Russia’s War Plan in Syria  

By Dr. Igor Sutyagin

RUSI Analysis

October 2, 2015

As the pattern of Russian air strikes on Syria becomes clear, we can now discern Putin's campaign plan.

The third day of Russian air strikes in Syria finally offers some clarity about the possible war plan the Kremlin may have for its Syrian campaign.

Some pieces of the jigsaw now seem to fit together 

-President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced that the military operation in

Syria will not last for long as it has limited objectives; Russia will withdraw its forces - or a major share of them - as soon as those objectives are achieved.

-Eighty per cent of Russian targets so far are associated not with Daesh (ISIL), but with other armed opposition groups fighting against the Syrian regime.

-President Putin publicly stated that Russia would never join the US-led coalition in Syria.

-Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia had promised to fight all terrorist groups in Syria, not only Daesh. All groups fighting against Bashar al-Assad's regime - such as the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra and Daesh - are terrorists according to Damascus policy.

-Iranian troops have started arriving to Syria en masse.

Taken together, these produce a clear picture. There are solid reasons to argue that the supposed 'War Plan Syria' agreed during the talks between Russian and Iranian commands in Moscow in August, and later with the Syrian regime itself, involves a trilateral offensive of joint Syrian-Iranian land forces along with the air support provided by Russia. The strategic objective is to secure an Alawite 'safe zone' on the territory of 'useful Syria' - the densely populated Western part of the country where the major share of Syrian industry and agriculture is concentrated - leaving the eastern, desert part of the country to Daesh. As Alawites constitute approximately 12 per cent of Syrian population, and the rest of the country is at the very least moderately critical of the Assad regime, control of the whole country is politically impossible and perhaps not even considered necessary for Damascus any more.

The obvious immediate operational goals of the offensive include defeat and dispersal of the armed opposition groups in the northern and northeastern parts of Syria, as well as extermination of the opposition-controlled enclaves in the central part of regime-controlled zone between Homs and Hama - four in five Russian air strikes are concentrated in precisely those two areas. Re-establishing Damascus's control over the territory currently controlled by Kurds is not the part of the plan as there is no Russian activity in that zone. Securing the eastern border of regime-controlled territory is also a task: the approximately 20 per cent of air strikes devoted to targets in the narrow sector around Palmyra - the only area where Daesh forces immediately contact with regime troops - indicate this. Taking into account the narrow area of contact between Daesh and regime forces, one can conclude that fighting the jihadist group is only a secondary task of the Syrian-Russian-Iranian coalition. Other nationalist and Islamist armed opposition seem to be the major targets of Russian strikes; Daesh forces serve as a secondary target, and a way to legitimate Russia's actions.

After re-establishing control over the northern/north-eastern part of Syria currently lost to the armed opposition, Moscow and Tehran will hand over responsibility to Damascus. Moscow will withdraw the majority of its forces (most probably securing the Khmeimim air base near Latakia, where Russian air strikes originate now, for use in the future). The immediate implication of such the plan for the West and Arab countries is this: while the West bears moral responsibility for the fate of the Syrian moderate opposition against Assad, it is doomed to sit idle and watch them be hit by Russian bombs. The Kremlin's quite correct calculation was that the West would be unwilling to use the only tool - military power - capable of immediately stopping Russian operations targeting groups the West supports; Russia would be able to achieve its goals unopposed. In this sense, the Syria campaign is the next step in development of Russia's modus operandi after Eastern Ukraine, thus marking the general direction of Russian policy in disputed areas around the globe in the future.

The feeling is rapidly spreading among the Western-backed armed opposition that they have been betrayed by their supporters: to them, it looks like the West has secretly made the deal with Russia and washed its hands, letting Russian and Syrian forces methodically destroy them. This means a general weakening of the Western credibility and soft-power influence, both in Syria and elsewhere - outcomes very much welcomed by the Kremlin too. From Putin's perspective, this is a quite reasonable war plan; and one very promising for future conflict as the West's unwillingness to use decisive military tools is likely to remain. It may be time for the West to wake up to the recognition that the task of developing measures which might put limit of the Kremlin's assertive activism is rapidly becoming the urgent need.