The Russian deployment in Syria recently surpassed the 100-day mark which presents one with an apt point in time to evaluate it.
Michael Kofman is a Public Policy Fellow in the Kennan Institute of the Wilson Center, a non-partisan policy forum. He has criticized what he believes to be to be a baseless political narrative that increasingly looks more and more disconnected from the trajectory of events in Syria,” on the part of many in Washington that the Russian effort in Syria would immediately lead to a costly quagmire for the Kremlin and other presumptions on the part of various politicians and commentators.
Critics of the Russian deployment invariably dismiss the Kremlin’s move saying it “will become enmeshed in a quagmire,” in that war-torn country. Additionally Russia’s bombing tactics are routinely condemned for wantonly killing civilians due to their highly indiscriminate nature. Kofman reasons that both arguments can be overly simplistic.
“I think the campaign is miscast as indiscriminate, which is more politics talking, but the operations reveal many of the technical shortcomings of the Russian Air Force,” Kofman told Rudaw English. “Russia conspicuously lacks capable precision guided bombs and has low stocks in general of precision guided munitions, and still lacks targeted pods.”
On top of this Russian airpower in Syria is playing an “outsized role” but has still nevertheless helped shift momentum on the ground, securing the Assad regime and even enabling it to go on the offensive against its enemy after maintaining a defensive posture for quite some time.
“Facts on the ground have clearly changed in favour of the Russian-led coalition, and it is difficult to argue today that the air campaign has not made a very substantial contribution to these changes.”
Kofman also takes issue with the misconception that Russia is fully and resolutely committed to Assad's survival.
“Syria is a client state Russia inherited at the collapse of the USSR, rather than an ally, a distinction with a difference. Hence Assad’s personal fate is less a concern for Russia and more for Iran, meaning Moscow’s position on this is much closer to that of the U.S. Much has been written, quite incorrectly, about any significance Syria might have to Russia in the Middle East. The short answer on this is that it has almost none, as a military supply point, or a political ally. Russia does not have the USSR’s ambitions, resources, or military that would make Syria important for anything in the region. In truth Assad is not Russia’s ally, but Iran’s, and an important one for Iranian links to Hezbollah in that area.”
Kofman also cautions observers of too readily comparing the Russian intervention in Syria to past American interventions in the region. Especially in Iraq. Unlike the Americans in Iraq Russia isn’t seeking to build a new military nor a new political order “from scratch.” And it hasn’t sent tens-of-thousands of its soldiers into Syria but has instead initiated a “limited and sustainable level of effort, nothing that cannot be withdrawn quickly.”
“Not only is Russia not interested in a counter insurgency or stability operation, but with 4000-5000 men it clearly has no capacity to even engage in such efforts. This is about fighting a military campaign. Also Russia has capable allies in the fight, Iran, Hezbollah and now America’s allies as well - the Kurds.”
Also, far from sponsoring some nation-building exercise, Russia is there to secure an existing regime upon invitation. An important distinction to make from the Americans in Iraq who initiated a regime-change effort followed by an attempt of spearheading a new political order which it hoped would be more beneficial to its interests in the region.
“Moscow has clear achievable political objectives, and can marry the required use of force to accomplishing them. The U.S. led interventions had grossly misaligned ends, ways and means, with creeping political goals.”
“More generally this intervention is part based in clear self-interest, and part principled in nature,” Kofman added, “Russia believes that the Syrian regime is the only viable, legitimate and stabilizing actor (perhaps with the exception of Kurds) in the country. To them there is no Syrian future where Assad loses and the country does not become a bastion for the Islamic State, al-Qaeda affiliates and the likes. To Moscow, U.S. interventions in the Middle East have sown chaos and disaster, Deputy Minister for Defense Rogozin called American foreign policy “a monkey with a hand grenade.” But we must also see this as an effort to draw a line against Western interventions, the notion that a responsibility to protect supersedes sovereignty and so forth. At least this is the Russian conviction.”
With such clear goals and a sustainable deployment one is led to wonder the Russian endgame. Kofman believes that since the Russians have helped safeguard the regime they want to broker an end to “settle the conflict in Syria with a political solution largely on Russian and Iranian terms.”
“For Russia the ideal scenario is a political settlement that leaves the Syrian regime in charge, together with viable opposition groups, and leaves the rest of Syria to the Kurds. The more of the moderate opposition, and proxy forces Russia eliminates, the more attractive the secular Syrian regime appears to the U.S.,” Kofman reasons.
“I don’t see Russia leaving Syria any time soon, but I also do not see them expanding beyond what is a very limited intervention, keeping it sustainable. Unfortunately for them the Syrian Army isn’t in the best shape, forcing Russian ground forces to participate in some critical roles, advising operations, directing fire and so forth. No doubt Russians feel they intervened a bit late and would have had much more to work with if they had chosen to do this back in 2014,” he added.
The United States has dismissed the notion of working with Russia in Syria since it has aligned with Assad and has directed most of its firepower to date against non-ISIS targets. However Kofman sees areas where American-Russian cooperation could yield positive results.
He argues that both countries “wish to see Syria stabilized and ISIS defeated, but with differences on how to best accomplish these goals.”
And there are more areas for convergence than otherwise appear on the surface. After all “both sides wish to for Syria to be run by a secular government that is composed of the regime and opposition groups,” who will prevent Syria from becoming a haven for jihadis. And while the U.S. despises Assad it nevertheless “understands that a defeat for Assad creates more problems than it solves.”
While both powers maintain separate air campaigns over Syria they both conspicuously support the Syrian Kurds. Kofman believes that the November 24 Turkish shoot-down of the Russian Su-24 warplane saw Moscow “drastically” increase its support to those Syrian Kurdish fighters in the north.
“Today Syrian Kurds are the only group politically and militarily supported by both sides, Russia and the U.S. So here we see a convergence of objectives and allies. The Kurdish campaign against ISIS, to the chagrin of the Turks, is what links these two largely separate conflicts. You can safely say that now Russia and the U.S. have an ally in common.”
Despite the decisiveness of the campaign so far Kofman explained there are limits to what the Russians can achieve overall in Syria:
“Russia cannot affect the complete re-conquest of Syria, which as a country is dead, not to be seen again. What the Russian military can do is help the Syrian army regain a viable territory that contains the major cities and most of the population, along with the economic potential of the country. However, regain does not translate into control. Controlling real estate is much harder than gaining it. Take the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as apt precedents. The only way to control this territory is to have a military effort that eliminates some groups, and a political solution that integrates the others. There is no way the Syrian military can control the country even if they retook most of it – it is not within it means. This is why a political settlement is the only viable solution. Russia understands perfectly well that they can fight for the same terrain in Syria for years and get nowhere.”
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.