Russian Intervention in Syria

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 13 Issue: 24

Russia launched its intervention in Syria at the end of September 2015, immediately after President Vladimir Putin’s grandiloquent but uninspired speech at the United Nations General Assembly. At first glance, Moscow’s Syrian campaign appears hastily improvised, and it does not seem to reflect sound planning or careful risk assessment. Yet, this intervention was shaped by Russia’s previous experiments in power projection and by Moscow’s tradition of using military force as an instrument of politics. In a paradoxical way, it signifies both a continuation of Russian policy in the Middle East, centered on manipulating conflicts, and a departure from the pattern of cautious maneuvering aimed at exploiting opportunities created by confusion in US policy. Russian decision-making on this risky enterprise thus constitutes a peculiar mix of pragmatic calculations and emotional reactions—and appears to be informed by a blend of expert knowledge and arrogant ignorance.

The Road to Latakia

The first reference point for the analysis of current operations is the history of Soviet military involvement in Syria dating back to the coup of 1970, which brought to power Hafez al-Assad, who granted the USSR the right to establish a naval facility in Tartus in exchange for massive military aid. In the course of Syria’s 1973 Yom Kippur War against Israel, the Soviet Union established a high-capacity air bridge to Syrian territory (3,750 tons of supplies delivered in two weeks), as well as a sea bridge (the transport ship Ilya Mechnikov was sunk by the Israeli Navy). [1] The USSR’s military support to Hafez al-Assad’s Syria was substantial in terms of weapons sales and the numbers of Soviet military advisors, but it ultimately proved to be no match for superior Western-sourced technology or operational planning like that wielded by regional rivals including Israel. One notable illustration of this was the air battle of June 9–10, 1982 (known also as Operation Mole Cricket19), in which the Syrian Air Force lost some 65 fighters (Mig-21 and Mig-23) and 19 surface-to-air missile batteries (SA-2, SA-3, and SA-6) in the Bekaa Valley without any losses registered by the Israeli Air Force. [2]

Seeking to turn a new page in relations with Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in 2005 to write off 75% of Damascus’s Soviet-era debt (amounting to $13 billion) and signed new commercial contracts on supplying arms. However, after taking into account Israeli objections, the Kremlin canceled Russian deliveries of tactical missiles and S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries. Since the start of the Syrian civil war in autumn 2011, Russia has again expanded the supply of weapons to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and has been generous regarding Syria’s payment schedules. [3]

Coming to the rescue of a friendly dictator-in-distress was a risky gamble back in 2012–2013, but Putin calculated correctly that tanks and artillery would empower the regime in Damascus to hold on against the rebels of various persuasions. [4] That calculation was underpinned by a strong ideological motivation to confront the chaos of revolutions. For the Kremlin, this was certainly self-serving because Putin’s corrupt authoritarian regime is immanently threatened by domestic discontent. Putin’s support for al-Assad was also motivated by imperious considerations, however, in that it granted the Russian leader a role of champion in the global struggle against revolution. The Russian president played up this role in his address before the UN on September 28. But just as crucially important is the fact that Putin evidently conceptualizes the Syrian intervention as a part of an eschatological struggle for the al-Assad regime’s survival. [5] Targeting the Western-backed rebels that threaten to overthrow the “legitimate” Syrian government is no less, and perhaps more important than targeting the Islamic State. Therefore, when US President Barak Obama tried to impress upon Putin the need for Moscow to make a “strategic adjustment,” the message just did not register. [6] Every rebel is a terrorist on Putin’s Syria map, which makes the air campaign much easier—and entirely hopeless.

The Self-Propelling Enterprise

The exact decision-making process in Moscow regarding Russia’s Syrian intervention cannot be reconstructed with any certainty (though it can be assumed that the deadlock in the Donbas war zone was certainly a major factor). But clearly the material preparations were done in a matter of a few weeks, so the start of the air campaign took most stakeholders in the Syrian war by surprise. Putin had good reason to see it as instant success because a relatively small force projection generated a colossal political resonance and propelled Russia into the position of an “indispensable” power for dealing with the conflict. That success, however, was short-lived and after the first—remarkably smooth—month of bombing, the Kremlin realized it would need to do more, at least in order to sustain the domestic enthusiasm.

