Russia's changing the game in Syria. But before analysts jump to winners and losers in that game, one would do well to ask: What's the game?
Denying ISIS safe haven is one of the primary objectives (of which, it must be said, there are many) of the U.S.-led, international coalition of 60 nations that was assembled to engage with the Syrian conflict in 2014. But the coalition is no longer the only one concerning itself with this particular task.
Late last month, Baghdad authorities announced an agreement between Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The four would be forming an intelligence and security co-operation pact, targeting ISIS in particular. Russia launched its first strikes shortly thereafter—and, according to some, aimed at Syrian rebels. Since then, its strikes have primarily targeted territory not held by ISIS.
The U.S. coalition’s military campaign is tactically stalemated due to the limits of air strikes and the continuous intervention of state and non-state actors with competing objectives that sometimes run counter to coalition efforts. While formal engagement by Russia in the form of experts, aircraft, and air defense systems poses a host of challenges to the U.S.-led coalition, it could add just enough momentum to turn the tide against ISIS, even while its intervention serves to exacerbate certain elements of the conflicts in Syria.
This is what needs to be considered in evaluating whether Russia’s strikes in Syria will help or hurt.
Russia claims that its strikes are targeting ISIS’ terror network—a disputed, yet marginally viable claim considering that ISIS is also at war with Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia’s strikes on al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, foe to both Assad and ISIS, may bolster ISIS in the short-term; ISIS has been battling al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate since early 2014 and will no doubt benefit from the strikes on Nusra-held territory. However, Russia will eventually have to turn its attention to ISIS’ self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa, and other ISIS strongholds to achieve its goal of regaining Syrian territory for the Assad regime.
Of course, Russia is pursuing its own domestic agenda while actively supporting the Assad regime. Confirming what everyone already knew, Putin told Russia 24 TV, “Our task is to stabilize the legitimate [Assad] government and to create conditions for a political compromise ... by military means, of course.” Thus, what is presented by some as a salacious twist—their strikes are also aimed at other Salafist groups like Ahrar al-Sham and more moderate groups that the coalition forces seek to support—is actually in keeping with Russia’s stated aims.
Air strikes are most effective if executed in support of a ground unit. All coalition efforts to erect such a unit with moderate Syrian rebels have resulted in roughly five incapable and under-resourced fighters and $500 million in sunk costs. Air strikes from the U.S.-led international coalition have killed roughly 20,000 militants. However, with a steady flow of recruits and recent setbacks in Palmyra, ISIS has been able to maintain between 20,000-30,000 fighters—the same amount as when the strikes started—revealing slim strategic success.
The reality is that Russian airstrikes alone are no more likely to significantly impact ISIS or the status quo of the conflict than the coalition’s strikes have been. Once Russia realizes this, President Putin may choose to commit ground troops, which will likely result in greater gains against ISIS, but also in even more of a geopolitical quagmire in Syria.
Russia’s long-term success will likely rely on its ability to coordinate operations with its own allies. Putin’s military and political moves in Syria are not unilateral. In addition to the support of the Bashar al-Assad regime, there is the aforementioned recent formalization of a previously de facto alliance with Iran and Iraq. The nations have agreed to share intelligence on ISIS (and, presumably, other opposition groups). Prior to the agreement, Russia and Iran had already mobilized significant amounts of financial and military aid to the Syrian government.
This real-life Suicide Squad may seem more than equipped to shift the conflict in their favor; however, it’s not immediately clear if the parties to the intelligence agreement will be able to overcome mutual mistrust to provide military capability. For one thing, there’s the possibility that, as U.S. officials say, Russian missiles may have recently misfired and landed in the territory of its ally, Iran. Moreover, Russia has openly stated that it has no plans to provide ground troops, leaving the Kremlin reliant on exhausted and depleted Syrian government forces who have been fighting for four years, Shiite militia fighters mobilized by Iran, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah to call in airstrikes and launch a considerable ground offensive.
Russian coordination with its allies on the ground could result in quicker responses to ISIS attacks, but will likely lead to higher civilian casualty rates. ISIS fights like an insurgency, conducting concentrated surprise attacks and then retreating among civilian populations. The prevailing argument from groups supported by coalition airstrikes is that, while vital, they take too long to call in to respond swiftly to these surprise assaults, and when they arrive, they are too few and far between. Once the insurgents blend back into the population, the risk of civilian casualties is too high to strike.
The casualty count is not a deterrent for Putin. Russia’s Defense Ministry is reporting that some 300 militants and two ISIS commanders have been killed in attacks that have resulted in a number of civilian casualties. Russian strikes in Northern Homs controlled by various armed groups (including some groups affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra) killed a reported 17 civilians. While the success of their sorties has yet to be confirmed, they have already received heavy criticism for their indifference toward residential areas. Human Rights Watch is calling for a formal investigation.
While unfortunate and rightly condemned, from a technical standpoint, Russia’s apathy toward civilian populations could make a real difference against ISIS. It’s much easier to drive the enemy out of its safe havens when you don’t care who else might be there. In a recent media brief, deputy chief of staff Lieutenant-General Igor Makushev acknowledged that Russian airstrikes were pushing ISIS militants into urban areas. He also stated that Russian air forces are “continuing and intensifying their air strikes.”
Hold ‘em or fold ‘em
At this point, a political—as opposed to a military—solution to end the conflict is highly improbable. Ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (the goal of the Syrian rebels when this conflict began in 2011) would likely escalate the conflict and bolster ISIS in the long-term, and transitioning a new regime in the middle of the crisis could result in a short-term bolster of ISIS and increase instability in the country. While the U.S. has wavered on the extent to which it is willing to commit itself militarily, Putin has shown up with arms and a decisive strategy—to support and strengthen Assad. This could pay off in the form of leverage and influence in the event of a government transition: If Russia defeats ISIS with Assad, the Syrian president’s replacement might well be someone the Russians could control.
Ultimately, only cohesion of external powers—within and outside of the U.S.-led coalition—will alter the Syrian reality. Perhaps, while Russia strikes Syria, the U.S. should focus less on a satisfying immediate political solution and more on creating the conditions for a durable political solution. This would involve suppressing all extremist groups in the country, coordinating with unsavory actors, and either deploying western troops or supporting the forces of a hypothetical temporary ally like Assad, Russia, or Iran—nations that already have troops in theater.
No matter Russia’s next move, the conflict has been escalated and will continue to escalate as Russia doubles down on its strategy. The question is whether the U.S.-led international coalition can direct the new momentum through cooperation or generate momentum of its own. The answer to that is up to the U.S., not Russia.