Putin Tosses His Russian Monkey Wrench into Syria

by Wayne White

Inserting Russian military power directly into the Syrian maelstrom is Vladimir Putin’s bold gambit to prop up sagging Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. The battle against the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) appears to be a marginal consideration—merely convenient cover for a one-dimensional military rescue mission. And by basing Russian surface-to-air missiles (useless against Syrian rebels) and advanced combat aircraft in Syria, Putin seems to be pointedly warning the US and other anti-Islamic State coalition members to stay out of his way or else.

Putin’s action smacks of the recent brazen, Russian military muscle-flexing that has challenged Western agendas in Georgia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine. In the last year, the Russian military has harassed US reconnaissance flights in international airspace as well as buzzed a US Navy destroyer in neutral waters. Speculation that Russia’s move could greatly assist the coalition’s anti-IS cause and offer a chance for a Syrian political solution without Assad is misplaced.

Despite Russian claims, most Russian airstrikes have hit the positions of not IS but rebel groups most threatening to Assad’s forces. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s October 1 claim that Russian airstrikes “are not supporting anyone [the Assad regime] against their own people” seems ludicrous in this context. In fact, Lavrov’s comment—“If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist”—suggests that just about any armed group in Syria is fair game for the Russians (including US-backed rebels). His remark, “We see eye to eye with the coalition on this one,” is patently false since coalition airstrikes have largely focused farther east against IS’s center of gravity, coalition aircraft do not sortie from Syrian regime bases, and most members of the coalition consider Assad beyond the pale politically.

Indeed, if Russian interests were consistent with those of the coalition, Putin wouldn’t need to dispatch highly advanced SU-30 and SU-34 multirole aircraft to Syria when his large number of older but highly effective SU-24 and SU-25 ground attack aircraft there would suffice. Most tellingly, the presence of SA-22 surface-to-air missiles suggests a desire to protect Russian air assets from potential opposing air forces, not rebels without aircraft. According to a French source, Russian SU-30’s diverted the flight path of Israeli F-16’s off the Syrian coast during the night of October 1-2 (hardly an activity consistent with targeting IS).

Then there were reports that Iranian troops (not just Iran’s Hezbollah allies or Iranian advisors) have been arriving to join Syrian troops and Hezbollah combatants in operations backed by Russian airpower. This move reinforces Tehran’s longstanding policy of bolstering the Assad regime and has little to do with the battle against IS.

Washington Scrambles for a Response

Early official American reaction to the Russian moves was naively tolerant. Secretary of State John Kerry stated last week that the Russian deployment was a possible “opportunity.” In his October 2 news conference President Obama was tougher. But he downplayed Putin’s action as “not a smart strategic move on Russia’s part…that just won’t work” (debatable since Russia’s ally was buckling militarily and in desperate need of help). Obama’s prediction that Russia was headed for a “quagmire,” however, is more credible, and Obama did say Putin “doesn’t distinguish between ISIL and a moderate Sunni opposition that wants to see Mr. Assad go.”

Unfortunately, Russia’s move has compelled Washington to engage in some military cooperation with Moscow to avoid dangerous encounters between respective combat aircraft. This might have been unnecessary had Russia not deployed high performance multi-role combat aircraft that threaten coalition aircraft. The US has shunned Russian efforts to keep Assad in power. But this aerial coordination, which essentially facilitates anything the Russians do to provide Assad with vital air support, could represent the first American involvement in aiding the dictator, albeit indirectly and by default.

In the context of American problems in formulating a response to Russia in Syria (not to mention grappling with the entire Syrian-Iraqi mess), plenty of so-called experts and talking heads who can access a TV camera (including the irrepressible Donald Trump) have favorably but misleadingly compared Putin’s bold move to US policy difficulties overall. The two challenges are not analogous: Putin’s gambit is relatively simple by comparison. Deceptive Russian rhetoric aside, he is not, like the US, trying to address Syria or Iraq as a whole or tackle the sweeping jihadist terrorism issue. His central goal is to shore up the faltering Syrian regime by pounding its closest rebel enemies, period.

For Russia, There Will Be Costs

Russian intervention in Syria could result in a quagmire, as President Obama predicted, especially if Russia bulks up its military footprint over time. And the entire spectrum of Syrian rebel groups, not just IS, will likely now want to inflict casualties on the Russians one way or another. Any captured airmen can expect an especially grim reception, but all manner of Russian personnel—including diplomats–will be considered fair game. Potentially even worse, IS and possibly the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front will likely try to exact revenge on Russian home soil as has happened in the West. Bloody and destructive Russian behavior during the Chechen War generated nasty terrorism inside Russia in its wake. Extremist online propaganda could incite embittered Chechens and other Russian Muslims to act likewise.