The composition of the mixed air regiment at the newly set Hmeymim air base reflected the lack of clarity about the tasks of the intervention. The medium-range fighter-bombers (six Su-34s and twelve Su-24s) attacked targets across the country (with the exception of Kurdish-controlled areas). Light fighter-bombers (twelve Su-25s) and attack helicopters (six Mi-24s) provided close air support to Syrian government troops, but the attempts at launching attacks were feeble, and the air dominance over the battlefield was ineffectual. Remarkably, from the very beginning of the operation, Russia sought to build an anti-access/air-denial (A2/AD) “bubble” over Latakia with SA-15 Tor and SA-22 Pantsir missile systems, as well as to demonstrate capacity for intercepting air targets (six Su-30), going even so far as violating Turkish air space. [7] But by attempting to take on several different tasks with limited means, Russia was unable to seriously impact the overall course of the war.

There was, however, another aim in the intervention, which had little to do with Syria but everything to do with demonstrating Russia’s might: to test the Russian military’s strategic combat capabilities. [8] The first of these experiments was the launch of 26 Kalibr long-range cruise missiles by four ships of the Caspian Flotilla on October 7, which was partly successful but upset Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. The salvo was repeated on November 20 with 18 missiles, and there were reports about a launch of the same missiles from the Rostov-on-Don (Kilo/Varshavyanka class) submarine in the Mediterranean. On November 17, Russian strategic aviation had a busy day, with five Tu-160 and six Tu-95MS bombers launching new X-101 and old X-555 cruise missiles, while fourteen Tu-22M3s engaged in old-fashioned carpet bombing. In parallel with these strikes, other strategic weapons were tested: RS-24 Yars and SS-25 Topol intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) were launched (October 28 and November 17, respectively), and the new Vladimir Monomakh (Borei-class) submarine launched two Bulava missiles. [9] Impressive as they were, these demonstrations could not alter the fact that Russia’s Syrian intervention had reached the peak of its impact and failed to deliver any useful victory for the Syrian government forces.

The First Disaster, and More in the Making

Moscow’s intervention continued with no apparent losses for eight weeks until November 24, when a Russian Su-24, which had violated Turkey’s air space, went down in flames after being hit by a missile fired by a Turkish F-16; subsequently, an Mi-8 helicopter was lost in the rescue operation. Putin was outraged at this “stab in the back” by Turkey, but Russia’s military response to this incident considerably raises the probability of another disaster in the near future. In particular, Moscow has deployed an additional squadron of six Su-30s to Syria so that Russian bomber sorties will always be accompanied by fighters. The most modern (and untested) S-400 Triumph surface-to-air missile battery was stationed at the Hmeymim base, making Russia’s local air defense “bubble” much wider. This has effectively delegated the decision on engaging a “hostile” air target to the pilots and operators of the crudely inter-connected missile systems, making de-conflicting with the US-led coalition sorties prone to human error. Meanwhile, maintenance and logistics at the crowded and poorly-equipped base are stretched thin, while the 2015 track record of accidents and crashes in the Russian Air Force, caused primarily by technical failures, looks uniquely plentiful. [10]

Since the downing of the Su-24, Russia has deliberately increased its targeting of the Turkoman villages and the forces of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, while its attitude to “collateral damage” remains entirely indifferent. This inevitably results in accumulating grievances against Moscow; consequently, the possibility of a terrorist attack on the perimeter of the Russian base in Syria or on convoys going to and from the Tartus naval facility goes up accordingly. It is difficult to guess whether an accidental air fight, or a technical crash, or a terrorist attack will mark the next setback for the Russian intervention because all three are likely to occur. What is nearly certain, however, is that Moscow’s response will most probably be misplaced, disproportional and push the boundaries of acceptable risk.

