Is Putin Gambling it all on Syria?

By Scott Lucas | (The Conversation) | – –

For those watching closely, the signal for Russia’s first airstrikes came in a statement early on September 30 by Kremlin spokesman Sergei Ivanov, just after the upper house of the parliament authorised military operations:

To observe international law, one of two conditions has to be met – either a UN Security Council resolution or a request by a country, on the territory of which an airstrike is delivered, about military assistance.

In this respect, I want to inform you that the president of the Syrian Arab Republic has addressed the leadership of our country with a request of military assistance.

Within hours, witnesses were reporting that Russian jet fighters were bombing parts of Hama and Homs Provinces in western Syria. Activists said scores of people – almost all civilians – had been killed, disseminating videos and photographs of slain or injured children.

Putin called the airstrikes a “pre-emptive” operation against the Islamic State – the official reason for Moscow’s military escalation inside Syria. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said that “rumours that the targets of these strikes were not IS positions were groundless”. The defence ministry, reporting 20 sorties on eight sites, released video of a supposed attack on an Islamic State headquarters.

But even before the Russian leaders set out their line, witnesses and analysts had confirmed – through videos and geolocation as well as testimony – the real story of Moscow’s gamble: all but one of the targets were areas held by the opposition to Syria’s Assad regime, rather than by the Islamic State’s militants.

Of course, Putin and Lavrov probably knew that their obfuscation would soon be exposed. It was all part of a high-stakes bet that with brazen propaganda, political manoeuvres and airstrikes, Russia can save Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, from a likely downfall.

Putin’s gamble

Only six weeks before these strikes began, Russia’s efforts to save Assad were floundering. Working with Iran, Moscow had hoped to convince foreign powers to let Assad stay in power during a political “transition”. The US had appeared receptive, and John Kerry discussed the possibility with Lavrov in early August.

But the Saudi foreign minister torpedoed the initiative, humiliating Lavrov at a press conference after their meeting in Moscow by insisting Assad relinquish power before any negotiations begin.

The Saudis’ rejection only deepened Assad’s plight. His weakened army, which lacks serious manpower and remains isolated in parts of Syria, has suffered a series of major defeats since the start of 2015.

Syria’s assorted non-Islamic State rebels had taken much of north-west Syria, including almost all of Idlib Province, so the opposition could establish an alternative government. These rebel blocs had also advanced across the south, along the Jordanian border, while Kurdish militia and the Islamic State held most of the north-east of the country.

Combined with the tanking Syrian economy, the shifting military position raised the prospect that Assad would finally step down – or even that his government would completely collapse. The Syrian air force managed to avert a total defeat, but even this could not stop the rebels capturing government military bases over the summer.

Assessing the situation, a cautious leader might have pulled back from the financial, material and reputational costs of backing Assad. But Vladimir Putin is not a cautious man: when confronted with weakness, whether his own or others’, he clearly prefers to prove his strength with aggressive diplomatic and military moves.

And so Russia laid a different path. Starting in mid-August, Moscow began building up its military position in western Syria.

Plan B

Russia expanded an airbase in Latakia Province, bringing in 34 jet fighters, about two dozen attack and transport helicopters, a strategic airlifter, and drones. Russia’s ships brought in advanced battlefield armoured vehicles and weapons. Several hundred additional troops were deployed as “advisers” to Assad’s militia, not only in Latakia and Tartous provinces on the Mediterranean, but also near the front-lines in Hama and Homs provinces.

Moscow’s initial denials of an escalation were just show. The message to the US and its partners was still clear: accept the political talks, with Assad retaining power during the negotiations, or there will be military operations.

The ploy was mostly successful. Russia made the campaign palatable with the pretext that its forces were being positioned against Islamic State, allowing the US to replace its opposition with the acceptance of discussions for an “anti-IS” coalition. Britain and Germany agreed that Assad could stay pending a transition, paving the way for the US secretary of state, John Kerry, to say that the Syrian leader did not have to depart on “day one or month one” of a transitional period.

The Saudis, however, would not budge. As their foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, repeated: “There is no future for Assad in Syria … One option is a political process where there would be a transitional council. The other option is a military option, which also would end with the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power.”

Russia, which had already carried out drone surveillance to scout targets, then played another card with its airstrikes. Putin, who had proposed a grand “anti-Hitler” coalition in his UN General Assembly speech on September 28, effectively told the world to either join him or stand back as he bombs Syria and props up Assad’s military.

