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Debating Russia's Aims in Syria

There is a debate within U.S. policy circles about Russian president Vladimir Putin's strategy in Syria. While all agree that Putin intervened to shore up the faltering regime of Bashar al-Assad, there are at least two interpretations of what Putin's ultimate objective is.

Secretary of State John Kerry seems to be in the camp that believes the Russian intervention is part of a strategy to strengthen the Syrian state’s hand at the negotiating table. This in turn could provide a pathway for Assad himself to eventually exit Syria as part of a transition that leaves the state intact and the terrorists defeated.

The second camp is skeptical about that reading and believes that the Russian president aims to force a military victory for his ally with only the extent of the victory in doubt, setting the stage for an outcome that will see Assad stay in power for the indefinite future. According to this interpretation, the Russian president is betting that an improved military situation for the regime will (1) ensure that both Assad and the Syrian state endure, (2) that the regime can get away with making only cosmetic concessions to the opposition, and (3) that Saudi Arabia and Turkey, under American pressure, would accept such an outcome.

Both camps are of the opinion that Putin’s push in Syria is meant to raise Russia’s profile in the Middle East and match the NATO-led coalition’s military intervention. They both appear to doubt that Putin's intervention will yield the definitive military victory that will enable him to deliver an outright defeat and political surrender of the Syrian opposition. As Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said on October 27 in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Putin's intervention will likely both galvanize the opposition against Moscow's policy in Syria and breed more extremism.

We should read the recent flurry of Syria-related diplomatic activity in light of this ongoing debate. Pressured by a president who has become increasingly frustrated with a stalemated Syrian conflict, Secretary Kerry is testing whether Putin is serious about negotiations and about pressuring Assad to sit with the armed opposition and make the concessions necessary for a political resolution to the conflict.

Kerry is also testing Iran’s intentions. For the first time, the United States has agreed to allow Iran a seat at the table in Vienna, despite the friction this has already caused with Saudi Arabia. As such, the negotiations will also serve as a testing ground to see whether Iran, as it officially claims, is seeking a political solution to the Syrian conflict or whether it is merely seeking to maintain the Assad regime for the foreseeable future.

Reading Putin

Russian president Putin claims that his intervention in Syria aims at fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) by arguing that it is better to take the fight to the organization rather than wait for Russians fighting in ISIS ranks to return home and create havoc there. If fighting ISIS is Putin's objective as he claims, then his air force is not doing a good job at it. According to Anne Patterson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, “Moscow has cynically tried to claim that its strikes are focused on terrorists, but so far 85 to 90 percent of Syrian strikes have hit the moderate Syrian opposition and they have killed civilians in the process.” In fact, the great majority of the Russian strikes were directed against the Free Syrian Army and other non-ISIS affiliated rebel groups. Focusing primarily on non-ISIS rebels in sectors near the Syrian regime’s front lines suggests an effort to weaken groups that pose the greatest immediate military threat to the Assad regime—which has little to do with the overall ISIS challenge.

The 10 to 15 percent of the Russian strikes that have targeted ISIS help support the Russian and the Syrian regime claim of waging a fight against terrorism. However, the reality on the ground is that ISIS has increased its territorial holdings in Aleppo, mainly thanks to the same Russian airstrikes, which have weakened the rebel groups fighting ISIS.

If defeating ISIS is not Russia's primary objective in Syria, what then is Putin’s objective? To restore the status quo ante or to bolster the Syrian regime’s defense lines? The targets of the Russian airstrikes along with the ground offensive mounted by the Syrian Army supported by Hezbollah and Iranian forces indicate that Putin's immediate military objective appears to be to clear a coherent regime-held stronghold in what is commonly referred to as "Useful Syria" (suriya al-mufida) from Damascus up to Aleppo through Homs. That will drive all threats from Latakia, a stronghold of the regime’s Alawite constituency. In the far north, this strategy would have the dual advantage of controlling the Syrian-Turkish border west of the holdings of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), cutting both the U.S. coalition and ISIS from access to it. To do that, Putin needs to expand current Syrian regime holdings considerably since they have been badly eroded and are currently not coherent.

Although Russia has not officially endorsed the theory that Metrojet Flight 9268 was bombed, Russian prime minister Dmitri Medvedev recently told the Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper, “The possibility of a terrorist act, of course, remains among the reasons of what had happened.” If the bombing is confirmed, Putin’s objectives may shift. Indeed, since the air crash Russia has struck two ISIS-controlled areas in Syria: Raqqa and Palmyra. In the future, Putin could press the Syrian regime and Iran to move more boldly farther east toward Raqqa, with the Russian-Syrian-Iranian alliance trying to co-opt the Kurds’ People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a force multiplier.

