- REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Russia has already blundered by sending troops to Syria, according to President Barack Obama.
“A military solution alone, an attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire,” Obama said in a Friday news conference.
“It won’t work. They will be there for a while if they don’t take a different course.”
But what if Obama’s wrong?
Russia’s aims in its Syria intervention may actually be focused and attainable, at least in the near term. And its broader strategy of instilling havoc among the Assad regime’s international opponents may already be working.
As Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow for Middle East security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told Business Insider, the Russian intervention provides the Assad regime with a crucial military capability that it has lacked throughout the conflict: accurate air support for ground troops.
‘A military game changer in a number of places’
Syria’s air force, which largely consists of antiquated Soviet-era fighter jets, hasn’t been able to provide targeted support for the regime’s ground troops. The Russian deployment, which includes a dozen Su-25 Frogfoots – essentially the Russian equivalentof the US’ venerated A-10 “Warthog”– will change that.
“Assad’s edge recently was his air force,” Hokayem said. Assad’s military had an air component, while the opposition had limited anti-aircraft capabilities. “But his air force was aging and couldn’t provide close air support. It was quite useless in combat situations.”
Throughout the war, the Assad regime has been effective at pulverizing civilian areas, bombing hospitals and bread lines, and depopulating entire towns with crude bombs. What it lacked was an air-support element that could take out enemy military targets during a firefight.
The Russian deployment will “be a military game changer in a number of places where Assad is most vulnerable,” Hokayem said. And as Adam Entous of The Wall Street Journal reports, that primarily includes CIA-backed Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad.
“US officials say they now believe the Russians have been directly targeting CIA-backed rebel groups that pose the most direct threat to Mr. Assad since the campaign began on Wednesday, both to firm up regime positions and to send a message to Mr. Obama’s administration,” The Journal reports.
Right now, Assad is most concerned about his regime’s northern flank, the front line closest to the regime-controlled coastal areas that are home to Syria’s ports, functioning international airports, government infrastructure, and industrial base.
That frontline is where the majority of Russian airstrikes have taken place. Russian strikes have targeted the largely secular-leaning rebel groups that have contested territory at the heart of the regime’s power – and not ISIS, whose statelet is mostly in the country’s desert east.
The Russian strikes ensure Assad’s survival for the near-to-mid term and may even help the regime retake some captured areas. But Hokayem says Russia is thinking strategically as well.
‘This is victory as far as they’re concerned’
The Kremlin’s objective, generally, is to muddy the Syria calculus of its geopolitical opponents. Hokayem describes Russia’s objectives this way: To “corner the US, build its narrative, divide Europe, and make the politics of the conflict difficult for Turkey and others.”
It’s been a success so far.
On September 30, US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to endorse Russian strikes against ISIS, even though Moscow has demonstrated that fighting the group is at best a secondary objective.
The US is buying in to the narrative that Russia has a constructive role to play in Syria and that it can effectively fight ISIS and perhaps push a political solution in Syria – even though there’s no evidence that Russia is doing either of these things.
And Turkey is already running into trouble, as a reported standoff between Turkish and Russian jets raised the possibility of aerial combat between Russia and a NATO member state.
- REUTERS/Ivan Sekretarev/Pool
“Russia’s been able to change the narrative in the short term. That’s undeniable,” Hokayem said. “This is victory as far as they’re concerned.”
Furthermore, Russia is finding that the other global powers aren’t seriously contesting its plans.
“The Russians are all in,” he told Business Insider. “They have a clear partner, they have a clear goal. And on the other side, there is total confusion.”
Obama is correct that the Beltway consensus risks interpreting potentially desperate Russian moves as strategic masterstrokes.
But whether Russia’s moves are ill-advised or not, without a strong counterbalance or even coherent policy from the US and its partners, Russia has been able to impose its policies on the region in ways that will make the Syria crisis even harder to solve.