Initially, US officials such as Kerry and defence secretary, Ashton Carter, complained that Washington had been treated rudely, with only one hour’s notice of the Russian operations, and that it appeared Islamic State had not been targeted. But by late afternoon on September 30, their objections were easing.

After a meeting with Lavrov, Kerry put the emphasis on “deconflicting” to prevent an accidental US-Russian clash.

Trouble ahead

The initial success of Putin’s gamble does not guarantee a long-term pay-off. No display of military strength can in itself deal with threats and crises, both inside Syria and in Russia.

Moscow’s warplanes can help the Syrian military keep a hold on its vital defence line, which runs from the Mediterranean to Homs and then to Damascus. But just as the Syrian Air Force has not been able to help Assad’s ground forces reclaim lost territory, Russia’s jet fighters cannot wage a front-line battle against the rebels.

With no prospect of a revitalised Syrian Army, Putin is left with two unpalatable options: to either deploy Russian troops on the battlefield or accept the de facto partition of Syria – allowing the rebels to hold their positions in north-west and southern Syria.

Meanwhile, Putin still has to face down a crisis in the Russian economy: there are difficulties with investment and production, the rouble is in perpetual trouble, prices for oil exports are falling, and international sanctions imposed during the Ukraine affair are biting hard.

The Kremlin has already embarked on a series of anti-crisis measures – and Putin has so far defied the economic difficulties, arguably trying to divert attention from them through Russia’s aggressive approach to Ukraine. But with the Syrian push, he is adding yet another expenditure to the government’s overloaded books. While many Russians are so far sympathetic, with the Orthodox Church giving its blessing to the airstrikes, popular support could dissolve if there’s no quick resolution and the costs continue to stack up.

With the US so far declining to raise a ruckus against Moscow, Putin can hope that Saudi Arabia finally gives way and joins the Americans and the Europeans to support Assad on a temporary basis. If that happens, Putin will have won his bet. But if the Saudis remain intransigent and the Americans’ mood turns sour, his losses could be dire indeed.

The Conversation

Scott Lucas, Professor of International Politics, University of Birmingham

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Reuters: “Russia bombs Syria for second day, targets raise concern”

22 Responses

  1. “or accept the de facto partition of Syria”
    Not only they have accepted it, they will implement it. (Rebels) will be allowed to govern their own enclave at first, some population transfer and defined borders, bingo, everyone live happily ever after.

  2. Kremlin: “In this respect, I want to inform you that the president of the Syrian Arab Republic has addressed the leadership of our country with a request of military assistance”

    Got that? The Syrian Government is under attack, and so it has requested Russian military assistance in the face of those attacks.

    Perfectly legal.
    Perfectly understandable.

    Lucas: “all but one of the targets were areas held by the opposition to Syria’s Assad regime, rather than by the Islamic State’s militants.”

    No shit, hey? The people who have been bombed are “opposed to Syria’s Assad regime”.

    Remind me again who requested Russian military assistance?

    Oh, really? That request came from…. “Syria’s Assad regime”?

    Then that would make these “opponents”… perfectly legitimate targets for Russian military action, would it not?

    I mean, think, dude: you’re expressing outrage that the Russian should launch air raids on the “opposition”, and you do so even after you have just quoted the Russians TELLING YOU that they are responding to a request from the very Syrian Govt that these dudes are “opposing”.

    Are you for real?

    Do you really think that Assad makes a distinction between
    a) the Good-BadGuys-Who-Want-Me-Dead
    versus
    b) the Bad-BadGuys-Who-Want-Me-Dead
    merely because Washington insists that there are
    c) Good-BadGuys and Bad-BadGuys?

    What Planet have you just come from?

  3. Lucas: “all but one of the targets were areas held by the opposition to Syria’s Assad regime, rather than by the Islamic State’s militants.”

    You make is sound as if the Islamic State is the only “militant” force at work here.

    Because you are vary careful to avoid pointing out that “the opposition to Syria’s Assad regime” also happens to be a militant force.

    Demonstrably so, because that “opposition” is also seeking to topple the Syrian Government by overthrowing it by force of arms, though a reader wouldn’t know that from reading your sleight-of-hand.

    From Assad’s PoV (and, therefore, by extension the Russian PoV) it really doesn’t matter who it is that Washington favours: what matters is that REGARDLESS of whether Obama does – or doesn’t – favour them they are all attempting to violently overthrow the Syrian Government.

  4. “With no prospect of a revitalised Syrian Army, Putin is left with two unpalatable options: to either deploy Russian troops on the battlefield or accept the de facto partition of Syria – allowing the rebels to hold their positions in north-west and southern Syria.”

