by Mark N. Katz
Numerous reports indicate that Russia’s military intervention in Syria has succeeded in halting the loss of territory that the Bashar al-Assad regime had been experiencing in the months before it began. Moreover, it has enabled Damascus to regain lost territory and weaken the Sunni Arab opposition not affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS or IS).
At a Capitol Hill briefing sponsored by the Middle East Policy Council on January 21, Charles Lister described the “kneel-or-starve” strategy pursued by Russia, the Assad regime, and Hezbollah in Syria as being, “brutally effective in slowly taking back territory.” On January 26, Al Jazeera reported that Syrian government forces captured a key rebel-held town. And after a recent visit to Syria for foreign journalists sponsored by the Russian Defense Ministry, Steve Rosenberg observed that, “My overwhelming impression from these last four days is that Russia’s military operation in Syria and its military presence are looking increasingly long-term.”
Still, even with Russian support, the Assad regime does not appear to be anywhere close to defeating the non-ISIS opposition arrayed against it, much less IS itself. And without continued Russian intervention, the Assad regime could quickly lose its military advances.
Of course, Moscow does not seem about to withdraw from Syria. Still, if all Moscow can hope to achieve from its current intervention is to enable the Assad regime to slowly expand its control over some but by no means all of Syria, then this operation promises to be a long-term drain on Moscow’s resources at a time when it is facing severe budgetary pressures due to Western sanctions and depressed petroleum prices.
Indeed, even if Russia’s intervention enabled the Assad regime to defeat the entire non-ISIS Arab Sunni opposition, it would still have to deal with IS. According to Russian President Vladimir Putin himself, the ranks of IS include thousands of fighters from the former Soviet Union. These may actually be more eager to fight against Russian forces than against Assad’s. Is Putin really willing to take them on?
And what about the Kurds? Putin has expressed support for Kurdish forces fighting IS close to the Turkish border. But it is less a deep love for the Kurds than a desire to support anti-Turkish forces that motivates Putin’s concern. If the Assad regime grows stronger, though, it is probably going to want to recapture territory that it has lost to these Kurdish forces. Will Putin then help Assad fight against a group that Putin himself has praised?
Further, what explains the swirl of rumors—and denials—that Putin has been trying to persuade Assad to step down and go into exile in Russia? It is doubtful that the hard-headed Putin considers Assad himself to be anything but a liability. Assad’s departure would likely enhance the prospects for a new leader to cut a deal with at least some of its opponents. Ironically, though, the more that Russian military support enables the Assad regime to survive and even thrive, the less incentive Assad may feel to step down.
The difficulty of these questions has probably prompted Moscow to put more effort into finding a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria. This diplomatic effort, of course, is occurring while Russia and Assad are trying to weaken the opposition militarily to make it more amenable to reaching an agreement on Moscow’s terms. But although Syrian opposition groups may now be more on the defensive because of the Russian intervention, there are so many of them that those willing to comply with Moscow’s terms and negotiate with the Assad regime will likely be attacked by and lose support to other opposition movements.
Finally, as America’s own troubled experience in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan demonstrated, for insurgent forces just to survive against externally backed government forces is a victory for them. And just avoiding defeat can sometimes put them in a position to take power if the counter-insurgency effort against them falters.
Reports about how well Russia is doing in Syria need to be evaluated in this context.