Russia’s deceitful entrance into the war is the second major disappointment in that respect in just two months. Back in July, Turkey finally appeared to join the battle against IS, for example allowing US aircraft to use its Incirlik Air Base complex for anti-IS airstrikes. Soon, however, it became clear President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s main priority was not hitting IS but rather Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish militants.

At home, this ended a long, promising Turkish-Kurdish domestic peace process and likewise involved roundups of more Turkish ultra-leftists and Kurds than IS-associated suspects. Since Kurdish fighters have been among the few viable combatants in the field against IS in both Iraq and Syria, Turkey’s attacks against certain elements in their midst have been counterproductive overall.

Russian intervention most likely will succeed in propping up a Syrian dictatorship that was finally showing some real signs of faltering in the face of four years of war. Indeed, Russian “mission creep” could occur if it becomes clear that to more effectively stabilize the regime’s military position, Russia needs to commit even more military muscle. Russian military intervention could also throw the anti-regime moderate rebel effort in western Syria into confusion (i.e. even minor rebel advances against the regime will surely draw waves of devastating Russian airstrikes, possibly discouraging fighters from doing so). Also, it will become far more complicated—perhaps impossible–for coalition aircraft to attack some extremist targets in western Syria where Russian aircraft are now operating. Overall, therefore, there is a very real possibility that in addition to saving Assad, the Russian military effort could further degrade the non-extremist rebel cause while possibly strengthening their extremist rivals.

Image of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev courtesy of IoSonoUnaPhotoCamera via Flickr

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Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. @ “Despite Russian claims, most Russian airstrikes have hit the positions of not IS but rebel groups most threatening to Assad’s forces.”

    Straw man argumentation. The Russian government never said it was aiming at ISIL specifically, but rather at all terrorists that were fighting against the elected Syrian government. Moreover, there is no “moderate Sunni opposition that wants to see Mr. Assad go” that has troops in the field. Even if there were, they would be legitimate targets because Russia’s self-declared mission is to protect the Syrian government from all usurpers employing violence. Russia’s actions are legal under international law’s “mutual defense” provisions because it acts at the Syrian government’s request, unlike the illegal actions of the U.S. and allies in seeking to overthrow the elected government.

    Author White is apparently one of those scholars who never bothered to study international legal points like non-interference in the internal affairs of foreign governments and people’s right to choose their own form of government, two fundamental tenets of international law that the U.S. and allies are ignoring in Syria. I give little credibility to writers of that ilk.

  2. Watching the U.S. and Russia bomb poor Syria is like watching hyenas, then vultures pecking away at a helpless, downed animal. Disgusting! They don’t even have to pay any of the Butcher’s Bill for surviving refugees. That’s paid for by the Europeans that have to take them in. And Oh, the partitions of the Ottoman Empire after WW1 and India-Paskistan, Palestine after WW2 made everyone’s dories all hunky, didn’t they?

    Hyenas: re-institute DISENGAGEMENT: Cease fire unless fired upon! Evacuate threatened populations to safer areas, offer and pay host countries, in advance, 5 years re-settlement support!

  3. Russia in fact does seek the defeat of Isis. Russia’s position that overthrow of Syrian government will lead to great chaos is sound.

  4. Russia should supply more effective and sustained deterrents to Syria to fend off Israel. Israel is the country that has been seeking destabilization from 1996 . In between Israel has articulated its wet dreams periodically after 911. It has attacked and tried to get US attack Syria.Israel is the real ISIS there. Later other counties have joined the Israeli plan mostly out of their own precarious situation created by 2003 war .
    Russia is so far doing well but Syria should be prepared to fight the real threat in the desert that is Israel.

  5. this guy used to work for the US government (sigh). Somebody explain why we turned against the secular government of Syria? What is it they did to us?

    Barrel bombs, field expedient munitions? Oh, I see, he’d rather get killed by a shiny sexyegg shaped bomb with a sharp nose and fins? What about all the dud cluster bombs (read that as landmines sown from the air) we gave the Israelis to broadcast over the farmland of southern Lebanon? What about the Israeli atrocities in Gaza, or us bombing the hospital in Kunundz? the list could go forever.

    Trump and Paul are the only ones running that get it. An Islamic terrorist is an Islamic terrorist. There is no moderate or good Al-Qaeda.

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