    No, he has a third option.

    He can get Assad to request assistance from Iran, who would then deploy the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in numbers that would make your head spin.

    There’s your ground troops, right there, and not a single Russian soldier needs to be put in harm’s way.

    Tehran would like nothing better to deploy 100,000 to 250,000 ground troops in a country that Just So Happens To Border Israel, and to do so under the protective umbrella of Su-30 fighter jets and S-300 air-to-air missiles.

    Win for Putin.
    Win for Assad.
    Win for Khamenei

    Bummer of a prospect for Netanyahu but, hey, cry me a river.

    • “Tehran would like nothing better to deploy 100,000”
      I hope not. Only enough to help defend a heavily mined border, same goes for Iraq. Subduing the wild-eyed wahabi is best left to the people who can make profit out if it, let build a new just, secular government and let islamist govern themselves and live productive lives with the help of its friends.

    • Yeah, because the Saudis and Israelis won’t try to retaliate. You better start reading “The Guns of August” and understand how incredibly dangerous this situation is.

      • Dude, Putin is relying on everyone understanding how incredibly dangerous this situation is.

        He went to great lengths to spell that out to you in his speech to the UN. Weren’t you paying attention?

        He’s had enough of the USA pussy-footing around.
        He means business, and that means everyone else better get out of his way.

        Those Iranian troops are coming, sunshine. They are on their way, and *nobody* but *nobody* is going to dissuade Putin from that course of action.

        So ask yourself this: do the Saudis and Israelis feel like “retaliating”?

        Because Putin is serious.
        He has, indeed, had enough of pussy-footing around.

        So if the Saudis or the Israelis do feel like “retaliating” then Putin is willing to go Total 100% Ass-Whooping On Their Sorry Asses.

        The choice is theirs, and if they are stupid enough to take the wrong option, well, heck, I for one am not going to miss either of those two puissant little pigmy-states.

  5. German Newspapers are writing that the CIA-backed “rebels” are in fact Al-Nusra (Al-Kaida in Syria).

  6. kirby

    Airpower w/o forces on the ground does little. I bet Iran n Hezbollah will commit front line troops presently.

    • E.x.a.c.t.l.y.

      The idea that Putin is about to get sucked into a quagmire is nonsense, precisely because Obama isn’t the only person who can use proxy forces

      The only difference is that Obama’s proxy forces are a bunch of CIA-backed mercenary throat-cutters, whereas Putin’s proxy forces will be *real* armies like the Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah.

      Obama’s Good-BadGuys will cut and run when the going gets tough – they’ll stampede back into Turkey so quickly that it’ll make Erdogan’s head spin.

      The Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah troops won’t: regardless of whether they win, loose, or draw a battle, these guys will just keep coming back for more.

      Because they can’t afford to let Syria fall, but those jihadist head-loppers can – and will – simply pack their bags and move on to the next country that the CIA decides is ripe for a “colour revolution”.

  7. Yeah Right.

    Very cogent analysis.

    The left/right spectrum of what passes for intelligent analysis and commentary is joined at the imperial hip.

    The deluded herd are propagandized to believe the official dictum without questioning the core assumptions.

    The line that
    Assad has to go!–certainly takes the will of the Syrian people out of consideration.

    With Assad gone, I am sure the moderate rebels will safe guard the safety of the population.

    Thankfully, this mass arrogance and delusion is a sign that the empire is entering full-blow psychosis.

    Putin is trying to get the loonies to drop the knife and release the hostages.

    • Given the crimes that Assad committed, can you really say that there is a “Syrian” people? I mean, if I support mass murder against rival ethnic groups because they refuse to live under a biased regime, then how can I really be committed to sharing equal citizenship with them after they have been subdued? The same goes for my enemies’ commitment to sharing power with my people. I don’t think the people who initially rebelled against Assad are the monsters you want them to be. But they’ll still have to be protected by any real settlement, just as the Alawites and Christians will have to.

      • “Given the crimes that Assad committed, can you really say that there is a “Syrian” people?”

        And those “crimes” would be what, exactly?

        Fighting a civil war, perhaps, rather than just lying down and giving up?

        This is a fact: Abraham Lincoln refused to give up in a civil war, and 800,000 Americans died because of it.

        Given that crime that Lincoln committed – vastly greater than the death toll in Syria – can you really say that there is an “American” people?

    • Oh, it’s much more than that.

      Note this sentence: “all but one of the targets were areas held by the opposition to Syria’s Assad regime, rather than by the Islamic State’s militants.”

      Got that?

