What a Russian ‘win’ in Syria would look like

October 28, 2015
Russian President Putin shakes hands with Syrian President Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015. REUTERS/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

As Russia’s bombing campaign in Syria drags on, a number of commentators have suggested that President Vladimir Putin’s bold move could drag Russia into an Afghan-style quagmire. This negative outcome is far from guaranteed, however, and Putin holds more cards than his critics realize. Russia may well achieve its core military objectives in Syria — while the United States cannot.

Here’s how Putin might achieve his ideal outcome in Syria.

To start, a key strength of Russia’s Syrian military strategy is its simplicity. Today the Russian bombing campaign seeks only to stabilize the Syrian regime’s lines around the key corridor running north from Damascus through Homs and Hama. This approach provides breathing space for Assad, and allows his regime to implement its long-mooted Plan B — a rump state centered on the Alawite heartland along the Mediterranean coast. While it’s unclear whether the Assad regime can re-conquer large portions of Syria, the rebels are now on the defensive and the regime has stopped losing crucial pieces of territory.

The United States’ strategy, by contrast, remains much more convoluted. President Barack Obama both demands that “Assad must go,” while also vowing to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State. To date, though, the United States has been unwilling to commit the necessary military forces to achieve either of these goals. Not surprisingly, Assad continues to cling to power while Islamic State controls large chunks of both Syria and Iraq.

Putin’s desire to reassert Russia’s influence in the Middle East appears to be bearing fruit already. By summoning Assad to Moscow on Oct. 20, Putin made clear that Russia now runs the show in Syria. Indeed, the reported use of a Russian military plane to secretly transport Assad to Moscow demonstrates Assad’s total dependence on Russia, not just militarily, but for his personal safety as well. By all indications Assad is painfully aware of this dynamic — and Putin surely is, too.

Assad’s reliance on Russia thus offers Putin a number of diplomatic options vis-à-vis the West. The early 19th century military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously said that “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” and Putin clearly seeks to translate Russia’s military campaign into political success. According to a statement from the Russian president published on the Kremlin’s website, “positive results in military operations will lay the base for then working out a long-term settlement based on a political process that involves all political forces, ethnic and religious groups… We would do this, of course, in close contact with the other global powers and with the countries in the region that want to see a peaceful settlement to this conflict.”

Translation: a solution to the Syrian crisis flows through me.

Consider the following scenario. After an additional one or two months of Russian bombing, Assad’s grip on the regime’s remaining territory looks secure. Putin could then propose a political compromise between Assad and his enemies, which would entail a power-sharing agreement between Assad and as many of the non-Islamic State rebels that can be cajoled into working with his regime — and who would agree to target Islamic State.

The West might well consider such an outcome acceptable. Europe’s overwhelming concern is stopping the flow of refugees from Syria, while the United States’ core objective remains weakening Islamic State. While neither Europe nor the United States could afford to say so — at least explicitly — it’s still possible that the West would accept a deal that leaves Assad in power, either in a ceremonial role or as part of a long-term transition.

While the United States would need to walk back its absolutist “Assad must go” policy, Europe would surely leap at any straw that offers at least some possibility of easing its refugee burden. To sweeten the deal further, Putin might even agree to implement “no-fly” safe zones in northern Syria where humanitarian organizations can tend to the millions of Syrians displaced by the war — an option which to date Russia has rejected.

Naturally, Putin would demand the West pay a price for this cooperation. First of all, he would surely require that Russia be afforded a seat at the table for any discussions involving a broader geopolitical and security architecture for the Middle East. Indeed, even without Western support, Russia has made progress towards this goal. Putin reportedly spoke with important Sunni leaders in the Gulf states and Jordan to brief them on his conversations with Assad.

Even more important than expanding Moscow’s influence in the Middle East, Putin might seek to use his Syrian campaign to force an end to Western economic sanctions over Ukraine. Although the United States is unlikely to accept a Syria-for-Ukraine trade-off, the Europeans very well might. Many European countries and businesses already want an end to sanctions anyway, and if Putin offers Europe even a glimmer of hope of solving its refugee problem, the pressure on the European Union from its member states to end sanctions may prove irresistible. In Putin’s best-case scenario, Europe might even pressure the United States to wind down its own sanctions regime as well.

