Russia’s intervention in Syria: Protracting an already endless conflict
Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.
Russia’s intervention in Syria has introduced a dangerous new dynamic into an already volatile and complex conflict. Rather than advancing its self-proclaimed objective of fighting terrorism, many more Russian strikes have targeted moderate rebels — “vetted” and supported by the United States — as well as other expressly Syrian opposition groups backed variously by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.
Moscow’s jets have also been involved in various provocative acts: violating Turkish airspace twice (on October 3 and 4); initiating an anti-aircraft radar-lock on Turkish F-16 jets on October 5; and tailing an American jet on October 6, almost certainly to collect intelligence on its weapons systems and internal technologies. Moreover, despite denying ownership, a small drone that Turkey shot down on October 16 was a variant of Russia’s Orlan-10 —the same model that was downed in Ukraine on May 29.
Back in the game
President Putin’s intervention is clearly about more than fighting terrorism. In the months before Russia’s first strikes in Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s regime was in its weakest position in over two years and Iran was front and center as its defender-in-chief. Russia had a near-total monopoly over the provision of weaponry to the Assad regime; and the Russian Navy maintained a depot in Tartus. But the trajectory of the conflict foreshadowed a diminishing Russian strategic foothold in Syria — its last source of influence in the Middle East.
Not anymore. Since September 30, Russia has steadily escalated its air campaign–which has now reached the outskirts of Damascus. With near-constant fighter jet sorties, low-altitude attack helicopters, and close air support capability, Russia is changing the nature of the battle in Syria’s four-and-a-half year-old civil war. It has also demonstrated some of its most advanced weapons systems, with the Su-34 “Fullback” strike fighter and the 3M-14 “Kalibr” land attack cruise missile seeing their first combat use.
But Russia’s military action in Syria is not all about technical sophistication. Its fighter jet air-to-ground attack limitations have been revealed in repeated incidence of ‘dumb bomb’ use, while extraordinary videos of cluster bombs continue to display a shockingly indiscriminate use of destructive force.
Enter the Americans and Gulf states
The key question here is to what effect? Thus far, after two weeks of operations, pro-regime forces have made small territorial gains north of Homs, south of Aleppo, and in Hama’s Sahl al-Ghab region. But despite Russia’s efforts, ground forces — composed of the Syrian Army, the paramilitary National Defense Force, Hezbollah, Shia militias and increasing numbers of Iranian military personnel — aren’t achieving the victories one might have expected.
One pro-Assad source recently lamented the loss of “24 tanks and 250 men” in Hama, all for “50cm.” While Iran’s infamous Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani has now arrived openly in Syria, Russia has shown no sign of deploying its own ground forces. Its new military facility in Latakia, however, contains the necessary infrastructure for at least 2,000 personnel, leaving the potential for a Russian ground component open to question.
One key reason for the minimal territorial shifts so far is the use of American BGM-71 TOW anti-tank guided missiles by CIA-backed Free Syrian Army rebels. The missiles, which first appeared in rebel hands in April 2014, have been used far more (a nearly 850% rise) since the Russian intervention: there were 82 recorded uses from October 1 to 20, compared to only 13 in all of September. With each missile valued at least $50,000, that equates to over $4.1 million of expenditure in three weeks.
Having initially had an effective, but strategically subdued effect on the conflict, the CIA coordinated provision of TOW missiles has suddenly shown its true potential. Combatants on the ground — including 13th Division leader Lieutenant Colonel Ahmed Saoud and the leaders of three other CIA-backed FSA groups — all told me that they have received more TOWs than normal recently and stressed how useful they have been. “TOWs will destroy the Russians and their objectives, and we’ve received many more recently,” Saoud said.
Beyond extra deliveries of TOW missiles to ‘vetted’ groups – of which there are at least 39 across Syria — external supporters have provided supplementary small arms, ammunition, mortars, and sometimes 122mm Grad rockets and tank shells. Newly arrived RBG-6 multiple grenade launchers from the former Yugoslavia have also begun appearing again in rebel hands, having first been funneled to FSA groups by Saudi Arabia in early 2013.
Meanwhile, rebel groups confirmed that at least two recent multinational meetings had been held in southern Turkey — one ’emergency session’ at the beginning of October and one ‘strategy session’ on 10 October — in which officials from Turkey and Qatar sought to devise an effective opposition response to Russia’s intervention and the new realities on the ground. “Saudi Arabia was not present,” according to Liwa Forsan al-Haq leader Colonel Fares al-Bayoush, another ‘vetted’ FSA leader, who said they met with Saudis and Americans separately.
Despite much speculation, man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS) have not yet been sent into Syria to counter Russian aircraft. “We’ve discussed with our brothers from the Gulf about what anti-aircraft weapons would be needed and where they are most necessary, but although they were more engaged on the subject than before, we were still told it was not possible for now,” one FSA leader told this author.
The U.S. maintains an intensely monitored ’embargo’ on MANPADS supplies, which was only been broken once — in 2013, allegedly by Qatar. At least four major Syrian armed opposition groups have tried in recent years to independently purchase MANPADS on the black market, according to conversations their leaders had with this author. “Somehow, the Americans found out and our purchase was blocked,” said one. Despite the embargo, pressure is rising in the Saudi Arabia and Qatar to more definitively counter Russia’s intervention. Embargo or not, some sources suggest MANPADS may soon be sent into Syria. If things continue to escalate as they have done since September 30, these unverified claims may well become reality.
There can be no underestimating the symbolism of Russian military action against a largely Sunni revolutionary force in the region. The memory of Russia’s misadventures in Afghanistan lives as strongly in Islamists’ minds as it does for many otherwise moderate, nationalist Syrians. “Syria, once the most beautiful country in the world, will now become another Afghanistan,” said one prominent FSA leader based in Idlib and Hama. Another FSA commander from Aleppo was more blunt: “our soil is much warmer for Putin’s puppet corpses that Russia’s, so he should keep sending them — we welcome them with open arms.”
