Putin’s Quagmire and Other Fairy Tales About Syria

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Russian President Vladimir Putin awaits his meeting with the president of Georgia's breakaway region of Abkhazia, Raul Khadzhimba, at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow February 18. Thus far, the Russian quagmire in Syria has not materialized. Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Wilson Center site.

Facts on the ground change so quickly in Syria that one could be forgiven for suffering whiplash.

Still, in December of last year we were reading headlines that depicted a lackluster Russian military campaign, unable to change much on the ground for the fledgling Syrian Arab Army.

Not long after the winter holidays, the opposite appears to be true. Moscow seems to be making strategic gains and has seized the momentum on the ground.

Just a few months ago, in early October, President Obama stated, “An attempt by Russia 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.”

As Syrian forces surround Aleppo, backed by the Russian military on the ground and in the air, it is hard to square the situation in Syria with those predictions. Thus far, the Russian quagmire in Syria has not materialized.

In a fantastic piece for Foreign Affairs, titled “Assad Has It His Way,” experts Joshua Landis and Steven Simon have sounded the alarm that Assad is winning in Syria.

Is he? And if so, what explains this reversal in fortune?

At first glance, it could be that the press is suffering a typical case of sharply changing the narrative on Russia from one incorrect assessment to another. Where Russia was achieving nothing in Syria only two months ago, today it is winning handily. Now the recently suspended negotiations in Geneva are cast as a Russian-crafted ruse, designed to busy the United States with dreams of a peaceful settlement.

For Moscow, one is not a substitute for the other. Both the military and the political track are part of an evolving strategy to end the war on Russian terms.

The United States should put this quagmire narrative to bed and get a bit more serious about dealing with Russia in Syria. Below is my take on how we got here and where this conflict is going.

Today Syria is essentially divided into two wars: one fight led by the United States to defeat ISIS and a separate battle led by Russia to stabilize the Syrian regime. Albeit uncoordinated, over the past several months both Russia and the United States have been steadily winning their respective military campaigns.

While U.S. forces look set to sever the linkages between the ISIS capital of Raqqa and Mosul in Iraq, the Russian-led coalition is making advances both north and south in Syria, clearing the way to regain Aleppo.

Having taken Rabia in Latakia province, Syrian forces may have a clear path to the Turkish border by the coast, while elsewhere to the south they have been consolidating regime territory and clearing pockets of rebels behind lines.

After a stymied offensive south of Aleppo in mid-October 2015, Western observers quickly judged the Syrian army to be incapable, and the Russian air campaign as insufficient to change the balance of forces.

While Russia put on a show with cruise missiles strikes of various kinds in an effort to demonstrate a parity of capability with the United States, it was also adding aircraft, helicopters, and ground equipment. Thousands of sorties with locally based aircraft and a mix of bombers from bases at home have chipped away at the forces opposing Assad.

Meanwhile, Russia provided Syrian forces with modern equipment, some undoubtedly operated by the Russian army. The Russian contingent is relatively small, perhaps numbering 4,000 to 5,000, with 70 aircraft based in Syria, but it is having an outsized impact.

Unable to deal a decisive blow to the amalgamation of Syrian groups fighting Assad in October, Russia had settled in for a lengthier campaign, designed to pick apart pockets of rebel resistance, destroying them one at a time. Instead of major offensives, the ground effort shifted to relieving besieged Syrian bases and freeing access to roads between major cities.

Perhaps drawing on its experience in the second Chechen War, Russia is signing ceasefires with some groups of fighters and assassinating the leaders of others. Steadily, Moscow is killing off and diminishing the existing prospects for any moderate alternative to the Syrian regime, radicalizing some groups and crushing the rest.

Far from perceiving themselves in a quagmire, some in the Russian leadership may even see the war in Syria as an opportunity.

From a training and weapons-testing perspective, it is better than any of the large-scale exercises Russia throws annually. The mix of ship-based, submarine-based, and bomber-based missiles being used is part political theater and parts arms expo, outclassing anything you could see at MAKS (Russia’s annual air show). Algeria, a regular Russian customer, has already announced that it will be the first foreign buyer of the Su-34s.

