November 06, 2015
By Maj. Gen. Yaakov Amidror
Gemunder Center Distinguished Fellow
Russia's involvement in Syria raises many questions. What do they hope to achieve? Why have they chosen to increase their troop deployments and increase their involvement at this particular time? Will their intervention lead to positive developments for the Assad regime on the battlefield? If not, what is the Russian exit strategy in case of failure in Syria? How will the Russians react if they begin to lose soldiers and planes?
These questions arise because the Russian intervention is taking place at a time when it is clear that Assad is losing control of the country and his regime is in danger of collapse. The regime's weakest link is in the area of Idlib, in northwest Syria. Rebel groups there have banded together and have successfully carved out an area under their control. This area has become a significant threat to Assad because the rebels could advance from there toward the southwest and threaten the Alawite homeland along the coast. This would force Assad into a dilemma: should the regime weaken its forces in critical areas like Damascus or the Lebanese border along the route to Latakia, or should it weaken its forces in the Alawite heartland?
There is no question that this has created genuine pressure on the regime. Assad, who barely controls Damascus, knows that defeat ultimately will bring about the end of his sect. He is mindful of the fate of the Yazidis, and knows better than anyone the Sunni hatred toward the Alawites in general, and toward his family in particular.
With the Syrian regime in this state, significant military intervention was seen as a last-ditch option by the Russians. Moscow is genuinely concerned about the collapse of Assad's regime, especially given the precedent of regime collapse in Libya. The Libyan precedent convinced them that such an outcome would represent an international disaster, first and foremost for Russia. There is a growing Muslim population in Russia (the birth rate amongst the Muslim minority is rising while the birth rate amongst the Russian majority is falling), and the success of the rebels might lead to a rise in Sunni extremism in Russia, which has struggled for years to deal with this threat. Indeed, for years now President Putin has been telling anyone willing to listen that the alternative to Assad is the far more dangerous Sunni extremism, and that the appearance of ISIS proves this correct. Therefore, there is likely a strong connection between the precarious position that Assad is in and the Russian decision to intervene strongly at this time.
However, this was not the only consideration that led to Russian intervention. Putin holds a grudge against the United States. He feels his country does not receive the respect it deserves, and believes the U.S. response to the occupation of Crimea is unjustified. It was also important for him to shift the international focus on Russia's activities away from Ukraine. From this standpoint, Syria represented an opportunity that would not return, and U.S. skittishness regarding Syria provided him with a chance to highlight the differences between the two countries. One hesitates while the other acts; one betrays its allies (e.g., Mubarak) while the other remains loyal in times of crisis. It is of paramount importance to Putin to emphasize this distinction and showcase Russia's military capabilities as part of the competition between two superpowers, or at the very least between a current and former superpower.
Nevertheless, Russia is taking a large risk by intervening. It currently suffers from a series of problems, particularly regarding its economy and international standing. It is difficult to see how aerial operations alone, regardless of their intensity, will be able to turn the tide for Assad's flagging ground forces. Russia must recognize this could bring about an increasingly large Russian commitment, perhaps even wearing out its military forces and negatively affecting public opinion at home. This risk may prove even more problematic if the rebels succeed in attacking Russian forces or aircraft because - as opposed to in Afghanistan - everything will be caught on camera and published immediately.
In conclusion, Russia wishes to prevent Assad's collapse, which it fears will lead to Syria becoming a safe haven for radical Sunni elements. It wishes to regain some of its stature as a superpower and to retain its influence in Syria, which houses Russia's only Mediterranean naval base. It has taken advantage of the complex situation, and of U.S. hesitance, to deploy aerial forces that are providing significant assistance to Assad, in cooperation with Iran and Hezbollah. The Russians are not guaranteed success, and the risk of resounding failure is present. However, if Assad continues to rule over a shrunken Syria consisting of Damascus, the border with Lebanon and the coastal regions currently under his control, this will represent a great achievement for Putin. Such an achievement would serve to improve Russia's international standing, and would also have a positive effect on the attitudes of the Russian public, which currently faces its own difficult economic and social challenges.