Putin led by destiny plants his flag in the Syrian desert. Ukraine’s resilience in 2015 thwarted his roll to daunt Kiev with maximum bluster and minimal formal force.
Ostracized by the West, Russia flounced to China but met crossed arms. Beijing, rocked by economic crises and keenly aware of Moscow’s neediness, offered only hollow symbolism. Oil and gas prices abandoned Russia, too, pummeling her economy. Putin can no longer count on out-waiting Ukraine’s catastrophic economy or fickle Western resolve. But where could he turn to save face or win another throw?
Assad’s army disintegrated in 2015, presenting Putin with a clear choice: see Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels and Jabat al-Nusra in the north close in further on Damascus, threatening Russian facilities or pull a Russian mini, ersatz version of Spain’s Condor Legion airlift. Moscow’s intervention grants relief from Russia’s strategic cul de sac in Ukraine. Russia gains some fresh potential agency to act while stirring Western confusion. Putin adds relevance to Europe’s staggering refugee crisis.
Russia’s Syrian move stokes discussions about Moscow’s Ur geopolitical fantasy — a new grand bargain, a Yalta 2.0 world empowering regional hegemonies. Some declare it in sight.
Moscow maintains it seeks only force protection in Syria for existing Russian activities. The US goes along for now. There’s some evidence. The SA-22 Pantsir S1 missiles deployed, for example, are a point defense system. Yet each day sees more weapons systems appearing in country.
Meanwhile, speculation builds that Russia seeks to shore up Assad. Informed Russian observers conclude such a gambit will fail. We agree.
On one level, Assad and Russia are compared to American resignation about Somoza in Nicaragua – “He may be a son of a bitch but he’s our son of a bitch.” Moscow’s desire to avoid humiliation from Assad’s imminent fall is understandable. Russian forces already exert battlefield influence by existing.
Influential Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer concludes Russia alone can’t preserve Assad in power even with additional forces. Nor will Russia secure its Yalta 2.0 dreams. Felgenhauer correctly notes Putin will need hundreds of additional combat aircraft and attack helicopters, not dozens, to prop up Assad. Moscow also will need to deploy tens of thousands of troops. (The Syrian Army essentially no longer exists and the residual Iran-backed militias fighting FSA in the north lack cohesion and density to gain and hold ground on their own). Yet Russia lacks the troops, support forces, logistics and money to even match the 1980s Soviet Syrian levels of 9,000 troops.
On paper, Russia can field approximately 3 brigades for deployment. Russian tooth to tail ratios, distance to Syria, little supply and logistics infrastructure, fiscal constraints, etc. make even deploying a substantial portion fraught. (For the moment, the Ukraine axis is in operational pause for political and practical reasons).
ISIS, mostly located in the south and elsewhere, largely is not within current Russian deployments. After all, Moscow could have joined the International Coalition against ISIS at any time over the past years. While the Western coalition (notably France, US and UK) do not demand Assad’s ouster a precondition to peace talks today (much to Ankara’s chagrin), it’s a matter of “modalities” – timing and sequencing, rather than supporting his continued rule.
Putin’s hole cards are: (i) he can still walk away and claim he just wants force protection; (ii) he knows many avidly seek Assad’s departure; and (iii) US/Western passive confusion continues. Even so, the International Coalition expresses little doubt on inevitable Assad irrelevance.
Moscow — as in February/March 2014 — leverages the old maxim that perception is reality. In crude terms, Russia’s insufficient military might can only prolong Syria’s agony. Putin simply lacks the power to change Assad’s eventual fate or Syria’s future, which likely may be devolution into new fragmentary neo-states/territories. Fyodor Lukyanov summarizes Russia’s desire to merge all factions in a governing coalition. He smartly notes it’s impractical.
As of today, we don’t agree that Putin’s modest gesture in Syria turns it into “Assadland” or represents a coup de main on the cusp of re-ordering international politics. (See, e.g., this panglossian take ).
We, like Felgenhauer, see Putin’s likely medium term outcome as zugzwang – a chess outcome where each future move further undermines one’s position. Putin will probe all the more, knowing the stakes. The upcoming UN General Assembly and aftermath will be worth watching for a change.