      ISIS are “militants”, but everyone else (yes, apparently even al-Qaeda) are merely “the opposition”.

      You’ll see that phrase everywhere in the mainstream press i.e. the meme that Everyone But ISIS are nought but opposition parties, so why would anyone want to bomb them?

      Du’oh! Because they aren’t “opposition parties”.

      They are armed groups attempting to topple the Syrian government by military force and, therefore, they deserve as many bombs up their backsides as Putin can deliver.

      The abuse of language is utterly appalling: armed rebels become mere “opposition”, and somehow they are A-OK and quite untouchable merely because They Aren’t ISIS.

      Big Whoop.

      Ask this question: Are they shooting at Assad?

      The simple answer is: Why, yes. Yes, they are.

      In which case they deserve everything that the Russian airforce is throwing at them.

  8. Thank you for the view from Foggy Bottom. Meanwhile, back in reality, Putin is taking on the terrorists that will undoubtedly subsume and destroy any remaining semblance of the modern state of Syria should Assad fall.

  9. its a case of too little too late, if Russia wanted to do this it should have been 3-4 years ago

    • “its a case of too little too late, if Russia wanted to do this it should have been 3-4 years ago”

      No, absolutely not.

      Had he tried this “3-4 years ago” the loonies who believe they run the world from Washington would have shouted that Putin Is Invading Syria! We Must Do Something! The Man Is Hitler Incarnate!

      But Putin has hoisted “the West” on its own petard.

      They can’t complain about Russia intervening in this civil war because that’s exactly what the USAF has been doing with *their* ineffectual bombing runs up ‘n’ down the country. Bombing runs that never seem to spot those convoys of Toyota pickup trucks even while they appear to be unerring in bombing the bejezzus out of various wedding parties and Doctors Without Borders field hospitals.

      Putin has timed his run perfectly, insofar as he has deftly stepped in with his sleeves rolled up and said “out of my way, sonny, and I’ll show you how you REALLY do this”.

      It’s left Washington boxed into a corner, because the only complaint that they can make is this: Hey! No fair! He’s bombing OUR terrorists, not THOSE terrorists!

      As far as arguments go, arguing the virtues of Our Good-Badguy Terrorist versus the vices of Those Other Bad-Badguy Terrorists is just about the dictionary-definition of a hopeless brief – how on Earth does Obama think he can sell that argument to the American public, much less to the rest of the world?

      He can’t, but that’s what Washington is reduced to, and they are in that position precisely because Putin waited, waited, waited before making his move.

  10. To the Assad-lovers on this thread. If you want to say that we must now exterminate the Syrian opposition because it is the only practical way to stop ISIS, we can have a rational discussion about that. If you want to say that no one in Syria EVER had a right to rebel against one of your few remaining “Socialist” tyrants because all anti-American regimes are saintly and just and all who are harmed by them are an evil monsters who deserve to be genocided, you are full of crap. I don’t even understand what your end game is, except for one where the whole world operates under Beijing rules: we must all peacefully submit to whatever dictatorship guarantees the most stability. Which, years ago, was exactly the argument used by Washington when most revolutions were by leftists. The right of people to revolution is universal and necessary, no matter how many people revolt for bad causes, or take foreign support to do so. What we need are legal criteria on what justifies taking up arms against a government, given that almost all governments now claim to be elected.

    Because one day you might need to join, or oppose, a revolution, and the criteria you apply to defend Gadafi or Assad may not be the sort of country you want your children to spend their lives in.

    • Nice straw men there, dude.

      Whatever. But here’s one assertion that should never be left unchallenged: ” I don’t even understand what your end game is, except for one where the whole world operates under Beijing rules”

      No, actually, not “Beijing rules”, which you appear to have just made up.

      No, the principle is much, much older than that: May to October of 1648, in point of fact.

      Here, let me give you a hint: google up the phrase “Westphalian sovereignty”.

      Assad may well be a piece of s**t, and you are free to demonize him as much as you want. Go ahead, demonize away.

      But overthrow him by training, arming and bankrolling foreign fanatical throat-slitting thugs and then throwing them at Syria?

      No, that would be interference in the internal affairs of Syria.

      Indeed, it would be *as* *much* an interference in the internal affairs of Syria as it would be if a foreign country sent armed thugs into the USA because Obama has a rather nasty habit of Bombing Weddings And Parties And Hospitals From The Air.

      You do know that Obama has ordered all those things and more, right?

      So according to your logic other countries are *entitled* to seek his violent overthrow, correct?

      And if that isn’t correct, well, why, exactly?

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