Why — and how — Russia won in Syria

March 15, 2016
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, March 14, 2016.  REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTX294ZD

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, March 14, 2016. REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/Kremlin

“An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” So said U.S. President Barack Obama when Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his military campaign in Syria to support the country’s authoritarian ruler.

There’s just one problem, though: A day after Putin announced a Russian withdrawal from Syria, it’s clear that his gamble has turned into a major win for Moscow. Here’s what Russia achieved — and why it was so successful.

First — and most importantly — Russian bombing turned the tide of the war in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s favor. When the Russian military deployed to Syria, Assad was in serious trouble, with many predicting the regime could collapse. Five months later, after recapturing key chunks of territory in both the south and north, Assad clearly holds the military upper hand. Even Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, head of the United States Defense Intelligence Agency, admits “the Russian reinforcement has changed the calculus completely.”

Russia’s bombing campaign did more than help Assad recover lost territory. Syria’s “moderate” Sunni rebels from the Free Syrian Army — many supported by Washington — suffer the brunt of the Russian bombing campaign, particularly in the north along the Syrian-Turkish border. Assad’s forces have almost cut supply lines from Turkey to Washington’s Sunni allies, and they are squeezed between Assad on one side and Islamic State on the other. As a result, Moscow verges on achieving a key objective of turning the Syrian war into a binary choice for the West between the horror of Islamic State and the brutality of the Assad regime. Given that American support for Islamic State is unthinkable, Moscow clearly hopes Washington will become more amenable to a long-term role for Assad in Syria — something Stewart himself concedes is likely.

Second, Putin recently achieved an important diplomatic objective by forcing the United States to acknowledge that Russia plays a key role in determining Syria’s future. At the beginning of Russia’s intervention, Washington’s position was that any coordination with Moscow would be limited to military “deconfliction” talks to avoid an accidental clash between American and Russian forces.

The most recent ceasefire beginning on February 27, however, was negotiated in Geneva directly between the United States and Russia. Both sides agreed to act as equal guarantors for the ceasefire, and Obama concluded negotiations by speaking directly to Putin. As icing on the cake, Moscow recently forced Washington to renounce its position that “Assad must go,” with Secretary of State John Kerry stating “the United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change,” and that the focus was “not on our differences about what can or cannot be done immediately about Assad.”

Third, Putin responded to Turkey’s shoot down of a Russian jet by humiliating Ankara, an emerging rival in the Middle East and Central Asia. Russia deployed advanced S400 surface-to-air missiles near Turkey. With a range of 250 miles, the Russian military now dominates the skies over Syria and its immediate neighbors, effectively denying Turkish jets access to Syrian airspace.

Putin also grievously wounded Turkey’s key rebel allies and close ethnic cousins, the Syrian Turkmen. Turkmen rebels reportedly killed the Russian pilots shot down by Turkish jets, and bombing the Turkmen allows Putin to both avenge these deaths — thereby playing to Russian public opinion — while degrading the effectiveness of one of Assad’s enemies.

Putin also hit Turkey where it hurts by playing the “Kurdish card” against Ankara. Turkey worries that Syria’s Kurds, the Peoples’ Protection Units, or YPG, are close to establishing an autonomous state in northern Syria, running along the Turkish-Syrian border. Russia, though, plays on Turkish fears by providing air support for YPG efforts to fully control the Turkish-Syrian border, and Moscow even reportedly deployed 200 troops to a Kurdish-controlled town right on the Turkish border.

Finally, Putin’s Syrian campaign has contributed to weakening the European Union. NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe Philip Breedlove has said that Russia “weaponizes” refugees by bombing civilian targets and supporting Assad’s troops, thereby causing a substantially greater inflow of refugees into Europe — up to 100,000 from the city of Aleppo alone. Meanwhile, resentment toward Germany’s open-door refugee policy produces rising anger across the EU, with countries such as Austria even suspending participation in Europe’s Schengen agreement, which allows for free passage between member states. Schengen remains a core component of EU unity, and some argue the collapse of Schengen could be the beginning of the end for the EU itself.

Looking at the scope of Putin’s Syrian “wins,” one major question jumps out: How did Russia manage to confound the naysayers by succeeding?

Russia entered Syria with one overriding objective: Preserve the Assad regime. To avoid another Afghanistan-style quagmire, Russia relies on fighters from its Shi’ite allies, including Assad, Hezbollah and Iran. By picking a clear and achievable goal and then ensuring that Moscow and its allies all rowed in one direction, Putin enacted a textbook proxy strategy.

Washington’s Syrian policy, meanwhile, remains a hopeless muddle. At various points the Obama administration insisted that “Assad must go” — and that Assad can stay. Its objectives have been to degrade and destroy Islamic State, reject broader cooperation with Moscow and partner in peace talks with Moscow.

The United States’ search for moderate rebels led it to support the Free Syrian Army. But FSA militias sometimes tactically ally with al Qaeda’s Syrian branch — effectively putting Washington on the same side at times as the perpetrators of 9/11.

