Involvement in Syria
By Yaakov Amidror
Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy
January 8, 2016
Russia's engagement in the Syrian
Civil War is nothing new. Since the very beginning of the conflict, Russian
experts have been present on the ground and advanced Russian weaponry, including
SA-17 and SA-22 surface-to-air missiles, has been flowing into the country.
Russia has also provided the Assad regime with light arms and ammunition.
Without this support, Assad would already have fallen.
So what sparked even greater
Russian involvement in Syria? Why did the Russians change their strategy, to
include such major undertakings like deploying their air force and using
submarine-launched cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea?
There are four factors.
The most important factor was
Assad's dire situation. Russia has invested heavily in the regime and was deeply
concerned that Assad would fall. With rebel forces in control of Idlib, they
would have been well positioned to target the port city of Latakia, which is
vital to the survival of the Assad regime.
If the rebels advanced southwest
towards the Alawite heartland of Qardaha, Assad and his forces would have
been forced to choose between defending Damascus or the Latakia-Tartus theater.
Even if Assad chose the former, many of his troops would have disobeyed in order
to defend their homes and families in the Alawite heartland. Such a development
would have precipitated the collapse of the regime in Damascus
This dire situation was likely the
most important trigger for Russian action. Russia feared repeating the mistake
it made in Libya, namely allowing the West to destroy the state, which in turn
led to the loss of significant Russian assets and triggered a regional security
catastrophe. Therefore, Russia's military efforts were not directed at the
Islamic State (IS) specifically (at least not until IS downed the Russian
civilian jet in Sinai), but rather towards all of the rebels threatening the
viability of its Syrian client.
The second factor is Russia's fear
of radical Islam proliferating in the wake of Assad's fall. At least 2,000
Russians are currently fighting for Islamist groups in Syria, which President
Putin considers a major threat. As the downing of the Russian jet in Sinai and
recent terror attacks in Paris show, Moscow's fears of Syria becoming the next
hub of anti-Russian terrorism are not unfounded.
The third factor is the
opportunity to prove Russia's loyalty to its allies. Putin wanted to demonstrate
that Russia will not desert its allies in their time of need, and to highlight
how this differs from U.S. behavior toward its own partners. As a result, the
entire Middle East is comparing U.S. policy regarding Mubarak with Russian
policy regarding Assad. Highlighting this contrast was very important for Putin.
The fourth factor is Russia's
desire to show the world it is back as a superpower that can influence global
events. Accordingly, Russia has sought to use Syria as a proving ground for its
latest technological achievements. For example, there is no military logic in
launching new long-range cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea when the targets
are only 100 kilometers from Russian air forces in Syria. Furthermore, airpower
would have been more effective than cruise missiles for attacking these targets.
By displaying these new capabilities, it also saw an opportunity to improve
deterrence against the West - especially since Russia views Western actions over
the conflicts in Ukraine and elsewhere as a continuation of NATO's efforts
during the Cold War.
After studying U.S. behavior in
Syria, Iraq and the negotiations with Iran, Russia felt sufficiently emboldened
to operate in Syria in collaboration with Iran, and to do so without
coordinating with the United States. Indeed, these patterns of U.S. policy
convinced Russia that the United States would do nothing significant to oppose
any increased Russian involvement in Syria.
Russia will now try to take
advantage of this situation by establishing itself more deeply in Syria. It will
bolster its air forces, expand port installations at Tartus (and perhaps even
enter Latakia), reactivate intelligence-gathering stations and deploy weapons
systems to defend its troops. Russia is in Syria to stay, and will remain until
and unless it is assured the regime - and with it, Russian interests - will
survive. If necessary, it will not hesitate to sacrifice Assad in service of
At the same time, Russia will not
restrain Hezbollah, nor will it restrict Israel from carrying out pinpoint
strikes against the organization, provided Israel does not endanger Russian
forces. In spite of the recent downing of one of its fighter jets by Turkey,
Russia can also be expected to increase its operations against rebel groups with
ties to Turkey (some of whom also have ties to the United States).
Russia's objectives are reflected
in its negotiating position. It wants a resolution to the Syria conflict that
grants legitimacy to the Assad regime (if not to Assad himself). However, this
ignores the demographic disadvantage of Russia's ally on the ground, which in
turn inhibits Russia from shifting the ultimate outcome of the war in its favor:
before the Syrian refugee crisis, 12 percent of the population was Alawite,
compared to 80 percent Sunni.
Despite this, President Putin is
willing to invest great amounts of Russian power in Syria. His investments
likely will benefit from the West's ongoing focus on IS at the expense of
effective action against the Assad regime. Success for either side is far from
guaranteed, but Syria's future - and with it the national security interests of
the United States and its allies - currently depends on Russia to a very