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Russian Bombing in Syria: An Interim Assessment

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.
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  • October 27, 2015

    The bombing in Syria against rebels fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime by the Russian Air Force began on September 30. Russia has claimed to have made 934 sorties and destroyed 894 targets as on October 25. It is time to make an interim assessment of the impact of the Russian action on the Syrian imbroglio and raise a few questions on Russia’s motivations, capabilities, and goals taking into account the reaction of other significant actors on the scene.

    First we start with the background to the Russian decision to bomb the rebels in Syria. We know more about it now than when the bombing started, startling the West as Russia deliberately chose in the beginning to bomb rebels supported by the US, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey and left out the Islamic State (IS) targets. In July 2015, General Quasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, who reports directly to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, visited Moscow to discuss the rather perilous situation facing the Assad regime in Syria. Soleimani is responsible for all extra-territorial operations, overt or covert. He told his interlocutors that Assad has lost one-fifth of the territory he was holding in 2014. The strategically important route from the capital Damascus in the south to Latakia passing through Hama and Homs was under threat from rebels supported by the US and Saudi Arabia. Latakia is the heartland of the minority Alawi sect to which Assad belongs. In short, there was an imminent danger of Assad’s fall from power.

    The Russians more or less agreed with the assessment of Soleimani. The two sides, upon further consultations, agreed on a strategy to shore up Assad’s position: Russia will bomb the rebels and Iran, with its ally Hezbollah, will give support to the demoralised Syrian Army as it pushes to re-take the lost territory or at least to stem the advance of the rebels.

    At some point of time, Iraq was consulted and it too endorsed the plan. By August, it was decided to establish an intelligence-sharing center in the Green Zone in Baghdad linking Russia, Iran, and Iraq. The US Embassy in Baghdad also is in the Green Zone. The US was far from amused, but was powerless to stop Iraq. Iranian planes to Syria have been flying over the Iraqi air space, despite the US objections. The US influence in Iraq has been falling sharply in the recent past.

    In short, the most important point to note about the Russian bombing in Syria is that Russia has more or less put together an anti-US coalition drawing in Iraq also. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has openly said that the bombing of the IS targets in Iraq by the US for over a year has not been useful. He would like Russia to carry out airstrikes against the IS in Iraq as well. It does not follow that Russia will start bombing in Iraq too immediately, but it might start doing so later.

    How effective has been the Russian bombing? Going by the Russian media reports, rebels have sustained much damage, deserters from the IS having been running away, and the Syrian Army has been making gains. We cannot take all this seriously in the absence of some independent corroboration. However, it will be correct to say that the Syrian Army has up to a point recovered its lost morale and with the support it is getting from Iran (advisers and fighters) and Hezbollah some territory might be recovered. But, the rebels bombed by Russia have started getting increased support from US/Saudi Arabia. The rebels have been given TOW missiles (Tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided missiles) that can destroy the Russian tanks used by the army of Assad. One rebel leader has openly told the media that he only has to ask and he gets the missiles promptly. Will the rebels get anti-aircraft missiles? We do not know as yet. The US has been always reluctant to part with such missiles after some missiles given by it to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan were used against the US. Briefly, the Russian military venture is a work in progress and we cannot as yet say what it will deliver.

    Are we witnessing a proxy war between the US and Russia, a resurrected Cold War? Not yet. Though initially US reacted harshly, charging Russian President Vladimir Putin with adding fuel to fire, it soon realised that it was necessary to talk to Russia. The strategy of isolating Russia after it annexed Crimea in 2014 has practically failed. Russia and the US have come to a deconfliction agreement to prevent accidents as both are operating in the same airspace. Further, Secretary of State John Kerry met with his counterparts from Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in Vienna to talk about a political process. Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov are continuing these talks.

    Initial reaction from Saudi Arabia and Turkey has been sharply critical of Russia. But, it should be noted that there was no ‘condemnation’. President Putin has tried to reach out by talking to Saudi Defence Minister, the UAE Crown Prince, and Turkey’s President.

    Meanwhile, President Assad who left Syria last in 2008 recently visited Moscow and thanked Putin for bombing the rebels. That Assad could leave Damascus shows his confidence that no coup against him will happen during his absence. However, that he went to Moscow was announced only after he returned safe. It was during the Assad visit that Russia put across its proposal for a political solution. Lavrov has said that Syria should have elections to the Parliament and for a President. It is difficult to believe that Russia is seriously proposing a general election. With more than half of the 22 million Syrians displaced, how can there be a proper election?

    What might have been the motivations of President Putin? Western media and pundits have engaged themselves in much speculation. Does the bombing show Putin’s strength or weakness? It has been argued that a desperate Putin, under pressure from sanctions after the annexation of Crimea and the falling oil prices, had to start an adventure abroad to draw attention of the Russian public away from their falling incomes. The other side has argued that Putin acted from a position of strength by demonstrating that Russia can be depended upon by any ruler in trouble in the Middle East (or West Asia).

    The argument about Putin’s strength or weakness, perhaps, is not very helpful. What is clear is that Putin has prevented for the time being the fall of Assad, predicted as imminent by the US President Barack Obama way back in August 2011. Basically, the West needs to understand Russia’s long-term strategic interest in Syria. In the early 1970s, the Soviet Union acquired a naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranean coast. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia wrote off about $9.5 billion of Syria’s debt and the two agreed on expanding the base facilities. Putin knows that if Assad falls without a political set up in Syria that will let Russia keep its base, the huge investment already made over decades will be lost.

    Some of the signals coming from Moscow are rather confusing, perhaps intentionally so. It has said that it is prepared to stop bombing the US-supported Free Syrian Army (FSA) if Washington indicates its locations. Washington has so far refused. Further, Russia has added that it is willing to assist FSA to fight the IS. In other words, FSA should stop fighting Assad and fight only the IS. Obviously, Russia wants to squeeze the US out of Syria and abandon its client FSA whose main aim is to topple Assad. Why should the US agree to it?

    The prospects for a negotiated settlement are rather dim. Russia has proposed talks and the US might join in. But, who among the rebels will come for the talks? The ideal scenario for Russia will be for the non-IS rebels to join the talks, have a cease-fire, and then Assad and the non-IS rebels together take on the IS militarily. But, the chances for such a scenario too are dim. However, charade of a conference cannot be ruled out.

    Going back to President Putin’s motives and calculations, it is now abundantly clear that Russia has emerged as the most important player in Syria. Putin has stitched up an anti-US coalition with Iran and Iraq. This coalition is likely to get stronger. Russia has come back to the Middle East in a manner of speaking. By January 2016, the Western sanctions imposed on Russia after the annexation of Crimea will come up for renewal. Will Europeans agree to the renewal? If not, for Putin it will be a great gain. Will Putin find himself in a quagmire a la Afghanistan? Most unlikely. He is a hard realist. Recently at a seminar in Sochi he said that 50 years ago he learnt as a kid that if a street fight was about to break out, it is better to be the first to hit. Is he practicing what he ‘learnt’ half a century ago?

    In sum, Syria is broken into many parts. No surgeon can put it back to its original state. Who gains? Israel is one. There might be others too.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.