To be clear, this represents a hypothetical scenario and any number of things could still go wrong for Russia. Russian military personnel could be captured and held as hostages; the Russians could face retaliatory terrorist strikes from jihadists within Russia itself; Assad may continue to lose ground despite Russia’s airstrikes; and Russian domestic public opinion could swing decisively against Putin if the Syrian campaign drags on or the Russian economy continues to sink.

Moreover, the same moderate rebels currently on the receiving end of Russian airstrikes may well reject any Russian role in forging a political solution, thereby undercutting Putin’s ability to present Moscow’s involvement as indispensable to solving the Syrian crisis.

Despite these substantial downsides, if events break the right way for him, Putin could still surprise us all with a geopolitical victory.






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The problem with Putin’s poodles is that they don’t always obey. Janukowski decided to flirt with the EU, and so he had to go because Putin worried about the safety of his navy base in Sebastopol. Ditto Assad. Of course Putin couldn’t care less about Assad, but he needs to protect his navy base in Syria.

Posted by pbgd | Report as abusive

Let Syria/Assad be President Vladimir Putin headache and monetary drain. Who is the villain? A rebel today could be your enemy tomorrow. No one really does know.

Posted by Analayst | Report as abusive

Russia took the bait. The “core military objective” of the United States and NATO…. was to watch Russia do all the work for once. It’s funny watching them actually get off the vodka couch for a while.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Bait? Hardly.

They complete the job swiftly and bring closure to the issue while we drag the issue over a decade all the while bleeding US tax payers dearly.

Look at the track record in Ukraine and Syria – while US fomented these conflicts for multiple years, Russia brought closure within few months in Crimea and working toward such an outcome, in Syria – in both cases, making the US defense (strategy) seem ineffective and incompetent.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

Whatever happens, the credibility of the USA., has reached an all time low, and is still in freefall! Listen to their leading politicians, how can anybody take them seriously?

Posted by Thefont | Report as abusive

Russia taking Crimea is like U.S. taking Puerto Rico. Again. Pretty much… not a fight. Wouldn’t brag too much on that.

Russia is engaging in exactly the battles now that the U.S. wants them to.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

AS-IS will be pushed into Iraqi oil fields and Saudi Arabia where they will take care of the Infidel Princess ;)

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

The accusations that Russia is attacking non-Daesh targets could well be true for the obvious reason that those in the immediate front line against Assad are not Daesh. The Russian strikes are in support of ground troops in the front line, with a few more strategic strikes further north-east where they do in fact hit Daesh….

In the specific battlefield in western Syria, Daesh are at present predominantly further north and east, and generally not on the front line which is the major battleground for the moment.

The specific targets attacked by the US and its allies “may” be more centered on Daesh as they are at best strategic and not tactical, often targeted executions, and by and large not intended to back up action on the ground; they are more akin to drone strikes in Yemen and Afghanistan.

Posted by captainbwana | Report as abusive

Russia and Iran are likely going to succeed in Syria, simply because the West wants to see a sort of a democratic system implemented in Syria that isn’t going to work. At best Syria could become a country like Lebanon, but we all know that the US is opposed to the Lebanese political system where Hezbollah is a state within a state. One has to recognize that in some cases there not enough consensus among the population to live under the same political system.

Posted by CountIblis | Report as abusive

There is one more scenario that everyone seems to be forgetting and that’s the one where assad wins the civil war. with jordan pulling support for the rebels in the south, that fronts expansion is basically over and will be pushed back over time. to the north u have al nusra (al qaeda) and some FSA. the back bone of the fighting force is al nusra. the north east and east of the country is isis. what people fail to see when they look at syria is assad might have lost lots of territory but its not the main population centres of the country and that’s what counts in a civil war.

Posted by tipex | Report as abusive

The mess is in Putin’s back yard.

Posted by Amwatching2c | Report as abusive