While the adversity and civilian casualties from the first two weeks of Russia’s intervention may have emboldened a Syrian revolutionary spirit, the medium-to-long term outlook is concerning for four principal reasons.
– Firstly, the fact that moderate FSA factions have been hit so hard in Russian strikes — and that these same groups have been so effective in using their TOW missiles — has closed the gap between them and some of the most conservative Syrian Islamists. While they were somewhat distrustful of each other earlier this year, they have been celebrating each other’s battlefield successes since Russia started its strikes.
– Secondly, some diplomatic statements notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and other Gulf States are furious at Russia’s actions. They have and will continue to encourage closer military coordination between the FSA and Syrian Islamists, which provides transnationally-minded groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qaida-linked factions with space to further integrate into broader opposition dynamics. Already, a number of multi-group operations rooms have been established in areas targeted by Russian strikes in which ‘vetted’ FSA groups, Syrian Islamists and sometimes Jabhat al-Nusra have openly flaunted their cooperation. This was a rare occurrence even one month ago.
– Thirdly — after nearly two years of serious internal and external engagement with the subject of a ‘political solution — Syria’s armed opposition now sees itself in an existential battle which can have no outcome other than the total defeat of Assad, Iran, and Russia. “There is little time for politics right now,” said one mainstream Islamist. The same fighters used to see Russia as a potential party at the negotiating table. “Russia is a major power with a UN veto and before its aggression, it could have helped sponsor an acceptable political solution,” said 101st Division leader Captain Hassan al-Hamadeh, a former regime MiG-21 jet pilot who famously defected with his jet to Jordan in June 2012. “But after Russia’s aggression, Putin has become a clear partner of Assad in shedding Syrian blood, which hinders any hope of a political solution,” he insisted.
– Lastly, Russia’s military intervention will undoubtedly further consolidate jihadist militancy in Syria. Al-Qaida will likely benefit directly from this, by presenting itself as fighting a second “jihad” against Russia. “The most important consequence is the psychological situation now hitting the Syrian people,” Hassan Haj Ali, the leader of the CIA-backed Tajamu Suqor al-Ghab told me. “As far as many people see it, the only friends left of the Syrian people are the car bomb and the gun and those who say there is no solution but to die in battle,” he exclaimed.
Leading Islamist figure Mohammed Alloush, whose cousin Zahran leads Jaish al-Islam, was similarly concerned: “the intervention will bolster IS[IS] and al-Qaida, creating more strength and sympathy for such movements.” Eyad Jumaah, a political official representing Liwa al-Talbiseh whose headquarters, fighters and families have been consistently targeted by Russian strikes north of Homs, suggested “the gap will now grow between the revolutionary forces and the international community, which itself creates openings for extremists in the long-run.” In other words, the outlook is bleak.
ISIS may also benefit from Russia’s involvement, particularly if it can take advantage of the opposition now being squeezed by a major regime offensive around Aleppo. So far, a planned U.S.-backed Kurdish-Arab offensive on ISIS’ capital in Raqqa may prove effective in its early stages, but the heavy force imbalance in favor of the divisive Kurdish PYD — which Amnesty International recently accused of war crimes–will likely stir more destructive ethnic tensions that ISIS will then seek to exploit.
A sunny forecast for Assad and extremists
Looking ahead, Russia’s strikes look set to continue, focused particularly on helping pro-regime forces regain sufficient ground to establish a thicker and better defended buffer zone around the coast — by buoying pro-regime forces north of Homs, in Hama and northern Latakia. The Russians will also assist ground forces in retaking territory from the opposition around Aleppo and possibly from ISIS as far east as Kweiris Airport. Any threat to Damascus may also draw Russian strikes. Ultimately, Russia aims to shore up Assad and his regime into the long-term.
While the opposition will continue to use its new shipments of TOW missiles and other weaponry to defend itself against pro-regime advances,, a coalition of predominantly Islamist forces — centered around the battle-hardened Jaish al-Fateh coalition — now seems poised to launch a major counter-offensive in Hama. Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist factions, many allied with or sympathetic to al-Qaida, will likely deploy suicide bombers in a “shock and awe” first wave, while more mainstream Islamists will follow closely behind and FSA factions will block regime reinforcements with their anti-tank missiles.
Despite such “revolutionary unity,” it is hard to see any medium- to long-term outcome other than one in which the regime eventually regains some strategic initiative on the ground. Many of Russia’s most important airstrikes thus far have targeted rebel arms depots, headquarters, joint operations rooms, and other key logistical facilities. The effects of such losses take time to show on the battlefield, but in another few weeks, they almost certainly will. Despite this, the overall conflict will remain a strategic stalemate, but Assad will likely be back to sitting comfortably by the end of the year.
Russia has claimed its military operations in Syria will last only three-to-four months, but the age-old rule of mission creep will almost certainly see Russia embed itself as a long-term actor in Syria. Although it is often overlooked, Syria does have a powerful and socially entrenched moderate opposition on the ground. However, given current realities, it is hard to see anyone but extremists thriving.
More immediately, if we think the refugee flows from Syria into Europe were shocking in 2015, we haven’t seen anything yet. Russian bombing emptied two entire towns in Idlib on 12 October alone, while as many as 70,000 civilians are now fleeing rural Aleppo amid regime advances and Russian bombing.
Unfortunately, Western political inaction has further fueled the fire. As I heard one Syrian recently exclaim, “the West is eating popcorn at the theatre, while our country and its people are being exterminated.”