For Syria, the last six months have been a period of rapid and convulsive changes for soldiers, diplomats, and politicians alike. And while the Russian intervention on September 30 may alter the trajectory of the conflict it may merely contribute to the slow and painful death of Syria.
Nevertheless, Putin’s intervention has already altered the power dynamics and battlefield realities of Syria’s unending ordeal.
Any attempt to gauge the possible directions that the Syrian crisis could follow in the wake of the Russian intervention must take into account the situation on the ground, the regional and international context, and the interlinkage between these two levels. What are Russia’s goals, what are the likely reactions of its opponents, and where will these strategies take Syria?
Reasons for the Russian Intervention
The Russian intervention in late September took place as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government began to lose territory on several fronts. By then, the features of the conflict had become clear.
Syria is now a fragmented country divided into at least four distinct territories. The Assad regime still maintains control of what is often called “useful Syria,” mainly in the west of the country, from Damascus to the coast. To the north and northeast, two or three pockets of Kurdish quasi-autonomy have been established under the name of Rojava. The southern front along the Jordanian and Israeli borders remains firmly in control of a number of Sunni tribes, moderate Free Syrian Army factions, and government-backed Druze self-defense units. Finally, central Syria has been left to the endless and intricate infighting between the self-proclaimed Islamic State and a number of rival rebel groups—among them the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and others.
By the time of the Russian intervention, the central government had completely lost control of its borders, with the exception of the Syrian-Lebanese frontier. The border with Iraq has been all but erased, the borders with Israel and Jordan are in the hands of the rebels of the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front, and the Turkish border is controlled in some parts by Kurdish fighters and in others by the Islamic State.
What remained of Assad’s Syria was rapidly shrinking due in part to months of defeats on the battlefield as well as the continued erosion of the Syrian military. By summer 2015, Assad himself admitted that the Syrian army was now only defending what is vital and defensible, due to limited resources and because hard choices needed to be made.
Threats and Opportunities
While Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria appeared sudden, it was aimed at preventing other actors from gaining ground while taking advantage of certain opportunities.
Putin may have perceived the rising ambitions of both friends and foes as a threat to his influence in Syria. After the Iranian nuclear deal, it was increasingly obvious that Tehran was building up its posture as a legitimate actor in order to appear as the major power broker in Syria and the United States increasingly seemed to accept this. Turkey, too, expressed a strong desire to carve out a safe zone in the north and northwest of Syria, stepped-up its overflights and raids, and began to prepare a limited ground operation.
Meanwhile, other regional powers had become preoccupied with affairs outside Syria. Putin may have viewed this as creating an opportunity for him to act. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, which had been an obstacle for Moscow’s ambitions in Syria, were now sunk in the Yemeni quagmire. In Washington, the Obama administration was preparing to spend its last year in office digesting and implementing the Iran deal and showed little willingness to jeopardize its position with any hazardous actions over Syria. There was a vacuum that Putin decided to fill.
Russia’s Goals in Syria
Beyond these considerations, it would be premature to assume that there is a grand design behind Russia’s Syrian intervention. It is more realistic to envision what Putin has in mind as a series of incremental endgames, a succession of contingency plans, and a cascade of defense lines, in a Russian nesting doll fashion, that are adaptable and playable as events unfold on the ground and on the diplomatic battlefield.
The first and most highly valued of these objectives would be the restoration, to the greatest extent possible, of the central Syrian state such as it existed before 2011. Putin bets on a revamping of the Syrian army, which relies on cadres trained (and sometimes married) in Russia or the ex-Soviet bloc. This objective does not exclude a whitewashing of the regime’s façade through early elections, the formation of a “national unity government,” and cosmetic revisions of the president’s prerogatives. That is probably what Putin discussed with Assad during his recent and very odd visit to the Kremlin.