Washington’s Sunni allies have not exactly been trouble-free either. Vice President Joseph Biden publicly accused the Turks, Saudis and Qataris of arming Syrian militants, stating “those allies’ policies wound up helping to arm and build allies of al Qaeda and eventually the terrorist Islamic State.” The United States also sees the Syrian Kurds as the most effective local anti-Islamic State force — yet Washington’s Turkish ally prioritizes attacking the Kurds over fighting Islamic state.

The Obama administration’s proxy strategy epitomizes this confusion. One Pentagon program spent $500 million on a train and equip program for Sunni rebels. The end result was a grand total of 60 trained rebels out of a target of 5,400, and even then, the few trainees actually sent into Syria promptly turned their weapons over to al Qaeda.

The apex of this failed strategy occurred when two American proxies recently fought each other. As part of their move to carve out an autonomous state, Syrian Kurds funded by the Pentagon recently attacked a CIA-backed rebel battalion, effectively placing two agencies of the United States government in a proxy war with each other.

As Moscow exits the Syrian morass, the five-month-long military campaign represents a clear geopolitical win for Vladimir Putin.


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Haha. Won? Look at the place. What did they win? Some rubble and some jizz on their pants? Yay?

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Very well written, and so true!!!!!
Finally someone that does not suffer from Putinphobia………

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

Well written, unbiased, intelligent, factual truth.
Thank you to Josh Cohen.

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive

Clarity and substance matter in the face of noise of ignorance and this article is good reflection of the truth.

Russia has gained considerable respect around the globe toward successful closure in a short time of yet another senseless conflict that NATO/US fomented. Keep up the good work.

Posted by Mottjr | Report as abusive

we’ve just seen mr kerry declare victory over russia underneath the georgian flag – some message

beware when the (russian) dog doesn’t bark

Posted by EdMartin | Report as abusive

Unbıas analysis, the game ended in favour of Putin. Really, Putin demostrates that world peace is above political interest and supporting terrorists inclined ideology will not guarantee freedom, democracy and liberty to people.

Posted by Bedu | Report as abusive

“…effectively putting Washington on the same side at times as the perpetrators of 9/11.”

LMAO! were allied with the Grand Dragons of Wahhabi suicidal terrorists!

Posted by Sinner88 | Report as abusive

“…effectively putting Washington on the same side at times as the perpetrators of 9/11….”

This is a delusional statement. The US is allied with the Wahhabi Saudis!

Posted by Sinner88 | Report as abusive

Why do so many senior Western media outlets still maintain the fiction that Syrian government forces are fighting mainly “moderate rebels”? It simply isn’t true.

The strongest and largest groups fighting the government, and the only ones besides ISIS with any hope of defeating the government forces, are Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham. Both are fanatical Islamist groups (al-Nusra is an al-Qaeda offshoot). If the government fell, they would be the ones to take over the country. That is, fanatical jihadists would take over yet another country with Western, Turkish and Saudi money and weapons. The only thing left would be the final fight between ISIS and the other two groups over who gets to rule the new caliphate that they all want.

This is what Putin and Russia prevented. We should all be grateful; I bet most Syrians are.

Posted by Nickcw | Report as abusive

Fantastic article. This is really a testament to the Russian military and the effectiveness of their recent overhauls in their various programs. Syria truly is a testing ground for both Russian and NATO hardware (including the EU). Unfortunately the result is finding better ways to kill each other and the proliferation of military hardware to whoever is watching the demonstration.
One thing about the Russian involvement that I haven’t heard much about is what their effectiveness was in hitting ISIL. Time will tell I guess, both in how ISIL turns out and in how Assad will now be perceived by the West. My prediction is much will be forgotten about previous transgressions and a short term deal will come up. Long enough for Assad to place someone else in power that meats the criteria. Assad maintains power by proxy, the EU and the US see a regime change and boom, everyone’s happy :)

Posted by Roostah | Report as abusive

Mr Putin moved his forces out of Syria because of the New opportunities in the Balkans.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

Mr. Putin is to be congratulated on his “victory”.
Next, he will announce medals for all the participants. Gold-plated over tin, of course because his budget does not allow for silly expenses like properly funding an ongoing Syrian excursion, or a good set of medals for the participants.
What a sham.

Posted by Wellstone1 | Report as abusive

Putin does the West’s bidding. He is easy to manipulate because you only need to tell him, “no don’t go in there.” Next thing you know, he’s bombing places for us.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

This is easy. Obama , Hil, Kerry are cave ins to our international enemies sort of like the GOP is to lib Dems like….Obama. Obama has no moral view of Islamist evil nor does he think that America should be anywhere near areas of any conflict if we have to be superior militarily again. He has systematically destroyed our military and underestimated the Putins, the Chicoms, and all of the Islamofascist enemies. The worse POTUS in our history has like Carter been a weak kneed CIC.

Posted by phillyfanatic | Report as abusive

Putin has won, but only for a place in the Parthenon of war criminals.

Posted by PersonFromEarth | Report as abusive

Superb writing. Unbiased and very informative. If only all journalism was more like this. Thank you for not being afraid to speak out against the mainstream narrative or simply regurgitate propaganda. It’s writing like this that has inspired me to enter the journalism field.

Posted by MattPellerin | Report as abusive