By Ian Armstrong for Global Risk Insights
Though the Russia-Syria partnership has long been a crucial dynamic to the ongoing Syrian Civil War, uncertainty has persisted regarding the precise extent to which Moscow has involved itself in the crisis militarily.
Over the past few weeks, that uncertainty has quickly dissipated. The month of September has seen a series of revelations and developments confirming that Moscow is now engaged in a sudden and significant military build-up in Syria aimed at pulling the ever-weaker Assad regime from the brink of collapse.
These developments have significant geopolitical implications for the Middle East. In fact, Russia’s Syrian power play is so significant that Washington reinstated military-to-military relations with Moscow — suspended out of principle since the March 2014 invasion of Crimea — in an effort to map out the quickly evolving strategic landscape.
A new Russian strategy
Moscow’s controversial decision to increase its presence in Syria can be attributed to President Bashar al-Assad’s increasingly weakened position. The embattled President now only controls about a quarter of Syria’s original territory, and Russia has a significant interest in keeping him in power.
Russia’s interest is not only due to Syria’s utility as a partner and base of operations for Moscow in the Middle East, but also because radical Islam may spread into Russia’s under-regulated extremities in the event of a Syrian collapse.
At the center of Putin’s build up is the construction of a new Russian air base in the Syrian port city of Latakia, discovered via satellite imagery earlier this month. The new base will be used to support Russian air operations out of Syria, providing Moscow a notable boost in Middle East military capabilities and serving as a hub of operations for its pro-Syrian efforts.
Echoing Russia’s unexpected build-up in Ukraine, Putin has wasted no time in executing a rapid deployment that has once again blind-sided the West. Transport planes have begun arriving on a daily basis with new military supplies, Russian tanks have been repositioned en masse along the site of construction, and the Syrian Army is now being supplied with more advanced Russian weaponry than ever before.
At last count, Washington now projects that Russia has stationed “four Su-30s, two Mi-24 gunship helicopters and two Mi-17 Hip utility choppers” at Latakia, and Moscow plans on sending an additional 2,000 troops for what will be the “first phase” of a larger operation.
From the Russian perspective, the initiative is being billed as a “defensive effort,” with a strict mandate of protecting Syria. Though the semantics and speculations surrounding this claim remain numerous, one thing remains constant: Moscow’s new strategy in Syria has serious implications across the broader geostrategic spectrum.
The Implications of greater Russian involvement
Considering the complexity of the situation in Syria and the broader Middle East, Russia’s unfolding military escalation presents several different shades of risk and opportunity.
The clearest positive impact of a Russian offensive in support of Assad comes with its potential to degrade the capabilities of ISIS, which has long overtaken the Syrian government itself as the single most destabilizing force in the Middle East. Though long-term Western and Russian interests remain at odds, bringing ISIS to its knees is a short-term goal shared by all, and a Russian air campaign will do a great deal towards this end.
In addition, the renewal of military-to-military operations between the U.S. and Russia presents the potential for cooperation in a bilateral relationship otherwise characterized by increasing tension. Given absolute U.S. opposition to Russia’s strategy of backing Assad, the degree to which cooperation can be achieved is likely minimal, but some form of joint strategizing may well take place in the short-term as both nations hone their sights on a common enemy.
However, the implications of an intensified Russian effort in Syria become riskier and less broadly beneficial when considering the long-term impact. If Russia is successful in keeping Assad in power, President Putin will gain even greater legitimacy domestically, and Moscow as a whole will enhance its standing internationally, at the detriment of U.S. influence and reputation.
Russian leadership against ISIS may also be a means of working towards de-escalation with the West, as negative feelings from the Ukrainian crisis will be more difficult to maintain in the midst of a shared interest in defeating violent non-state actors. Either way, Russian success would significantly boost Moscow’s standing in the Middle East and bring it closer to achieving the kind of regional influence presently wielded only by Washington.
A virtual stalemate ensues
Yet, Russia could also become the victim of its own strategy. Whether President Putin accepts it or not, Russia is currently a country of limited options.
Now more than ever, Russian resources are limited, and any new strategic ploy will be accompanied by corresponding strains on existing initiatives. This means that, as Russia expands its military efforts in Syria, the sustainability of its Ukrainian endeavor decreases, an endeavor central to the legitimacy and stability of the Russian government.
Finally, and most significantly, the construction of a Russian airbase in Syria virtually eliminates the most effective tool for sowing the foundations of peace available to the West: the establishment of a no-fly zone. Though the United States has resisted implementing a no-fly zone thus far, it retains the position that, at some point soon, Assad must fall.
Although ISIS represents an unquestionable threat to the safety of innocent Syrian civilians, Assad’s regime has remained responsible for 75% of all civilian deaths in 2015 — the majority of which have been carried out by his indiscriminating air force. The clearest way to bring an end to this has been for the United States to implement a no-fly zone over Syrian airspace.
With Russia’s planned air operations, such a policy is highly unlikely, as a Western imposed restriction on aircraft in Syria would now require the targeting of Russian aircraft. President Putin’s direct assistance to the Assad regime all but ensures a persistent hesitancy from the West to act, as any actions against the Syrian dictator would now involve some form of hybrid warfare against Moscow. As a result, the Syrian crisis will continue into the foreseeable future, Europe’s refugee conundrum will only intensify in severity, and instability in the Middle East will persist even after the subduing of ISIS.
Furthermore, the durability of Russia’s Syrian build-up may be the achilles heel for the uncertainties and complications that it presents. Behind closed doors, Russia is hoping for the best of both worlds — the legitimacy-building benefits of deep, meaningful involvement in the war against ISIS, but without the steady drain on strategic resources that such a program demands.
Though it has positioned itself for a stronger military backing of the Assad regime with measurable impact on the regional landscape, it cannot afford to endure the kind of never-ending military endeavor that engagement against non-state actors has become. By increasing its operations in Syria, Moscow is risking just that.