If this proves impossible or too costly, a second option is to fall back to the defensible parts of useful Syria after guaranteeing the safety of the Alawi canton. This is perhaps already a consideration, as the majority of Russian airstrikes concentrate on the contours of this area. From there on, Putin, like in Ukraine and Crimea, could freeze the conflict and embark on a long war of attrition. The rest of Syria would fragment and fall into chaos. The central desert would be left for the West and the Gulf States to sort out, fought over by various rebel groups and the Islamic State, which would prosper in such a scenario. Russia’s expectation is that its rivals would ultimately be exhausted and come back to Putin begging for a solution—the one that he always had in mind.
The last contingency scenario is to seek to make the second option quasi-permanent. Useful Syria would be solidified as an enclave into which minorities would progressively flow, seeking protection or shelter from the chaotic rest of the country. This would become the launching pad of a negotiated long-term solution that would consolidate the partition of Syria, granting Moscow influence over a statelet on the coast, where its military bases lie. While the economic viability of such a region would be uncertain, it could potentially be ensured by the exploration and exploitation of undersea gas fields.
U.S. Reactions and the Vienna Process
In Washington’s calculus, one there seems to be a hope that Moscow will ultimately sink into the Syrian swamp, creating for itself as many problems as it is trying to solve, and end up confronting Iran over ownership of what remains of the Assad regime. In this scenario, Putin would be the one returning to the Western and Arab fold to beg for an acceptable solution. U.S. President Barack Obama has openly alluded to this on several occasions, saying in the days after the Russian intervention it should be viewed as a desperate measure to shore up Assad and that Russia and Iran are going to be “stuck in a quagmire.”
Of course, this rhetoric was also a convenient way for Obama to escape the criticism that he had failed to respond to Russia’s challenge. Since the first moments of the Russian intervention in Syria, the U.S. reaction has in fact been cautious and ambiguous. The Obama administration initially voiced concern about the intervention, but then changed course and expressed half-satisfaction and some hope of seeing Russia join the anti-Islamic State effort.
Simultaneously, the White House sent signals that the Russian campaign could end up bolstering Assad and ruin diplomatic efforts expended since the Geneva II peace process in 2014. The United States also discretely encouraged—maybe even aided—an escalation by Turkey and the Gulf States, mainly Saudi Arabia. This took the form of BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles being delivered to the rebellion at a higher pace and volume than before. These missiles were used to curtail any serious advance by the Assad regime against the rebels, even with help of the heavy Russian aerial support.
The logical explanation appears to be that Washington wants to avoid confrontation while at the same time keeping its options open. In that respect, it appears that Obama’s priority for his last year in office is to consolidate the benefits of the Iran deal, manage the Syrian conflict at a minimal cost, and pass it on to the next administration. This is the best way to understand the new diplomatic format established in Vienna. Now Iran is also at the table, but U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry keeps repeating the same Western mantra according to which Assad must go—while remaining ambiguous as to when in the process Assad’s ousting would occur. The November 14 Vienna statement on Syria even returned to the idea of a UN supervised ceasefire, tried with utter failure in 2012.
In some ways, the diplomatic ballet around Syria’s cadaver has started to resemble the one around the Palestinian question. There, rhetoric about the inevitability of a two-state-solution abounds, even as reality on the ground steadily moves further away from the stated goal.
A Destructive Waiting Game
Time is not on the side of Syria. Short of a serious and radical solution for the crisis itself, beyond trying to contain the Islamic State, the country is doomed to continued erosion.
In the regions that will remain outside the regime’s control and Russia’s protection, competing forces will continue to fight over territory, people, and economy. In these regions, the Islamic State will prosper. Syria as a whole will continue to generate problems for the region: border insecurity, sectarian polarization—not least in Lebanon—and an increasing outflow of refugees.
Expectations by each player that its foes will ultimately sink into the Syrian quagmire are perhaps sound in the grand-power game. Nevertheless, this will mean the slow death of Syria, with disastrous spillover effects for the wider region.