Syria: Land of Confusion

Last updated 23 Nov 15 @ 21:11 |
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John Chisolm wonders if Russia’s involvement in Syria might create more problems than it solves


“Russia will not participate in any troop operations in the territory of Syria or in any other states. Well, at least we don’t plan on it right now”. So claimed President Putin in an interview on CBS at the end of September. Fast-forward to mid-October, and everything has changed. Russia has decisively intervened with military force in Syria.

This latest demarche shows Putin firmly in the driving seat, able to run geopolitical rings around Obama and willing to use his military to achieve his political ends. Or so it seems. The point is that although Putin is clearly in the driving seat, it is far more of a mystery tour than a route to a Russian Great Power renaissance.

Before embarking on such a gamble, it’s worth looking at the tools available. It does not look pretty. Things have moved on since the Cold War casualty that limped into the Caucasus in the nineties to bloody humiliation, but the army is such a large beast it was always going to be tough to modernise. What Putin has got is a lot of under-strength, poorly equipped divisions composed of 12-month conscripts and a small number of independent, highly trained and well equipped infantry brigades. It is the latter upon whom the burden of real intervention has fallen, particularly in Ukraine where two of these brigades are deployed, and a third now in Syria. This leaves very little available for anything else and boots on the ground in Syria are, at the moment at least, dedicated to defending the air assets deployed to Hmeimim airbase at Latakia.

The Russians have deployed a variety of air force equipment to Latakia. Sukhoi 24M and Sukhoi 34 bombers undertake missions from higher altitude to avoid rebel Manpad air-air launchers, while less sophisticated Sukhoi 25SM aircraft are used more discriminately as they are more vulnerable. In all cases Kh-29L missiles and KAB-500 smart bombs are favoured against opposition targets.

The Russian navy has also joined in, firing cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea. The Caspian Sea Flotilla launched at least 26 3M-14T Kalibr NK at 11 rebel-held targets in Syria on 7th October – crossing Iranian and Iraqi airspace on the way. In other words Putin has deployed his most advanced support assets, and there have been reports that some strikes have been coordinated with Syrian Army and Hizbollah forces on the ground against ISIS and other rebel positions.

But US intervention in Vietnam started in exactly the same way. In the case of the US it was a small land force to defend the airbase at Da Nang. And as any experienced Western commentator will tell you from bitter experience: it is very easy to get in, but extremely difficult to get out.

Of course, Russia is not doing this on a whim. There are many factors to stimulate such a deployment, none of which in isolation sound particularly easy to resolve. Domestically, Putin is in trouble. The Ruble is a basketcase currency and the economy is wholly reliant on the export of hydrocarbons. Instead of investing this money to reform the economy, it has been like a crutch supporting a leg that refuses to heal. Large slices have gone towards the armed forces and the demands of an increasingly authoritarian State, some into the pockets of corrupt politicians and business leaders. As a distraction, Putin has portrayed himself as a strong man protecting Russia from the West. But such a performance, like any stand up act, relies on a stream of fresh material. Crimea was probably his apogee: it was very popular at home. But within it was the seed of disaster. It forced NATO together. It increased economic pressure on an already weakened economy. It meant Putin had to support the rebels in Eastern Ukraine if he was going to continue living up to his role as the protector of ethnic Russians. This cost him an estimated 2,000 casualties alone.

That brings us to Syria. Here Putin seems to believe he can win inexpensive laurels by using assets the rebels cannot combat, meaning no messy issues with casualties unlike Ukraine. He can rely on plaudits from the Russian Orthodox Church as he can pose as the defender of Christian civilisation, while he can also be the supporter of a secular ally against radical Islamic opponents. It allows him to look strong, decisive and masculine: 72 percent of Russians approve of this deployment.

In international affairs Russia is supporting an old ally. Latakia was used by the Soviet Union in the Cold War and Syria was a dependable ally of the Kremlin. It is now clear that Putin has decided to double down on this historic commitment and deploy his latest military equipment to maintain the Assad family in power.

But Russia is a bit of a latecomer. Iran has been there from the start, deploying the Hizbollah units from Lebanon to support Bashar al Assad, and sending advisors and military equipment to the Syrian army and volunteers. It did not take long for increasing numbers of Iranian Revolutionary Guards to start turning up on the Syrian front. Iran is supporting a key regional ally. She is also hostile to ISIS in particular, as the former is radically Sunni and brutally hostile to Shia Muslims, the latter defended most vigorously by Tehran.