So far the war has cost Russia one plane and one helicopter, while potentially landing it several lucrative arms deals, some already in the works.

At the outset of the Russian air campaign, U.S. officials called it a predetermined failure. Here their foresight proved as faulty as many other a time when predicting the course of events in the Middle East.

This incorrect reading stems from an inherent bias among the ruling policy establishment. Since Washington had judged that force could not be used to achieve political ends in Syria, it assumed the same would be true for Russia. Indeed, why would a great power or a major power be successful where a superpower had decided to stay out after a careful analysis of the facts?

The Middle East absorbs military power like a sponge, giving little back in terms of desired political end states. Surely only a fool would seek gains here. Hence the early narrative on Russia’s intervention seemed an accurate reflection of American experiences, and in some respects an alibi for U.S. recusal from the war surrounding Assad.

When Moscow approached Washington with a serious plan for peace talks in Vienna on October 30, 2015, it was viewed in light of that attractive analytical lens. Russia was seen as looking for a political way out, having failed to make major gains in October, and disappointed with the Syrian army’s performance.

The unexpected progress on talks in Vienna was viewed in stark contrast to supposed Russian military failures on the ground. Far from seeking an off-ramp out of the conflict, Moscow instead was looking to shift the U.S. position on Assad’s fate closer that of its own, postponing the decision on his future.

Instead of the United States seizing on Russia’s desire to get out, it was Moscow that took advantage of the American wish to see an end to the humanitarian catastrophe without having to intervene. Washington is not gullible—any ceasefire was worth the political effort.

The Russian plan for this war was better anyway, since the United States had no plan. Suddenly Washington gained a policy on Syria, a negotiations scheme and a political way forward with prospects. Russia, entering this vacuum, would produce a win-win scenario for itself and the West. If that sounds too good to be tru —it is. Everything has a price.

The Geneva talks reflected battlefield realities. The demands of the opposition groups, coming together into the High Negotiations Committee, are for lifting of the sieges, suspension of the Russian air campaign and release of captured prisoners of war. You don’t have to be a military expert to know that these are the demands of the losing side in a war.

Russia agreed to a format of negotiations whereby the two sides talk while they fight so that it could shape the Syrian opposition on the ground, by eliminating those parts of it that it finds disagreeable at the negotiating table. This is why Moscow agreed to Salafist groups like Ahrar al-Sham being present, even though it considers them to be terrorists.

Both the military and the political effort are meant to divide the rebel groups, pitting them against each other. If Landis and Simon are right in their analysis, that plan is working.

The recently negotiated “cessation of hostilities” in Munich will not hold. It is, at best, a diplomatic offering by Russia for the West to save face, and engage in a humanitarian mission, while the Syrian opposition stands on the precipice of defeat in Aleppo. If Russia and its allies are intent on making such strategic gains, and have the means to do so, why would they stop? Even if a ceasefire is declared, Moscow will conclude hostilities only after it has achieved military objectives. This is exactly what we saw in Ukraine in early 2015. The tentative deal in Munich has far less firm footing. It will fail predictably with recriminations from both sides of the conflict. As long as the Russian-led coalition has the momentum on the ground, there is no logical basis for a ceasefire.

In a recent War on the Rocks article, Senator John McCain lamented:

This is the swan song of the era when the United States had little need to worry about other powers intervening. The United States fired much of its economic and political ammunition already in response to the invasion of Ukraine, with debatable results. Outside of scornful op-ed pieces in the Western press, what is there left to fire over Syria, besides actual weapons?

Yet those who dream of seeing Assad out should not despair. Assad is not necessarily winning in Syria. The Russian-led coalition, together with Iran, Hezbollah and what’s left of the Syrian army, is winning. That is a distinction with an important political difference for Assad to play out at the end of this conflict.

While Saudi Arabia and Iran have intractable positions on Assad’s fate, Russia seems much more open-minded on alternative futures, though it will not condone regime change by discussing his removal publicly.

It is difficult to see how Russian leaders could count on Syria being stable in the long term under his leadership. They’ve made a much larger political and military stake in the country, and Assad does not look like the man to keep it secure in the long term.

Some are certain that Russia will never give up Assad, but who has a good track record in predicting events in the Middle East?

