to continue. Putin also used his U.N. General Assembly appearance to promote the idea of a broad anti-terrorist coalition to include Tehran and Damascus alongside the Arab capitals, with Moscow on a par with Washington. Predictably, the idea fell flat with the United States and its allies, but Putin has been able to get wide publicity, particularly as his activism on the ground contrasted with the indecisiveness and ineptitude of the Obama White House. In a parallel move, Russia has dialed down the conflict in Donbass, enticing the Germans and other Europeans to think about easing or lifting the sanctions that they imposed on Russia last year. In the words of former Carnegie Endowment President Jessica Mathews, no other politician can play so well as Putin with such a weak hand.

Russia’s intervention in Syria, they say, took nine months to prepare. It is easier, however, to enter a war than to exit from one. Russia faces a number of challenges and risks. It needs to align its military strategy with the political one in Syria and the diplomatic one in the region; it needs to upgrade its expertise and widen its contacts to better understand the rapidly changing environment where it is operating; above all, it must strengthen the security of its people and assets at home. Even as the Russian aircraft were engaging targets in Syria, a Taliban formation briefly seized control of Kunduz, a provincial capital in Afghanistan some 60 miles from the Tajik border: Russia has a military base in Tajikistan and regards it as a roadblock on the march of the jihadis to Central Asia. Putin then immediately summoned the Tajik president to Sochi. With the situation in Afghanistan inherently unstable and the regimes in Central Asia facing challenges not dissimilar from those of the Middle Eastern regimes during the Arab Spring, the Russian president has every reason to be pro-active.


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Dmitri Trenin is director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.