Lowdown: Making Sense of Russia’s Syria Strategy
A view from Moscow on Russia’s strategy behind its Syrian move.
Russians are once again proving to be
Russian security connection with Syria
Russia was weighing its involvement at least since 2013 when
it first proposed to replace outgoing Austrian peacekeepers with
Russians at the Golan Heights. Since 2013, Moscow took a major role
in disarming Syria of chemical weapons — and the first serious
contacts with Damascus on battling Islamists started then. Parallel
to this Russia engaged in a strategic military dialogue with
Iraq, reaching a 4,2 billion USD weapon deal with Baghdad in 2012 and
supplying much needed
Security interests at stake motivated Russian agitation. Allowing ISIS
to consolidate its control in Syria and Iraq would mean that
in 5 years a new spurt of
Limited involvement strategy
Russian strategy in Syria has two scenarios. The first one is limited in scope and posture. Its advantage is that by applying minimum resources and keeping the bar low, Moscow still gets a lot.
First, Russia can disrupt the terrorist infrastructure and prevent it from holding ground without the necessity of defeating it completely. North Caucasian terrorists are eliminated at home, but in Syria’s «no man’s land» they can rebuild training facilities and launch the export of terror to Russia — as they did in Afghanistan under Taliban.
Second, Moscow seeks to sustain a friendly regime in Syria. Russia can invest in its first major military naval facility in Mediterranean and secure primacy in gas extraction projects on the Syrian, Cyprus and Israel shelf.
Third, Russia is asserting itself as a leading Middle East
power capable of effective expeditionary military operations. Before that,
no one else besides the U.S. could have projected power so far from
its borders. In Syria Russia has displayed its renewed ability
to affect events in
Lastly, Syrian operation is an exhibition of Russian
armament, satellite communication and geolocation system GLONASS — its
Shifting attention from Ukraine to Syria was not among the Moscow’s top aims, but since it is happening as a consequence of recent events, we can also consider this as Russia’s gain.
Extensive involvement possibility
With assistance from Syria, Iraq and Iran, Russia can aspire to defeat and eliminate ISIS in the region including its CIS fighters. If attained, this monumental achievement would pave the way for a restoration of the traditional borders of Syria and Iraq and secure their allegiance to Russia for the future. Bringing stability to Syria and Iraq will mean fostering conditions to normalize life there. This will relieve the refugee Syrian crisis in the region and the European Union.
However, these challenges can be realistically tackled only by applying much more formidable resources and in coordination with a broader coalition, which should include Western powers and Arab states of the Persian Gulf. In the absence of the latter, the second scenario benchmarks are bigger than Moscow’s current plan.
Resource management for the war with ISIS
Does Russia have sufficient resources to go its way in Syria?
Moscow secured full support of Syria, Iraq and Iran and can now act independently from the West. Russian allies are vitally interested in battling ISIS and were doing so prior to Moscow’s engagement. It seems that by numbers Russia is the least involved partner in this coalition, yet its participation is decisive.
Russia’s military resources are sufficient to maintain
Most importantly, at home, the Russian Sunni community (approx. 14
million people) leaders support Kremlin’s move and defy ISIS ideology.
In September, Russia opened the biggest European Sunni Mosque
in Moscow, strengthening support from Muslim clergy. Attending the opening
ceremony Vladimir Putin expressed confidence that the mosque would help
disseminate the «humanistic ideas and true values of Islam» in Russia
and accused «
The risks of the involvement
The gains from the Syrian move seem to be solid for Russia. So are the risks. The path into Syria was marvelous, but the way out can be more difficult.
First, Russia risks deteriorating ties with an important regional partner — Turkey. Ankara is interested in having Assad go, and using the fight against ISIS to suppress Kurds militia on the Syrian part of the border. Despite claims that politics does not interfere with economic relations between the countries, that start of an ambitious «Turkish stream» gas pipeline was rescheduled for 2017. This is not the first time Russia and Turkey have differences on regional issues, but they managed to avoid confrontation in the past.
Second, Russia can get stuck in Syria, as did the Soviet Union
in Afghanistan. That is why Moscow acting after careful
considerations, with viable local allies and a clear exit strategy. Having
had both the Afghanistan and Chechnya experience, Russia is well prepared
Most important risk, though, is that Russia can be dragged into
This issue is taking us to the point that is currently
lacking in Russia’s Syrian strategy — viable Sunni opposition
Applying the Chechen scenario in Syria is very tricky, but
it the only way to reach a deep and comprehensive settlement
Andrey Sushentsov — associate professor at Moscow State Institute of International Affairs, director of programs at the Valdai club.
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