FPI Bulletin: American Passitivity and the Russian Offensive in Syria

By Mark Moyar

Foreign Policy Initiative

October 7, 2015

Despite Vladimir Putin’s call for a “broad international coalition against terrorism,” Russian forces in Syria have launched few attacks against the Islamic State while focusing their efforts on rebel groups that pose a more direct threat to the regime in Damascus, including at least one group supported by the CIA. The U.S. and its principal allies jointly condemned the Russian attacks, “which led to civilian casualties and did not target Da'esh.” Nonetheless, President Obama dismissed proposals for a no-fly zone and humanitarian safe zones as just so much political posturing by those don’t understand the responsibilities of a President. However, it is precisely this sort of determined passivity that has prolonged the brutal war in Syria while facilitating the rise of the Islamic State.
 
An Outstretched Hand for Russia
 
The Russian offensive in Syria has undercut President Obama’s relentless hope that Vladimir Putin would serve as a partner for peace in the region. Shortly after announcing the conclusion of a nuclear deal with Iran, President Obama said he was “encouraged” about the prospects for a diplomatic solution by a recent phone call from the Russian president. At a press conference, Obama said, “we’re not going to solve the problems in Syria unless there’s buy-in from the Russians.” During the Russian military build-up in Syria during September, the administration repeatedly insisted, despite evidence to the contrary, that Putin might play a constructive role as part of the campaign ISIS.
 
The Kremlin’s response to Obama’s outstretched hand provided a clear indication of its priorities. On September 30, a Russian general gave the U.S. embassy in Baghdad one-hour notice that Russian aircraft were going to strike targets in Syria and warned the United States to clear out of Syrian air space. Yet on the same day, Secretary of State John Kerry stood alongside Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and announced that the two countries “agreed on the urgency” of de-conflicting aerial operations over Syria. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter mildly protested, “this is not the kind of behavior that we should expect professionally from the Russian military.”
 
On background, American defense officials confirmed the U.S. would not protect CIA-supported groups targeted by Russia. “We are not going to shoot Russian airplanes. We are not going to hit their airfields [in Syria]. And we are not going to equip [rebels] with [Man-portable air-defense systems],” one official said. Persistent Russian targeting of the same CIA-supported groups, including Tajamu al-Ezzeh and the First Coastal Division, led American officials to conclude that the effort was intentional. Nonetheless, there was no change in the U.S. position. The commander of the First Coastal Division said that all he received from the U.S.-led coalition were messages of condolence.
 
Russian Forces and Strategy
 
The Russian aircraft deployed to Syria so far include at least four Su-34 fighter bombers, thirty other fixed-wing combat aircraft, twenty helicopters, and several types of drones. Should U.S. or other NATO aircraft attempt to enter Assad’s air space, the newly arrived Russian aircraft would pose a much more formidable adversary than Assad’s air force of a few hundred old Soviet aircraft. The Russians have also introduced sophisticated anti-aircraft weaponry, such as the Pantsir S-1 Greyhound system, that could shoot down aircraft belonging to the United States, its NATO allies, and the Gulf countries.
 
The Russian aircraft are much more capable than Assad’s aging air force at locating and destroying enemy ground forces. Some of them can deliver precision-guided munitions, though whether they have such weapons is unknown. Early indications are that the Russian air strikes are inflicting substantial damage on some of the rebel groups. Russian strikes, undertaken in conjunction with ground attacks by Assad’s forces, have destroyed the weapons depots of the CIA-supported Liwa Suqour al-Jabal. In the months prior to the Russian intervention, the Assad regime lost a substantial amount of ground to rebel forces, who had even begun to threaten the coastal enclave that is home to Assad’s own Alawite community. In July, Assad himself delivered a rare public address in which he surprisingly admitted the regime was facing serious manpower shortages. With the introduction of Russian aircraft and other advanced weaponry, chances are now much smaller that rebels can inflict casualties on the Syrian government at a rate sufficient to cause the government to collapse.
 
Russia’s initial actions are intended to prevent the Assad regime from falling, and to help Assad preserve full control over the coastal region between the Russian air base at Latakia and the Russian naval base at Tartus. What comes next is less clear. Putin may be content to consolidate western Syria, leaving ISIS and other extremists in control of eastern Syria and western Iraq. Russian human rights activist (and chess champion) Garry Kasparov speculated that Putin is not particularly worried by the prospect of a prolonged war, as it would allow him to continue to present himself to Russians and the world as a savior from extremism, and would push up the price of oil.
 
Putin has made some attempts to obtain cooperation from Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab nations in combating Sunni extremism, but thus far has been unable to overcome Sunni contempt for Iran and its proxies. Conceivably, Putin could support the Syrian, Iraqi, and Iranian regimes in a Shiite offensive against Sunni rebels in Syria and Iraq. Some of these governments have already signaled receptivity to offensive action of this sort. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi said that he would welcome Russian air strikes against ISIS. The Iraqis have agreed to share intelligence on ISIS with the Russians and Iranians at an anti-terrorism coordination center in Baghdad. The Iraqi government announced the deal without notifying the United States, highlighting the ongoing decline of American influence in Iraq.
 
A Shiite-dominated offensive, however, would cause many of the twenty-plus millions of Sunnis in Iraq and Syria to see an alliance with extremists as their best option for survival. Saudi Arabia would most likely step up assistance to the extremists, and might even deploy its own troops. Saudi foreign minister Adel Al-Jubeir has recently warned of the use of a “military option” against the Assad regime.
 
Putin has vowed that “Russian air forces will help Assad's army while it's on the offensive mode," but “there will be no Russian boots on the ground.” Putin no doubt is wary of inserting Russian ground forces into a conflict where the prospects for a rapid victory appear low. The size of the housing facilities at the Russian base in Latakia suggest an intention to deploy only 2,000 military personnel.
 
The American Response
 
The Obama administration has defended its inaction by portraying Putin’s Syrian gambit as self-defeating. Obama himself said, “An attempt by Russia and Iran 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.” But a deployment of 2,000 troops and a few dozen aircraft is far from unsustainable. By comparison, the Soviets had over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s. While Russian air power may not enable Assad to reclaim much territory lost to the rebels, it provides a potent tool for blocking further advances.
 
Putin’s intervention has further diminished the prospects for new American initiatives in the region. Any effort to establish a no-fly zone or humanitarian safe zones would have to contend with potential Russian countermoves, such as the provision of Russian escorts for Syrian aircraft.
 
Regrettably, four years of procrastination have dissipated all of the easier and quicker options for an American response. Furthermore, anyone considering new options in Syria must bear in mind that Russia and its partners in Tehran, Damascus, and Baghdad may well tie some more rope around America’s feet before another step can be taken. Yet American inaction will most likely benefit only Putin, Assad, and ISIS. In their examination of the crisis, the editors of the Washington Post write, “‘Plan beats no plan,’ as former treasury secretary Timothy F. Geithner used to say. Shortsighted and cynical as it may be, at least Mr. Putin has a plan for Syria. After all this time, Mr. Obama still does not."