We Break It, You Own It: Russia’s Logic in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to officers during a visit to the Center -2015 Military Drills at Donguzsky Range in Orenburg, Russia, September,19,2015. (Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

Some Western observers of Russia’s recent intervention in Syria are convinced President Vladimir Putin is making a mistake—and, following wisdom often attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, one should never interrupt an enemy while they are making a mistake. By committing its own forces to the defense of beleaguered dictator Bashar al-Assad, some believe that Moscow is about to bog itself down in Syria the same way Washington got stuck in Iraq. However, proponents of this view should be wary the joke might well be on them.

First, although difficult times certainly lie ahead for Russia in Syria, Putin’s intervention will make the conflict more destructive, destabilizing, and intractable, hence more detrimental to all parties. Second, the way Moscow defines success in Syria is hardly comparable to the stabilization-oriented approach adopted by the United States-led coalition in Iraq. Instead, by trying to destroy mainstream insurgents, Putin aims to reshape the Syrian war in a way that would leave Western countries with no other option than to supplement Russia as the protector of Assad.

Russian intervention in Syria will make the war deadlier and heighten the refugee crisis spreading across the region into Europe and beyond. Although they have carried out some precision airstrikes against rebel headquarters, Russian forces have made a greater use of unguided ammunitions, including cluster bombs designed to wreak havoc over vast swaths of territory. As scores of these fail to explode, they will continue to kill civilians who will accidentally set them off years after the end of Russian operations. Russian attacks are not more discriminate than Assad’s, but they are far more powerful. Consequently, they have provoked new displacements of populations in regions whose inhabitants were already used to intensive shelling and bombing, such as the northern countryside of Hama province.

New patterns of regional destabilization induced by the Russian intervention have been most spectacularly illustrated by Turkey’s angry reactions to the violation of its airspace by Russian aircraft. Since some of the chief targets of joint Syrian-Russian operations, in particular in the Latakia province’s hinterland, lie along the Turkish border, the possibility of a major military incident between Russia and a NATO member will remain a constant threat to international security for the foreseeable future.

At the transnational level, Russia’s intervention and its characterization as a holy war by the Russian Orthodox Church has revived the pro-rebel enthusiasm of Gulf-based Islamists, who had shown signs of Syria fatigue over the last two years, as illustrated by a rare statement released by a Saudi ulama. Major rebel defeats at the hands of a Christian state could push mainstream Islamist circles abroad to utter calls for transnational jihad, as already happened at a conference held in Cairo following the capture of al-Qusayr by Lebanon’s Hezbollah in June 2013.

Domestic indignation towards Russia’s intervention will also push Saudi Arabia to pursue more aggressive policies in Syria. This is even more expedient with low oil prices: as the redistributive capacities of the monarchy are bound to diminish, symbolic politics will become more crucial than ever to the preservation of its legitimacy, and this notably implies helping the Syrian rebels to overcome the Russian onslaught.

Finally, Russian intervention will make the Syrian conflict more intractable as both sides radicalize. Russian air cover removes any incentive to negotiate that Assad might ever have had, and mainstream insurgent factions have now rejected the United Nations mediation they had previously embraced. In fact, making the conflict more intractable is integral to Moscow’s strategy. First, although the campaign has been advertised as directed against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), the pattern of Russian airstrikes demonstrates a willingness to systematically destroy CIA-vetted moderate rebel units such as Tajammu al-Izza, the 13th Division, and Suqur al-Jabal.

Likewise, joint Syrian-Russian-Iranian ground operations have targeted parts of the provinces of Hama and Idlib that are notoriously devoid of any ISIS presence. In the northern countryside of Aleppo, Russian airstrikes have targeted rebel-held towns (Hayan, Anadan, Rityan, Huraytan) while virtually avoiding nearby positions of ISIS, thereby contributing to the latter’s advance in the region. New ISIS conquests such as the Infantry School were reportedly abandoned to regime forces without a serious fight. As with Assad and Russia, ISIS prioritizes the destruction of mainstream rebels because it calculates that being the only face of Sunni resistance to an Iranian and Russian-backed Alawite regime would boost its popularity and manpower.

Phase one of the Russian campaign thus aims at depriving the West of interlocutors that could partake in a negotiated solution. It aims to do so either by destroying any force standing between Assad and ISIS, or at least by weakening and radicalizing mainstream rebels in such a way that the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front eventually stands out as the only credible third party in the conflict. Were Russia to succeed in that endeavor, it would likely fail in the subsequent phase of the operation; that is, helping Assad subduing what would be an exclusively jihadi insurgency. Indeed, Russian aircrafts and artillery are reinforcing the regime where it already enjoys formidable superiority over the insurgents—i.e. firepower—while leaving unaddressed Assad’s key problem, i.e. manpower. In the long run, therefore, continued attrition will gradually give the advantage to whatever rebels Assad is faced with.

The third phase of the Russian strategy would no longer be Moscow’s exclusive concern, since Western countries would probably not sit idly by if Damascus, and the Syrian coast were under serious threat of being overrun by an essentially jihadi insurgency. Under the circumstances, the idea of Western armies providing air support to Assad is no fantasy. The US might have given a glimpse of the shape of things to come last August, when it bombed a mortar factory run by the non-jihadi Jaysh al-Sunna rebels, one of the components of the Army of Conquest alliance that was threatening to break into the Alawite mountains.

Above all, let us not forget that unlike Russia, NATO and EU members share a border with the purported ISIS caliphate, have long-standing allies among neighboring countries, speak of the Mediterranean as mare nostrum or “our sea,” and are a favorite destination for Syrian refugees. “We break it, you own it” is an apt summary of Vladimir Putin’s view of the future respective roles of Moscow and its rivals in Syria. It is the West, more than Russia, that will eventually bear the brunt of his actions.

Thomas Pierret is Lecturer in Contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh.