Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to order his military into Syria may simply have been the gut reaction of a hard-power ruler who, for lack of tools other than a hammer, can imagine no problem other than a nail. But dispatching the Russian Air Force in support of the embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad may also have been a true political masterstroke, in which case its political impact is likely to make a far bigger crater than any of the bombs that Putin is preparing to drop on Syria.
The first indications of a Russian military deployment in Syria leaked out in late August. It gradually became clear that something big was happening at the Basil al-Assad International Airport near Latakia in government-controlled western Syria. Not only was Assad’s army getting new weapons, it was also getting new comrades-in-arms.
According to satellite imagery reviewed by the Washington Post and The Aviationist, a specialist blog, the Russian expeditionary corps has now grown to nearly thirty Sukhoi combat aircraft. Most are SU-24 and SU-25 models that fly “low and slow” in order to take out ground targets, but there are also a few SU-30 jets—a “game changer,” according to a pilot interviewed by the Post, since this multi-role fighter could pose a serious threat to American aircraft in Syria.
Apart from the Sukhoi jets, the airport has also become home to several Mi-24 attack helicopters, transport aircraft, air defense systems, and an unknown number of remotely piloted drones. In addition, there is a small but growing ground force, although it is not clear whether it could be tasked with more than guarding the air base and surrounding areas. Russian forces have been seen embedding with Syrian forces, although it is perhaps as trainers or coordinators.
Today, Wednesday, satellite imagery also revealed two more Russian outposts. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that American intelligence indicates that these bases are not so much the start of an additional deployment as defensive outposts serving to protect the initial air base.
The deployment is military, but its first and perhaps most important effects are political. Israel, which occasionally attacks what it says are Hezbollah targets inside Syria, and the United States have already met with the Russians to “deconflict,” a military term for how to avoid accidents and unwanted clashes.
Israel couldn’t care less about public opinion in Syria, but for the United States, this is an embarrassing position to be in. There is already much ill will among Syrian rebels over U.S. strikes on al-Qaeda targets within the anti-Assad guerrillas. The White House may continue to insist that Bashar al-Assad must step down, but the U.S. Air Force will henceforth be sharing Syrian airspace with both Assad’s own air force—which is notorious for its unrelenting bombing of civilian neighborhoods and infrastructure—and with a Russian expeditionary corps sent to aid him. It won’t be popular with American allies.
By introducing Russian jets and air defense systems into the Syrian theatre, Putin has also created facts on the ground (or just above it) that will help forestall further action against Assad by the United States or its allies. American Syria policy is currently under scrutiny and if internal White House debates about Assad were indeed moving in the do-something direction as some claim, then Vladimir Putin has just served up a brand new counter-argument.
Whether by accident or design, the Latakia deployment will also draw attention to Vladimir Putin’s appearance before the United Nations General Assembly in late September, his first in ten years. The Russian leader has been trying to promote an international coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, of which Assad would be a part. Having just thrown his gauntlet down in Latakia, Putin won’t necessarily gain a more sympathetic hearing from the world leaders assembled in New York, but they’re sure to listen very closely.
Although the Russian intervention seems partly designed for political effect, those Sukhoi jets aren’t just going sit on a runway in Latakia for the benefit of satellite paparazzi. According to U.S. officials, Russian airstrikes in Syria are likely to begin “soon”—and as this article was being written, as-yet unconfirmed reports alleged that Russian jets were already backing a regime offensive in the Aleppo area.
Will the Russian Air Force be able to make a difference on the ground?
Yes, probably, says David A. Deptula—and he should know. A retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant-general and air warfare theoretician, Deptula planned the American bombing campaign against Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991, when the U.S. and its allies—including, at the time, Syria—liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Ten years later he oversaw the air war that toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
“With competent pilots and with an effective command and control process, the addition of these aircraft could prove very effective depending on the desired objectives for their use,” Deptula told the New York Times. Which begs the question, what are those objectives?
The Kremlin has couched its involvement in Syria in terms of a war against jihadi extremism. It also seeks to bring Assad out of the cold and into an international coalition against the so-called Islamic State. In other words, focusing attacks on the Islamic State seems like a given, at least initially, but there are reasons to look at other targets, too.
But where and how could Russia maximize the impact of its strikes? Let’s look at some possible scenarios for the early stages of a Russian aerial intervention.
Option One: the Islamic State in Aleppo
At the time of writing, unconfirmed reports are coming in about Russian strikes in support of a sudden regime offensive striking out from eastern Aleppo. However, until now no evidence has emerged and it is important to remember that Syrian activist media, on both sides, is full of rumors. The news about a government offensive seems to be true, however, and reports indicate that it might be intended to relieve the Kweiris Airport, a small government-held pocket of land east of Aleppo that has long been under siege by the Islamic State. When other government enclaves in Syria’s north and east have fallen to the Islamic State, the captured soldiers have been summarily murdered in grotesque video-taped massacres that have unsettled pro-Assad constituencies and provoked angry reactions within the ranks.
Saving the Kweiris defenders would therefore provide both a political and a military boost for Assad, and it would help him clean up his frontlines in a crucial area of Syria.
Interestingly, an attack on the Kweiris pocket could also knock the Islamic State off balance in the Aleppo area, just as rebels north of the city are struggling to keep open their supply lines to Turkey against an Islamic State offensive. Coincidence or not, if Russia is involved, it would be an interesting first example of the potential interplay between offensives by Russian-backed army forces and U.S.-backed rebels.
The reports of Russian strikes near Kweiris remain unconfirmed for now. If they turn out to be true, it is possible that this will be a first area of focus. The Assad-Putin alliance could then try to change the balance of power in Aleppo. If they stick to Islamic State targets, instead of straying into battle with other rebels, a main ambition would probably be to push the jihadi group away from the government supply line between Aleppo and Hama in the south. The Assad-held areas of Aleppo are currently supplied by way of a hard-to-guard desert road that runs down through Sfeira, Khanaser, and Ithriya past the Ismaili-populated Salamiyeh area east of Hama. In the Salamiyeh area itself, the Islamic State has been nibbling away at the government’s perimeter defenses, but the desert road up to Aleppo has been a relatively tranquil front. Still, for Assad, the Islamic State’s presence just next to his Aleppo artery is a lethal threat.
Option Two: The Islamic State East of Homs
Directly south of this region, there is another area where Assad is vulnerable to the Islamic State—the eastern Homs region. It is impossible to tell what Russian intentions are, but if we’re looking at likely places for Russian air support to Assad, the area between Homs and Palmyra must be close to the top of the list.
The fall of Palmyra in May this year opened up the desert fringes east of Homs to the Islamic State. This is a target-rich environment, to say the least, and Assad’s overstretched army must be distressed by the sudden emergence of a new and untenably long frontline.
The region also contains the Syrian government’s last remaining oil and gas fields, as well as the pipelines that come with them. The Syrian military air base known as T4, located in the middle of the desert west of Palmyra, has emerged as the anchoring point of government defensive positions shielding these fields against the Islamic State.
As Carnegie’s Yezid Sayigh wrote a few months ago, and as David C. Butter lays out in detail in this excellent Chatham House report, much of Syria’s power grid runs on natural gas. The state-run national electricity infrastructure still powers all Syrian government and some rebel and Islamic State territories, but 80 percent of the gas feeding its power stations comes from the fields east of Homs. If Assad lost these gas fields and installations, it would therefore have a double effect. It would be a devastating blow to the regime, which is already in a state of structural and financial disrepair, and it could seriously aggravate the economic and humanitarian crisis throughout Syria.
All this makes the Homs-Palmyra region a particularly appealing target for Russian intervention:
- First, it helps Assad stave off Islamic State attacks and could even enable his forces to recapture Palmyra and shorten the eastern front.
- Second, it would publicly align Russia—and by extension Assad—with the United States and Europe in a joint struggle against the Islamic State. That’s exactly where Putin and Assad want to end up.
