Syria: Putin’s Perfect War

8 months ago Alger Mag Editor 0

The Middle East has been nothing short of geopolitical quicksand for those who get involved – the international order has been riddled with foreign interventions led by the United States and its allies, devolving into long-term quagmires such as the Afghanistan War, the Iraq War, and the Libyan intervention. So Russian President Vladimir Putin stunned the international community when, in the midst of the Middle East’s deadliest contemporary conflict, he commenced military operations.

September 2015 was the beginning of Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil War to reinforce President Bashar al-Assad’s failing regime in the face of a determined opposition and international condemnation. Russia has undeniably shifted the war in Assad’s favor, securing tracts of land across Syria and putting Assad in position for his greatest victory yet, Aleppo. Yet the most striking aspect of the intervention is not so much the military success, but instead how Putin has abused the region’s instability to galvanize Russia’s relationship with Iran, Iraq, and Syria while also reclaiming Russia’s position as a military superpower in a gamble many before him lost. Putin has always antagonized the US-led global hierarchy, but Syria presented an opportunity for him to snub his nose at Western opponents, reinvigorate historical relationships, and remilitarize abroad.

The combination of US and EU sanctions in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the plummet in crude oil prices contracted the economy by 3.7% in 2015 and tanked the value of the Russian Ruble, pinning the Russian state into pseudo-Western isolation. Russia’s economic vulnerability intensified the bubbling political frustration within the Kremlin, instigating the consolidation of government decision-making power under Putin’s geopolitical strategy of hardball realpolitik.

Wilson Center Russian foreign policy expert Michael Kofman argues that in the current political climate, Russia, “has traded the prestige and trappings of Western integration for being feared. Prestige is great for pursuing opportunities, but fear is much more useful when defending core geopolitical interests”. Kofman acknowledges the West’s successful ability to pressure Russia, but this pressure instead catalyzed Putin’s desire to represent strength through militarization – leaving Middle Eastern conflict as the prime means to do so. While the US and EU continued to play the economic sanction game, Putin pumped Russian resources in the Middle East to compensate for domestic economic pressures. American anti-war sentiment resulting from the unpopular Iraq occupation meant the Obama administration was relegated to relative inaction until President Obama signed a bill authorizing the training of secular Syrian opposition in 2014. Putin recognized this passivity by US policy makers and exploited Syria as a new axis to compete with US interests on.  

Putin sought to capitalize on the United States’s hands-off policy with the direct commitment of assistance to ground forces in Syria, waging a proxy war against an American administration that desperately wanted to keep its distance. This perceived US weakness motivated Putin to raise the stakes of the game against an enemy whose support of rebel factions with affiliations to the most extreme groups in Syria illustrated cracks in the cohesion of its Syria policy. The unlikeliness of direct American obstruction in Syria greenlit Putin’s plan of mobilizing substantial military forces for Assad with little hesitation.

As the Syrian government’s war effort was faltering in early 2015 with the loss of provincial capital Idlib to jihadist factions of the opposition and an increasingly urgent shortage of resources to supply the war effort, Russia intervened.  International observers consider this the major turning point in the conflict for the regime. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu reported in July of 2016 that over 12,000 sq kilometers of land had been reclaimed by government forces and significant gains had been made in major rebel strongholds of Hama and Aleppo. While Russia has taken on a significant financial burden from the operations, it is still sizably less so than the US’s investment. At its height in October 2015, Russia was spending an estimated 3 to 4 million USD per day on airstrikes in Syria while the US has spent approximately 11.5 million USD per day since 2014 in strikes just against ISIS — a size nearly triple Russian expenditure but with little to show for it. The improved ground situation for Assad bought Putin and his allies an incredible amount of political capital for international negotiations, worth more than any amount of land.

A military operation of this magnitude has left not only an immediate impact on the ground situation in Syria, but also a long-term physical footprint in the Middle East in the form of a permanent Russian military precess. The core of Russia’s position in Syria is built around remilitarization with established allies. Since entering into the conflict, Russia has conducted military operations out of bases in Iran (the first foreign military to do so since World War II) and  Syria’s coastal city of Latakia (permanent as of October) and also plans on establishing a permanent naval base in Tartus.  Admiral Mark Ferguson, commander of US Naval Forces Europe and commander of the Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, argues Putin’s actions in Syria fold into his grand scheme of combatting NATO power in the Mediterranean and Arctic Circle, moving eight Russian warships from the Northern Fleet in the Arctic Circle to off the Syrian coast in the Mediterranean sea. These movements, Admiral Ferguson notes, show an increasing consolidation of Russian national and military decision making under Putin.

At the apex of Russia’s regional strategy is the Russia-Syria-Iran-Iraq Coalition (Hezbollah of Lebanon is a non-state member), an emerging military alliance to combat Sunni-extremist terrorism. Established in 2015 with intelligence centers in Baghdad and Damascus, the intelligence sharing aspects of the alliance have become invaluable assets to pushing ISIS back in Northern Syria and Western Iraq. The immediate threats to national security naturally overshadow the long term political implications of the group, but successful cooperation would lay the foundation for the political partnership Putin sought to strengthen in the region — strong enough to oppose the highly influential yet faltering US-Saudi Arabia relationship.

The consequences of Putin’s actions, from the military movements to the alliance building, all compound the global strategy of increasing Russia’s geopolitical relevance. Russia’s decision to be the sole global power to act in Syria necessitates Putin’s involvement in the conflict’s resolution. The ongoing talks between Russia and the US continue to deteriorate, allowing airstrikes and troop advancements to suffocate the opposition until few moderate groups are left for the US to support. Russian-negotiated ceasefires, like the Cessation of Hostilities in mid-September, pinned rebels into either breaking the ceasefire to preserve their territory or waiting for the Syrian army to make progress on their positions. The political capital Putin bought through his movements cemented Russia’s position at the negotiating table in representing Syrian interests, putting it at parity with the US politically. By dictating the political momentum of the conflict, Putin has positioned Russia as the key agent in creating a post-war Syria.

On the back of a reluctant international community, Putin’s campaign to spread Russian influence across the region has redefined the fabric of Middle Eastern politics.  This zero-sum game Putin believes he is playing means that any conflict Russia becomes invested in will be a opportunity to further his personal agenda of reestablishing Russia as a global superpower – and while other international actors have sunk so many resources, it is the Kremlin’s Syria strategy that is seeing returns.

By: Ryan Kurz