Several recent publications and organizations have proclaimed victory for Russia and the Assad regime in the Syrian civil war. President Obama’s prediction back in the autumn of 2015 that the Russians would end up in a quagmire has been dismissed if not forgotten, associated as it now is with his Administration’s less-than-stellar record in dealing with the Syrian civil war. It’s true, after all, that Russia’s intervention has achieved its immediate military goals of preventing a victory by the Syrian opposition. It has not only maintained but expanded Russia’s strategic access to the Middle East and the wider Mediterranean zone. And in a region that favors the “strong horse,” the ruthless tactics in which Russia has participated along with the Assad regime and its Iranian proxies—for example in Aleppo last year—has burnished Russia’s reputation as stalwart protector of its clients and a bane to those who oppose them.
All that said, it is also true that in Russia’s first foray into high-stakes geopolitics outside its immediate region in several decades, its leaders are learning the same bitter lesson that American leaders have learned: The military destruction of an enemy does not automatically lead to the achievement of the political goals that made the war worth fighting in the first place. Unless battlefield successes can be translated into achieving sustainable political goals, all one is left with is a lot of dead bodies.
It is in this context that we must remember that, in March 2016, again in December 2017, and yet again in June 2018, Russia announced the withdrawal of its forces from Syria. None of these announced withdrawals, however, resulted in a decrease in the number of Russian forces deployed in Syria, which still stands close to 3,000. So despite its latest announcement that Russian forces have conducted 39,000 airstrikes, killed up to 86,000 “militants” and eliminated some 121,466 “terrorist targets,” Russia finds itself unable to disengage from Syria. Yes, Russian air power has been instrumental in defeating Assad’s enemies in much of the country, but Syria is no closer to a durable, sustainable political settlement than it was when Russia intervened in September 2015. And having cast itself as the defender of stability and the savior of what it calls the legitimate government of Syria, Russia is unable to extricate itself as long as Syria remains unstable and the government in Damascus lacks the ability to extend its writ over much of the country.
All this might not be enough to conjure the word “quagmire” in the American mind (that label remains associated with the jungles of Southeast Asia), but it’s no picnic either.
Russia’s problems in Syria are now primarily political. They are the kinds of problems that killing “militants” and destroying “terrorist targets” can’t solve. One way to examine these problems is geographically.
A look at the map reveals three areas where Russia’s drive to reunite the country under Assad’s rule is being thwarted. The first is Idlib, where some three million civilians and thousands of fighters are clustered in the opposition’s last large stronghold in western Syria. The influence in Idlib of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, one of the strongest and most radical Syrian opposition groups, was always going to make the fight there bloody and difficult.
Russia and the Assad regime have complicated their problem in Idlib by funneling fighters from other opposition groups there after they conquered territory those groups controlled. Many of these were moderate opposition groups that were parties to the 2016 Cessation of Hostilities agreement but are now likely radicalized after their sustained interaction with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and their prior experience of being brutalized by Russian and Iranian tactics elsewhere in the country.
The enemy Russia now confronts in Idlib is not only stronger than it had previously been but also includes groups tied to Turkey, one of Russia’s key partners in its drive to sideline the U.S. government and the United Nations in a postwar settlement. If Russia were to opt for a sustained bombing campaign to deal with its enemies in Idlib, it would certainly lose Turkey’s support and could even bring on a confrontation with the Turkish military, which has forces deployed there. So Moscow chose to conclude an agreement with Ankara delaying military action in Idlib, kicking the can down the road.
Al-Tanf is another area where Russia’s drive to unify Syria under Assad’s regime is being thwarted. The problem here is the U.S. military. After several strikes by Russia and the Syrian regime on U.S.-backed groups in the region, the U.S. military established a garrison at Al-Tanf and declared a 55-kilometer security zone around this garrison. On several occasions it has enforced this zone by destroying vehicles or aircraft that have entered it.
Further complicating the situation around Al-Tanf is the existence of the Rukban camp for internally displaced persons, which sits inside the U.S. security zone. Russian claims that the Rukban camp harbors terrorists unnerve U.S. policymakers, who fear a bloodbath there if U.S. forces withdraw.
Finally, the U.S. presence at Al-Tanf, which is in the Syria-Jordan-Iraq tri-border region, is a source of reassurance for Jordan and complicates Iran’s vision of a “Shi‘a Crescent” stretching from Tehran to Beirut. A near-term U.S. withdrawal from Al-Tanf is therefore unlikely. But without pushing the U.S. military out of its garrison there, Russia can never satisfy its allies in Damascus and Tehran.
Syria’s northeast is the last area where Russia’s goals are being thwarted. Here again the problem is the U.S. military and its partner, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is a coalition of Kurdish and Sunni Arab militias. The SDF is well-led, well-trained, well-equipped, and has embedded U.S. military advisers, making it a formidable adversary. Russia’s attempt to challenge the SDF by using Wagner Group mercenaries to attack it in February brought U.S. counterstrikes that killed more than 200 of the attackers.
In addition to its military success in liberating northeastern Syria from ISIL, including the group’s “capital” of Raqqa, the SDF has proven politically adept. In each liberated area it has established civic councils to govern and provide essential services. The recent U.S. announcement that it will remain in Syria to thwart Iran there will boost the confidence of the SDF and further complicate matters for Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran.
Even with these three areas remaining outside of regime control, it may still be possible to reconstruct some semblance of postwar normalcy in the rest of the country. So, having destroyed or displaced the internal enemies of the Assad regime in much of Syria, Russia’s task is now to translate its military success into a sustainable political settlement based on areas the regime does control. But it will struggle to do this.
First, Moscow must manage the goals of its allies and partners, some of which conflict with its own preferences. The Assad regime makes no secret of its intent to reunite all of Syria by military force. But without Russia’s backing, the regime lacks the military and diplomatic weight to achieve this goal. Unconditional Russian support for Assad, however, could embolden him to test the resolve of the SDF and the United States by moving against northeastern Syria, bringing on a confrontation with the U.S. military that Russia doesn’t want.
Similarly, Iran will struggle to achieve its goal of establishing a Shi‘a Crescent across the Middle East without Russian support. But Iran’s goal crosses a well-established Israeli red line, and Israel has not hesitated to attack what it sees as Iranian threats emanating from Syria. Despite its aggressive rhetoric and deployment of the S-300 missile system to Syria, Russia is keen to avoid a direct confrontation with the Israeli military. But Iran and its proxies may be either less cautious or more accident-prone, and so could force Russia into either accepting such a confrontation or publicly backing down. The campaign has now reached the point that Moscow can no longer get away with telling all of its partners what they want to hear; the Kremlin will soon have to make some tough choices.
As it manages the members of its Syria coalition, Russia will also have to deal with the actions of the United States, Israel, and Turkey there. Each of these three can frustrate Russia’s goals in important ways. To this point Russia’s policy has been to resist the U.S. government, cooperate with the Turkish one, and keep pragmatic channels of communication open with Israel even while subverting Israeli security through its partnership with Iran. Recent events have shown that the long-term viability of that Russian juggling act is open to serious doubt. Having sidelined much of the international community in Syria, Russia should familiarize itself with Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn Rule”—if you break it, you own it. Or if it’s too much to ask the Russians to respect the words of an American Army general, they can recall their Goethe: Beware of what you wish for, because you may get it.