Recapturing Palmyra?

The Syrian regime’s allies in Lebanon are still indicating that part of the plan for the ground offensive includes recapturing Palmyra. Reaching far to the east while campaigning heavily in Idlib, where ISIS will be an especially tough opponent, will stretch Russian aerial resources and could result in considerable attrition among the Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah combat units involved. In western Syria, there has been an uptick in successful attacks against pro-regime armored vehicles by rebel groups armed with U.S.-made TOW missiles.

On one hand, recapturing the ancient city of Palmyra will be a public relations win. But by the time the Russians, the Syrian regime, and its various allies can reasonably do that, most or all of this great historic site will have been destroyed. ISIS will make sure of that if it is forced to retreat. Aside from the symbolic victory of saving what is left of this historic site, modern Palmyra also has strategic advantages. There is an important Syrian air base there. If the Russians and their allies were to capture that, Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital in Syria, would be sandwiched between Russians and the Syrian Army to the south and the PYD to the north, while also having to contend with U.S. and coalition aircraft and drones operating out of Turkey. A thrust east to Palmyra would also force ISIS leadership to divert some of its combatants from northeast Syria to ward off any potential ground offensive against Raqqa.

On the other hand, Palmyra would be a burden to hold given already stretched manpower available to the regime and its allies at this time. It would require more ground troops of high quality. In this respect, we are likely to see “mission creep” involving probably more Iranian-associated combatants or, less likely, Russians.

Slow Going

Airstrikes, Iranian reinforcements, and additional ground gains aside, it still looks like the non-ISIS rebels remain a tough nut for the regime to crack. They are fighting village by village, neighborhood by neighborhood. Before pro-government forces get anywhere near restoring coherent control of Idlib Province and Aleppo, there will be quite a lot of attrition among Syrian troops, Iranian forces, Hezbollah, and pro-Iranian Shi‘a militias from Iraq.

Their momentum could very well stall at some point. At that point, the Russians, the Syrian Army, the Iranians, and their affiliated militias might be in a much better position vis-à-vis the rebels than before. However, Assad’s alliance will probably still be short of their more ambitious goals for territorial consolidation, let alone taking the fight to ISIS.

Risks and Resources

Although airstrikes are individually more destructive, high-profile, and dramatic, there also appears to have been an increase in support from Russian-made heavy artillery, multiple-rocket launchers, and tanks on the various fronts where the Syrians, Hezbollah, and Shi’a militias are engaged. While less headline-grabbing and not covered in the same detail as airstrikes, scores—even hundreds—of heavy shells per day have been raining down on rebel targets from artillery, rockets, and tanks. These barrages could be having a more severe effect on rebel forces than airstrikes that occur sometimes only once or twice daily against one target area.

A major challenge for the regime and its allies is their need to bolster relatively thin lines in various locales, particularly as they increase their territorial holdings and scour rear areas for armed rebel elements still at large. One major concern the Russians have is trying to prevent any of their personnel from being captured by ISIS. Yet, bringing in more troops to seemingly reduce this possibility could instead increase it, simply because Russian combat troops on the ground would be closer to, or even on, the frontlines. ISIS would love to get its hands on Russian soldiers, and could employ its technique of triggering multiple car bombs in a single spot along the frontline in order to crack open a position sufficiently, even if only temporarily, to grab a few valuable prisoners.

Some sources in Lebanon close to the Syrian regime—who have been privy to the months-long planning between Russian, Syrian, and Iranian officials for a ground offensive—indicate that Russia’s long-term plan focuses on strengthening the Syrian Army in the hopes of possibly marginalizing or co-opting the Iranian-funded and -trained National Defense Forces. Russia looks at the latter as a sectarian militia that will threaten a unified, secular central government in Syria in the long term. Russia might find that the Syrian Army’s unified command and control structure—currently almost non-existent--could be very hard to rebuild. And it has yet to discover how committed the Iranians are to preserving the National Defense Forces, a military formation that they believe is more pliant to their wishes and more loyal to their agenda than the Syrian Army leadership is.

The military situation is still evolving. The crash of the Russian airliner has introduced a new factor in Russia’s calculus. The Russians are at the beginning of a learning curve in Syria, getting to know anew the Syrian Army’s capacities and limitations and figuring out their long-term options and opportunities. Putin may well be underestimating the means and time required to attain his objectives in Syria.

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