Putin Comes to Syria: Contexts and Consequences

By Paul Salem | Vice President for Policy and Research - The Middle East Institute | Sep 21, 2015
Putin Comes to Syria: Contexts and Consequences

The Russian escalation in Syria will create a flurry of diplomatic activity to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis and a fresh attempt to confront ISIS in Syria, but the conditions for success on both fronts are still absent.  The intervention is likely to lead to further escalation of the conflict with no resolution of the political or security stalemates.  

Furthermore, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move into Syria is the result of a number of factors and will have far-reaching consequences at the international, regional, and local levels.

Internationally, Putin has been seeking to roll back the West’s weakening and isolation of Russia that occurred after the end of the Cold War. The war in Georgia in 2008 and Crimea and Ukraine in 2014 flew in the face of the West’s attempts to bring NATO all the way to Russia’s doorstep. And the move to rebuild a strong military presence in Syria is a response to two and a half decades of U.S. monopolization of war and peace in the Middle East. Russia’s new presence in Syria indicates that it is not just a regional power in Eastern Europe and the Arctic but also a global player that is able and willing to project military power in areas well beyond the Russian motherland.

Regionally, Russia might also be in the process of rebuilding a regional alliance it lost decades ago. The conclusion of the P5 +1 deal removes the taboo of working with Iran and enables Russia to move forward with open strategic and military coordination with Iran, particularly in Syria. The deal might also have encouraged Russia’s move into Syria in that Russia, like Turkey and other countries in the Gulf, could not rule out an Iranian-American rapprochement after the deal that would again have left Russia sidelined in the Middle East. Russia’s move revives an old Soviet-Syrian strategic and military relationship that had lapsed over the past decades.

In Iraq, for the time being, the United States remains the main global military partner of the Iraqi armed forces, but with closer Iranian-Russian ties, it is possible that Iraq could drift steadily away from Washington and closer to Moscow. It is no coincidence that Iran used its influence in Iraq to weaken and sideline the Pentagon-trained national army, and Iran is uncomfortable with any major U.S. role in rebuilding the national army. So either the national army will remain weak, or it will have to find another global partner. Russia could step into that role. Indeed, the new Russian presence in Syria is a strong signal to Baghdad that Russia is back in the Middle East and willing to rebuild old alliances.

The third piece of a rebuilt set of Russian regional partnerships could be Egypt. Although the Egyptian military still gets most of its military hardware from the United States, it is clear that Presidents Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Putin see eye to eye on a great number of political and security issues. Sisi has already visited Moscow many times, signing numerous energy and military agreements, but has not visited Washington once. Egypt will likely remain in some formal sense an American ally, particularly given Egypt’s strong dependencies on America’s Arab Gulf allies, but clearly the relationship between Cairo and Moscow is the more real and dynamic relationship in this period.

And in Tehran, Russia is currently considered a friend of the government and certainly an ally in regard to Syria, while the Supreme Leader has made clear after the nuclear deal that the United States is still to be considered a great enemy. Putin, on the other hand, has already been received several times in Tehran.   

In other words, Moscow is moving in the direction of recreating many of the relationships it had during the Cold War but lost after 1990—now with the addition of Iran, the United States’ old Cold War ally.

Locally, and perhaps most immediately, the Russian buildup is a response to developments in the Syrian arena itself. First, the regime had been rapidly losing ground on battlefronts in the north as well as the south of the country. Second, a year after the declaration of a U.S.-led campaign against ISIS, the terrorist group is still as strong as before and shows no sign of weakening. This is not only a threat to Russia’s allies in the Syrian regime, but Putin also sees that the survival of the radical caliphate in the Levant threatens to destabilize his own Muslim population and the Muslim republics in Russia’s immediate southern belt.

Third, the move also comes weeks after the United States announced that it would cooperate with Turkey in creating a safe zone in northern Syria. Although the American train-and-equip program has so far been a grand failure, American commitments to provide air cover for future train-and-equip groups or possibly for other units fighting ISIS introduced a new level of American involvement in the Syrian war. The Russian move is a signal to the Americans that Russia considers Syria its strategic space.

The move is also timed before the upcoming UN General Assembly meetings in New York, where Putin can deflect attention from the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and emphasize Russia’s role in combating ISIS and international terrorism.

The consequences of the latest move are likely to be numerous and long-lasting. In terms of the international relations of the Middle East, this is likely to be a turning point.  Moscow disappeared from the strategic calculations of Middle Eastern states with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. At that point, Syria’s Hafez al-Assad had to join the U.S.-led alliance to liberate Kuwait, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was weakened in the face of crippling U.S.-led sanctions followed by a full-scale invasion. Egypt had steered clear of Moscow since the early 1970s.  

This move begins to reverse that trend. Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, which was left helpless when Obama threated to bomb Damascus in 2013 over the use of chemical weapons, now knows that it has a resurgent superpower by its side—not only blocking votes in the Security Council and sending aid at arm’s length—but moving men, equipment, and bases to Syria and committing to help defend the regime. This new reality will reverberate around the region.

