Russia’s Play in Syria
By: Melissa Dalton
Russia’s military deployment into Syria this month adds a layer of complexity to a multifaceted conflict, complicating how the war there will be fought and how it will end. Russia stands to gain, in the short term, from positioning itself as a backer of the faltering regime of Bashar al-Assad and a bulwark against the total collapse of Syria. In the long term, Russia seeks to reassert itself as a leader in the region, potentially by helping to broker a political end to the conflict and retaining a permanent, warm-water port in the Mediterranean. How these goals align with or challenge U.S. interests remains uncertain.
The United States and Russia share an interest in containing the spread of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) specifically and Islamic militancy more broadly. Russia also struck a deal with the United States in 2013 for the international community to remove many of Assad’s chemical weapons, although, in the end, not all of them. Thus, U.S.-Russian military and political engagement on Syria would seem to build on these common interests.
Russian forces in Syria will prompt U.S. and coalition partners to revalidate air strike targets, avoid flight paths that cross Russian resupply efforts, and potentially constrain movements of local rebel ground forces. U.S. intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flights from Turkey will enable the United States to monitor Russian military movements, but direct de-confliction with the Russian military may become necessary so as to avoid U.S.-Russian altercations. Given these dynamics, Russian forces in Syria also provide it with leverage for diplomatic negotiations on Syria’s future.
Russia has a clear political end state in mind for Syria, whereas the United States does not. Russia intends to align its diplomatic, economic, military, and information assets in support of the Assad regime—or a regime minus Assad that will help sustain its military position and reemerging leadership in the Middle East.
The United States lacks clarity in its desired political end state in Syria and instead has a series of objectives. It wants to degrade and contain ISIS, to support elusive, moderate Syrian rebels who will pledge to only fight ISIS, to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and to encourage a political transition in Syria to an inclusive and moderate government. In addition, tacitly, the United States would prefer to not have Assad ousted tomorrow for fear of rapid encroachment by ISIS or the Nusra Front over the narrow but strategically important corridor of territory currently under regime control and the uncertainty of who would assume power. Absent a definition of an affirmative, U.S. end state for Syria, Russia may have the upper hand in diplomatic engagement on Syria. The United States must ensure that the understandable lure of a diplomatic opening does not distract it from developing a clear-eyed assessment of how it wants the war in Syria to end.