The prolongation of the al-Assad regime’s existence does not necessarily translate into a useful definition of “victory”. Thus, the lack of meaningful results prompts the Russian leadership to expand the scale of the intervention, even if Moscow remains highly reluctant to commit ground troops. At the same time, the paradoxical feature of this escalation trap is that the higher the intensity of the air campaign, the less sustainable it becomes. Unlike the Soviet Union of 1973, the Russia of 2015 is encountering large logistical problems in organizing an air and sea bridge to Syria—the Russian Navy has had to acquire eight cargo ships from Turkey in order to deliver the necessary volume of supplies. [11] Even bracketing out the possibility (anxiously discussed by Russian experts) of Ankara closing the Turkish Straits, it is clear that logistics presents the greatest vulnerability to this open-ended operation, which has neither a meaningful definition of victory nor a plan for wrapping up. [12]

Conclusion

Russia effectively defines each and every anti-Assad rebel groupings as an “enemy” subject to air strikes (while the Iranian-sponsored terrorist group Hezbollah is exempt from such treatment). Moscow’s “principled” position on not distinguishing between “bad terrorists” and “good terrorists” does not provide Putin any moral high ground. Rather, it makes French as well as US attempts to establish cooperation with Russia in the broadest possible anti–Islamic State coalition not only futile, but also counter-productive because this acceptance of Russia’s force projection indirectly undermines the forces that could shape Syria’s future. The Russian intervention adds considerably to the sum of bitter grievances in various Syrian communities and thus increases the recruitment pool for extremist and terrorist networks. It also generates incentives for joining the ranks of such networks inside Russia, first of all in the chronically unstable North Caucasus. The poorly-planned and doggedly expanded intervention is on course for serious trouble, butevery new setback in its execution is set to encourage Islamic radicals and to give a boost to the cause that spreads violent chaos across the Middle East.

Pavel K. Baev is a senior researcher at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO).

Notes

1. For a useful examination, see William B. Quandt, “Soviet Policy in the October 1973 War”, RAND Report R-1864-ISA, May 1976 (https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/reports/2006/R1864.pdf).#

2. See on that Matthew M. Hurley, “The Bekaa Valley Air Battle: Lessons Mislearned?”, Airpower Journal, Winter 1989 (http://www.airpower.maxwell.af.mil/airchronicles/apj/apj89/win89/hurley.html).

3. One balanced analysis is Roy Allison, “Russia and Syria: Explaining alignment with a regime in crisis”, International Affairs, vol. 89, no. 4, July 2013, pp. 795-823.

4. My check of those calculations is Pavel K. Baev, “Not everything is wrong with Russia’s Syria strategy”; PONARS Eurasia Memo 248, April 2013 (http://www.ponarseurasia.org/memo/not-everything-wrong-russias-syria-strategy).

5. One sharp reading of that speech is Kathrin Hille, “What Putin told the UN: the US and allies are to blame in Mideast”, Financial times, 28 September 2015 (http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/0adcfd46-660f-11e5-a57f-21b88f7d973f.html#axzz3snIRPFBh).

6.. See Michelle Kosinski, “Inside the Obama-Putin power huddle”, CNN Politics, 16 November 2015 (http://edition.cnn.com/2015/11/15/politics/obama-putin-g20-meeting/).

7. See Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Top NATO general: Russians starting to build air bubble over Syria”, Washington Post, 29 September 2015 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2015/09/29/top-nato-general-russians-starting-to-build-air-defense-bubble-over-syria/).

8. See Maxim Solopov, “The Syrian test site”, RBC.ru, (in Russian) 19 November 2015 (http://www.rbc.ru/politics/19/11/2015/564dde149a7947255482bfd8).

9. One Bulava missed its target in Kamchatka; see “The Bulava salvo from Vladimir Monomakh was partly unsuccessful”, Lenta.ru, (in Russian) 19 November 2015 (http://lenta.ru/news/2015/11/19/missiles/).

10. See on that Pavel K. Baev, “Russian air power is too brittle for brinksmanship”, PONARS Eurasia Memo 398, November 2015 (http://www.ponarseurasia.org/memo/russian-air-power-too-brittle-brinksmanship).

11. See Ivan Safronov and Sergei Goryashko, “Russia in Syria: The view from above”, Kommersant-Vlast (in Russian), 26 October 2015 (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc/2836487).

12. The Montreux Convention (1936) leaves for Turkey a possibility to restrict the naval traffic through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles not only in wartime but also in the situation of high military threat; see Georgy Makarenko and Anatoly Temkin, “Sea scare: Could Turkey close the Bosporus for Russia?”, RBC.ru, 25 November 2015 (http://www.rbc.ru/politics/25/11/2015/56558fed9a79477724f27822).