The Geneva negotiations are not just a ploy; Russia needs that settlement eventually in any scenario. It is simple battlefield reality. The more territory the Russian-led coalition regains, the more a political settlement is a necessity.

If Assad’s forces could not hold the rapidly dwindling piece of Syria they had left in 2015, how can they defend much larger real estate, together with major cities? The answer is they can’t.

We can see how the Assad regime might retake Aleppo, but what’s the plan for holding it along with other cities for the next decade or so? Gaining terrain is one thing, keeping it is another.

Assad said he plans to retake the whole country—a dictator can dream. Russia started the negotiations precisely to avoid retracing America’s steps in Iraq and Afghanistan, where military victory is day one of the quagmire to come.

Certainly Russian leaders remember the Soviet Union’s own fruitless struggle in Afghanistan. Political settlement is the only way for Russia to lock in any gains in Syria.

If this is so, then why have the Geneva talks been suspended through February, while Russia keeps bombing? The short answer is that the Russian-led coalition is not done capturing the territory they feel must be regained, especially the city of Aleppo, and as a result have no intention of giving rebel groups a respite.

Russia’s intervention forced them to the table, but they are not weak enough and some of them Moscow does not want to see in Geneva at all. Aleppo is a hulking ruin, but its fall would be a colossal symbolic defeat. It could split the rebel groups Saudi Arabia worked hard to unite in Riyadh.

Russia is pressing its advantage, hoping to secure the major cities for the Syria regime, while leaving the ISIS-held eastern part of the country as an “American problem.”

We should not expect anything otherwise from Moscow. The cost of getting a deal in Syria while staying out is that it will be on Russian timetables, and in many ways, Russian terms.  

Munich is a good example. Secretary of State John Kerry said the deal was a “nationwide” cessation of hostilities, which is “ambitious.” It’s not ambitious, but impossible, by Russian design. The larger the scope of the agreement, the more obvious its lack of feasibility. Nobody controls, or speaks for, the myriad of groups fighting across Syria.

Of course hostilities will not cease, and Russia will blame them and continue bombing (assuming it will even take a break). This agreement is a consolation to ameliorate Western humanitarian urges, and give the United States something to do.

The Turkish downing of a Russian Su-24 in November certainly made this military adventure a more serious undertaking for Moscow. Yet for all the technical inadequacies and deficiencies in its operations, the question we should ask is whether or not Russian use of force in Syria is achieving their desired political ends.

The answer is yes. The United States made a mistake by waving off this intervention as a doomed adventure. Failing to take it seriously has ramifications for the region beyond the Syrian war.

If Moscow shows that it can get the job done in Syria, and secure Assad’s fortune from what appeared to be certain defeat, then other dictators may see Russia as a potential alternative guarantor of their rule.

Few in the region were happy with the U.S. policy during the Arab Spring. If there was another power capable of providing security and acting independently, but one that prized stability over democracy (the way the United States used to), it would be welcome in the Middle East.

This is why U.S. success against ISIS is even more paramount from a geopolitical perspective. America no longer has a monopoly on being the only viable actor in the Middle East.

Syria reveals an unhelpful pattern of U.S.–Russian interaction, visible in other exchanges over Ukraine: The United States spends its time explaining to Russia what will be, while Moscow works to change what is. That could be evidence of a chasm within the U.S. policy establishment between the desire to do something about Russia and the knowledge of what to do.

Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, head of DIA, testified earlier this month that “the Russian reinforcement has changed the calculus completely.” If we go back through official statements last fall on the Russian intervention, will we find a calculus at work?

Occasional suggestions from interventionist circles to unilaterally declare a no-fly zone over Syria are not only unhelpful, but demonstrate a base lack of understanding for how to deal with another major power. This is the “do something” school of international affairs, and more evidence that the debate on how to respond to Russia’s intervention in Syria is largely between no ideas and bad ideas.

Of course, years from now the U.S. read on Syria could prove prescient, but right now the quagmire is less visible in Russia’s military operations, and more in U.S. thinking on how to deal with Moscow’s intervention.

Michael Kofman is a Fellow at the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

This article was originally published on the Atlantic Council site and on War on the Rocks.