Russia Goes for Another Pyrrhic Victory in Syria

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 121

(Source: AFP/Getty Images)

Military preparations for an offensive on the rebel-controlled Syrian province of Idlib are complete, air strikes have already commenced, and the Russian diplomatic dance around Syria’s war zone is moving into its final phase. Yet, the costs of the devastating victory might turn out to be higher than the authorities in Moscow and Damascus estimate. The Bashar al-Assad regime is firmly set on regaining control over this last major seat of insurgency, and the inertia of Russia’s three-year-long intervention made the long-planned operation inevitable. President Vladimir Putin has given up on establishing useful cooperation with the United States in Syria; moreover, he has dismissed European concerns about the operation turning into a humanitarian disaster, and he overruled Turkish objections to this offensive near its borders. Seeking to create an impressive background for the Syrian operation, the Kremlin has turned the long-planned Vostok (“East”) 2018 military exercises (scheduled for September 11–15) into a massive show of force. While, these maneuvers in Siberia and the Far East may not be that large in terms of real battalion numbers, they are nevertheless being maximally amplified by Russia’s vociferous propaganda (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, August 30).

Russian commanders are worried that the execution of an indiscriminate air assault on Idlib might induce the Donald Trump administration to deliver a third missile strike on al-Assad’s forces and bases. Thus, the Russian foreign ministry has been actively and publicly monitoring the movements of US Navy ships (RIA Novosti, August 30). Meanwhile, the Russian defense ministry has described in detail a purported sophisticated US Special Forces provocation in Idlib province supposedly meant to fake a chemical attack by the Syrian air force (RBC, August 26). In order to discourage US retaliation for this alleged use of chemical weapons, Russia has deployed a strong naval squadron led by the cruiser Marshal Ustinov to the Eastern Mediterranean and announced large-scale exercises to last until September 8 (Kommersant, August 31). This preemptive deterrence is clearly overdone: Washington has no major stake in Idlib and few worries about the various al-Qaeda remnants left squatting and squabbling in this province. However, Putin is attempting to present the inevitable lack of US action there as his political gain (, August 31).

Turkey, on the other hand, is deeply concerned with the situation in Idlib. Ankara is not only worried about a new influx of refugees but also about losing its newly established control over northern Syria (Kommersant, August 30). Seeking to contain the looming offensive, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, and Chief of National Intelligence Hakan Fidan paid a joint visit to Moscow on August 24 and were granted an audience with Putin (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, August 24). The Turkish officials’ anxieties were politely reassured, but Russia’s determination to launch an offensive was nevertheless confirmed. In no small part, Moscow’s resoluteness is driven by its full awareness of the depth of the ongoing split between Ankara and Washington—which seems likely to preclude a possible joint response (Rosbalt, August 29).

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov similarly did not hesitate to dismiss Saudi Arabia’s reservations over the Idlib assault, delivered to Moscow by his counterpart, Abel al-Jubeir (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, August 29). Riyadh is worried about the buildup of Iranian forces necessary for the offensive. However, Moscow remains firmly opposed to the US-led anti-Iranian coalition (RBC, August 30). Likewise, Israel is monitoring the reinforcement of pro-Iranian militias in Syria; yet, it refrains from targeting them because their redeployment toward Idlib, where hard fighting is about to commence, marks an improvement over their recent clashes with Israeli forces in southern Syria (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, July 18). Israel is generally content with the outcome of that expansion of al-Assad’s control and has welcomed the return of United Nations observers to the Golan Heights (RIA Novosti, August 30).

French President Emmanuel Macron made a desperate effort to dissuade Russia from crushing Idlib, making Syria one of the key themes of his recent speech, in which he elaborated also on relations with Russia and Turkey (Novaya Gazeta, August 29). His point about a “bad mistake” of accepting the al-Assad regime cannot, however, convince Putin to shift his bets (Kommersant, August 27). Recent talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear for Putin that the European Union would not provide humanitarian aid to al-Assad’s Syria. Still, he intends to play on the European fears of a new wave of refugees (RBC, August 28). The Kremlin certainly does not want the responsibility of rebuilding the devastated war zone; however, shifting this burden to the EU appears to be a diplomatic mission too far.

Despite the massive propaganda effort, the Syrian war grows less popular with Russians, who resent the cost of this intervention even as authorities argue at great length about the deficit in the Pension Fund (New Times, August 31). Putin saw the need to present a compromise on the pension issue in a special TV address several days ago. But his sober reasoning clashed with his government’s readiness to invest in fancy weapon systems and stage large-scale military exercises (, August 29). Meanwhile, last Friday’s (September 1) explosion in Donetsk that killed Aleksandr Zakharchenko, a leader of local Moscow-backed separatists, reminded many Russians that they are paying to support this undeclared war as well (, September 1). Revelations of shameless corruption even in the privileged and loyal National Guard add another irritant, and the imprisonment of blogger and activist Alexei Navalny, a champion of anti-corruption, only add credibility to his investigations (, August 31).

Russian geopolitical ambitions continue to run into domestic stagnation and deepening disappointment with Putin’s supreme but stale leadership (, August 30). The only way for the Kremlin to “sell” the new escalation in Syria to the disgruntled public is to present it as the final effort in the struggle against terrorism and to grant stability to the “legitimate” al-Assad regime. This attempt to claim the victory but escape from “owning” its fruit is highly unlikely to work. Al-Assad’s grasp on power will remain dubious as long as some five million refugees remain in camps in neighboring states that refuse to deal with his ostracized regime. Moreover, Iran has too many economic problems of its own to manage the devastated Syria. While the Kurds can expect external help in self-governing the areas they have liberated. Putin is stuck with the disaster, which is only partly of his making and far beyond his control. The desolation of Idlib will not grant him more control over the course of the Syrian war. Instead, it is bound to add to the troubles Russia is stirring up for itself.