Russia’s Syrian entanglement: Can the West sit back and watch?

For observers who are confined by the boundaries of conventional strategic sense, every day of Russia’s military intervention in Syria brings fresh surprises. Indiscriminate strikes against Turkey-backed and CIA-trained opposition groups (which could not possibly be mistaken for ISIS) were followed by deliberate violations of Turkey’s airspace, and then by the spectacular cruise missile salvo from warships in the Caspian Sea. More astonishing turns are almost certain to come, prompting more reevaluation of the power projection capabilities that Russia brings to bear in this high-risk enterprise.

Good morning, Latakia

The intervention, which President Vladimir Putin preferred not to announce in his address to the U.N. General Assembly on September 26, could become an exemplar of achieving maximum political effect from very limited application of force. The three dozen or so combat planes deployed to the hastily prepared airbase outside Latakia perform 20 to 30 sorties a day. That would not have made much of a difference in the U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS that has been going on for more than a year. What makes a difference is targeting opposition groups of various persuasions that were not anticipating such treatment. This tactical surprise is by definition short-term, and in order to continue making a difference—and for the campaign to really resonate—Russia needs to escalate. 

The intervention…could become an exemplar of achieving maximum political effect from very limited application of force.

This will be very hard to accomplish. The composite air regiment on the no-frills airbase includes fighters and helicopters of at least five different types. That creates a logistical nightmare, since all supplies have to be shipped by the several naval transports from Novorossiysk and Sevastopol. Several transport aircraft can add only so much to this stretched supply line, so the intervention has to be aimed at achieving some tangible results as soon as possible. The deployment to Latakia of a squadron of Su-25 light fighter-bombers and a squadron of Mi-24 attack helicopters indicates that the main task of this force is not medium-range strikes on high-value assets (on which Russia has scant intelligence data) but close air support. Such a high-risk mission only makes sense if the government troops and Alawite militias launch an offensive operation, most probably aimed at securing the Latakia province from the attacks from the north, where the Nusra Front has been active.

A key condition for such an offensive is that the government forces—together with Hezbollah troops—can stabilize the front around Damascus, where Russian squadrons dare not to show up. Damascus remains the center of gravity in this mutating civil war, even if Latakia is of particular importance as the home-ground for the Assad Alawi clan. What makes control over Damascus more precarious than ever is the possibility that Russian intervention would compel various opposition forces—who until now have focused on fighting one another as eagerly as they fight the government—to unite against the “infidels”.

Sapogi in the sand?

The burning issue for the coming days is whether the lack of meaningful results from the air strikes would prompt the Russian leadership to deploy ground forces. This would follow the “mission creep” script typical of ill-conceived interventions. Putin’s denials of such plans only increase suspicions that under the guise of “volunteers,” units of special forces and then regular battalions would engage in a ground offensive. 

Two obstacles stand in the way of such rapid deployment. Firstly, despite the effective ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, the best troops in the Russian army remain concentrated in or near the Donbass war zone. The approaching autumnal draft cycle will deliver the usual sharp decline in the combat readiness of the ground forces, as the better-trained half of soldiers in every unit goes home and raw recruits fill the ranks. Secondly, transporting and supplying tanks and heavy weapons for even one battalion tactical group of about 1,000 soldiers would be an extremely hard challenge for the already-stretched capabilities for strategic air- and sea-lift. In domestic military exercises such as Tsentr-2015, troops and equipment were moved around primarily by rail. There is obviously no such connection to Syria.

[G]round forces…would follow the “mission creep” script typical of ill-conceived interventions.

Putin also knows that placing Russian military boots (or sapogi) in the Syrian sands would be very unpopular, and no amount of propaganda spin placed on the telegenic air strikes can secure a shift in public opinion. The Russian High Command can certainly try some other means of delivering strikes, for instance by the air-launched cruise missiles from the Tu-160 strategic bombers cruising at a safe distance from the battleground. A nuclear submarine can deliver a salvo of long-range cruise missiles from the Mediterranean, primarily in order to show the versatility of Russian power projection. But the role of ground forces most probably will remain limited to immediate protection of the Latakia base.

Calibrating counter-moves

For the United States, avoiding the temptation to over-react is still the key guideline. It stands to reason that the best response, when your opponent is sinking deeper in a blunder of its own making, is not to interfere. This past summer, the Russian Air Force had a dismal record of crashes caused by poor maintenance, and the high stress of the Syrian air campaign is certain to bring more of those. A series of terrorist attacks may shatter the security of the Latakia base, which makes it a very attractive target indeed. Rebels may also use Katyusha missiles for hitting the over-crowded airstrip. 

It makes perfect sense to let such disasters arrive in their due course, but there is one significant exception to this indifferent approach: Turkey. Turkey is deeply upset with Russian direct support to the Assad regime, outraged by the violations of its airspace, and threatened by the air war so close to its borders. Statements of support from NATO headquarters are not enough; at the very minimum, the decision to withdraw the batteries of Patriot surface-to-air missiles must be cancelled. When Estonia and Latvia came under Russian pressure last year, NATO gathered the resources and political will to bolster their security—and Russian air provocations on the Baltic theater have practically ceased. Turkey has every right to expect nothing less.

Finally, the United States and its allies could deliver a series of airstrikes on the Hezbollah bands around Damascus. That would be less confrontational vis-à-vis Russia than hitting Assad’s forces. Hezbollah has already suffered losses in the Syrian war and is not particularly motivated to stand with Assad to the bitter end, away from own home-ground in Lebanon. (Israel would appreciate such punishment, too.) 

Moscow will be hard-pressed to find a way out of its Syrian adventure. Order will not be imposed through force by dictators in the Middle East. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet shows there is another, and ultimately more effective, way. As order continues to erode in Syria, it wouldn’t be wrong for leaders in Washington to just let the Russians entangle themselves. But the United States has allies to worry about, too.