Also being drawn into this orbit is Iraq, which has lost swathes of territory to ISIS and wants it back. So far the US has proved reluctant to back its former hopeful, and the only successful military force against ISIS in the region has been the Kurds. However, the Kurds may not give back to Baghdad what they take: but the Russians will go home eventually and so are a safer ally than the Kurds and far less restrictive than the USA. Iraq, too, has invited in the Iranians who are benefitting from the crisis as they expand their power and influence.

So Russia finds itself supporting a secular Baathist dictatorship, in alliance with a Revolutionary Shia authoritarian State and a shaky Arab democracy that seems to lack the will to survive. But her enemies in this venture are an equally strange mixture of players.

Setting a bear trap are the anti-Assad forces on the ground. Chechen and other fighters from the Caucasus with a grudge against Russia are already reported to be moving towards Latakia and the Al-Nusra front has put a bounty of $13,000 on the head of any Russian killed in Syria. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has declared a Jihad against Russia, countering the Russian Orthodox Church’s description of the Syrian crisis as a ‘Holy War’ by declaring one of their own in return.

Holed up as they are in Latakia, the Russians are not likely to face serious casualties in Syria. That is assuming that they do not get drawn in further. From their point of view they are fortunate that the Iranians are providing the advisors and combat troops so that they do not have to shore up Assad’s crumbling forces in this way. If they did, they would probably face Iranian resistance leading to the tragi-comic scenario of two countries competing to get the greatest numbers of its citizens killed. Rather, Russia may face an upsurge of terrorist activity at home. This has tailed off in recent years as the young men able and willing to undertake these sorts of attacks have left the country to fight overseas, and Russian security has improved in response to earlier terrorist attacks. But it is very vulnerable. Given the upsurge in attention related to Russian intervention increasing attempts in Russia itself are likely. By trying to look strong, Putin has put his people at greater risk.

Beyond the immediate threat to life and limb, Russia has also annoyed the backers of non-ISIS aligned Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have lots of money and a channel to get arms and equipment to the rebels via Turkey that has been operating for years. Despairing of the US, and alarmed by the Russians, Saudia Arabia is almost certain to ramp up the supply of arms, ammunition and, crucially, cash to the rebel groups it backs in the region. Russia may feel safe against the elderly systems the rebels currently deploy, but if they get hold of anything more substantial their air advantage may shrivel just as it did in the 1980s when Stinger missiles arrived in Afghanistan.

NATO has, in some ways, benefitted from this. From looking lost and bewildered, Putin has provided the alliance with a purpose it has arguably not had since the Balkan crisis of the nineties. Interest in the alliance has been growing, even from non-aligned countries, which are equally alarmed by Putin’s antics, such as Finland and Sweden. But, although there is an increased political will to form some sort of opposition to Putin’s Russia, NATO no longer has the assets it used to and there is the nagging thought that by building up forces on the Eastern flank, it is playing into the Kremlin’s hands because it could be spun as looking threatening.

And finally, to Washington. Obama clearly does not want to get embroiled in the Middle East in the same way his predecessor did. Sending money and non-military equipment is one thing, but serious military intervention is another, particularly with an election a year away. Obama’s first priority has to be making sure the White House passes to another Democrat. Getting involved in another war is not the way to do that. But by sitting on the fence, the USA has already undermined regional allies like the Saudis who have embarked on a course of action that the White House disapproves of. Add Turkey into the mix, clearly more interested in bombing the Kurds than ISIS, and there are no good options for the Americans. They have conceded the field to Putin. But it may be a blessing in disguise.

Chickens are likely to come home to roost: this is not going to end well for the Kremlin. Even if they succeed in shoring up Assad, they will have built up such a store of resentment it will last for decades. Meanwhile, back home, things are not as great as they seem. Yes, 72 percent approve, but that leaves over a quarter that does not. Many of these are service veterans of Afghanistan and mothers of soldiers afraid they may get sent on some Mediterranean holiday with added bullets and beheading. Morale in the Russian Army is not exactly booming. This will play itself out, but in a crisis more complex and multi faceted than the Schleswig-Holstein question, going in with such an over-optimistic set of objectives looks like a recipe for disaster.

John Chisolm is intersec‘s International Security Correspondent