- Third, it would help keep Syrian state institutions running and prevent a deepening of the humanitarian disaster in Syria. That’s a goal widely shared among the opposition’s Western allies, even though many rebels tend to view Assad as a greater evil than the Islamic State. If an air campaign in Palmyra helps drive a wedge into the opposition camp or among its backers, so much the better from the point of view of Putin and Assad.
Could the Homs-Palmyra area be a place where Russia will focus its air support? Time will tell, but one thing is certain: no one is likely to object too loudly as long as Russian airstrikes are aimed only at the Islamic State and take place in this region. For all we know, the White House might even have quietly ushered the Russians towards Palmyra, fearing that it would otherwise have to fly those bombing runs on its own.
Option Three: al-Qaeda and Others in the Northwest
Eastern Homs isn’t the only place where Assad is in a slow and painful retreat. This spring, the Syrian president was forced out of the city of Idlib and he has been losing ground ever since. By seizing Jisr al-Shughur and other towns in the area, the rebels have now opened up two venues of attack that threaten core regime areas. To the southwest lie the Alawite-populated mountains of the Latakia Governorate, from which much of the military elite hails. Due south of Jisr al-Shughur lie the Ghab Plains, a religiously mixed agricultural flatland that functions as the “soft underbelly” of Hama. So far, the Ghab seems to be where the rebels are concentrating most of their firepower.
The groups digging their way down the Ghab are not aligned with the Islamic State. To the contrary, they are hostile to it. The centerpiece of the anti-Assad insurgency in this region is the Jaish al-Fatah (“Army of Conquest”), a coalition of Islamist groups. Its single biggest member faction is likely to be Ahrar al-Sham, a hardline group backed by Turkey and Qatar. Many of its leaders hail from villages in the Ghab Plains, giving them even more reason to prioritize that battle.
However, the other big group in the Jaish al-Fatah coalition is the Nusra Front, which is al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. That makes the Syrian northwest another very tempting target for the Russians, for both political and military reasons. Unlike the Islamic State, the Nusra Front is well embedded in the wider Sunni Islamist landscape, meaning that Russian strikes would cause rebel outrage and a political stir among opposition backers. Yet, the U.S. has been bombing select Nusra Front targets for a year now and every country on earth considers al-Qaeda to be fair game.
The alliance between the terrorist-listed Nusra Front and other rebels, which are backed by the Gulf States, Turkey, and the West, creates an opportunity for Putin to conduct strikes that would undoubtedly help Assad while also moving the target away from the Islamic State and toward more mainstream sections of the insurgency. If criticized, his enemies will be in the unenviable position of having to explain why the Russian government shouldn’t attack al-Qaeda. It is not the kind of argument that can be won in the West, at least not outside a very narrow circle of Syria wonks.
Blowing Up Your Narrative
If at some point Putin decides to target other groups than the Islamic State, he’s not likely to stop at the Nusra Front. Whether right off the bat or after a while, he could easily widen the circle of attacks from al-Qaeda and start blasting away at every rebel group in Idlib, Hama, and Latakia under the pretext that they are either “terrorists” or “terrorist allies.” On the ground, things are obviously a bit more complex and, just as obviously, Putin knows that—but he has nothing to gain from acknowledging it.
To the contrary, the Kremlin has every reason to continue blurring the already indistinct dividing line between “extremist” and “moderate” rebels upon which Western states insist. Even though this neatly black and white categorization of Syria’s murky insurgency is at least partly fiction, it remains a politically indispensable formula for Western states that wish to arm anti-Assad forces. Which is precisely why erasing this distinction by extending airstrikes against all manners of rebels as part of an ostensibly anti-jihadi intervention, may turn out to be Putin’s long-term plan.
Blanket attacks on Syrian rebels on the pretext that they are all “al-Qaeda” would lead to much outraged commentary in the Western and Arab press. But to the Russian president it doesn’t matter if you think he’s Mad Vlad or Prudent Putin. He isn’t trying to win hearts and minds, least of all those of the Syrian rebels or their backers. Rather, he is trying to change the balance of power on the ground while firing missile after missile into the West’s political narrative.
Whatever one thinks of that, it is a big and bold idea of the sort that sometimes end up working.