Regionally, the move helps cement Iran’s arc of influence that stretches from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut. Iran is no longer just an overactive regional player, but one with a solid superpower ally that is able to stand up to the United States and its allies.

In Syria, the move will have serious consequences as well. It will strengthen the regime’s military hand and probably slow or halt the pattern of losses it has suffered. It is also likely to have serious effects on the calculations of Turkey and the Gulf states. They had felt that their backing of Syrian rebels was gaining momentum and that a defeat of the regime in the medium term was not unlikely. This new Russian commitment reshuffles the deck. Some in those capitals might now conclude that a full defeat of the regime is much less likely and that an escalation with Putin’s Russia is very costly; they thus might argue for looking for an acceptable political deal. Others in those same capitals might choose to meet Russia’s escalation with an escalation of their own, through more backing and support for the rebels.  Which logic will prevail is still unclear.

At one level the Russian escalation presents important opportunities: to negotiate a political end to the Syrian conflict and to deal a strong blow to ISIS in Syria.  

Putin has trumpeted the need for a negotiated political transition and has reached out to the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other players to try to agree on terms of a deal. But the devil remains, not in the details, but on the role of Assad. Russia—and Assad’s other ally, Iran—both say that they are not wedded to him per se and that the choice of Syria’s leaders in the future is “up to the Syrian people.” That the role of Assad could be discussed as part of a transition has created the appearance of common ground between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry. But both Russia and Iran insist that for the present, and for the immediate future, Assad has to be an ally in the fight against ISIS and other terrorist groups.  Whereas for the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, Assad’s presence in power is seen as the primary cause of the disintegration of order in Syria and a continuing recruiting tool for ISIS and other extremists; they believe that the replacement of Assad—or at least the transfer of his main executive powers to an inclusive transitional government—is the prerequisite for winning the war against ISIS.  

In addition, the latest Russian move will certainly further harden Assad’s own refusal to offer any serious political concessions. With Iran and now Russia materially committed to fighting his enemies, he has less incentive than ever to offer concessions. And as long as there is no viable alternative to Assad that the Russians or Iranians can turn to—and Assad will do his best to make sure no such alternative emerges or stays alive—they are stuck with him.  The Russians might be able to drag Assad to the negotiating table, but they can’t make him drink. And the only concessions that he would be willing to offer—such as that a few members of the opposition be included in an essentially powerless government while he remains the executive president—will not be acceptable to any significant members of the opposition nor to their backers.

In other words, while there is likely to be a flurry of diplomatic activity in the next few months, it is unlikely to lead to a political settlement. This in turn will usher in a new escalated round of fighting and the likelihood of a very long-term division of Syria, with a core area of Damascus and the western coast under regime-Iranian-Russian control, and large parts of the southeast and north under various rebel control. In this scenario the devastation of Syria and the stream of suffering and refugees that are currently overwhelming the region as well as Europe will continue.

If a political breakthrough is unlikely, will the latest Russian move at least enable victory over ISIS in Syria? Putin has declared that a priority, and that goal is widely shared by countries around the world. It is likely that Russia will insist on, and achieve, at least a small symbolic victory over ISIS sometime soon—perhaps in Palmyra—but the small Russian deployment does not create any new conditions for a full assault on the group.  The ground forces for such a victory are still not available.  

Regime ground forces, as well as Hezbollah and other fighters sent by Iran, have already been stretched very thin.  With new Russian material and aerial support they might be able to hold lines they were retreating from just weeks previously, but they do not have the manpower to launch major new land assaults. And Iranian policy has been clear that Tehran is committed to preventing the fall of the Assad regime, and might inject more forces to help it preserve the rump state that it currently occupies, but Iran has not shown any interest in expending precious financial and manpower resources to take the fight to ISIS in other parts of Syria. 

On the rebel side, as long as Assad is in power, they too will be stretched thin; while they are already fighting against ISIS on some fronts, their main fight will still be with the regime.

So while Putin’s call for more efforts to defeat ISIS will fall on welcoming ears in many capitals, the new Russian deployment does not introduce or free up significant numbers of ground forces to make such a campaign plausible. Only a real political settlement—and the departure or disempowerment of Assad—will enable both regime and rebel forces to turn from fighting each other to fighting ISIS.

To end on a hopeful note, there is a medium-term and not unrealistic possibility linked to the new Russian commitment in Syria. Russia’s historic relationship in Syria, as with many of its former Soviet clients, is mainly with the military. Over the next months and years it will be working to equip and retrain the Syrian military to enable it once again to be the central pillar for the stability and survival of the state—even the current rump state. And it will be building close relations with the generals of this army. Those relations could finally provide the way forward for finding an alternative to Assad without risking the collapse of the state and creating the conditions for a political settlement in Syria.