During three weeks in September, Russia deployed its air force in Syria to support Bashar al-Asad’s increasingly weak and vulnerable regime in the civil war that began following the 2011 rebellion. Officially, Vladimir Putin explained the new Russian intervention as a bid to defeat the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. However, on September 30, Russia initiated air strikes against the Syrian rebels targeting Asad’s regime. A week later, on October 7, Russia fired cruise missiles that again targeted Asad’s opposition, rather than IS, from ships in the Caspian Sea, hundreds of miles away. At the tactical level, some argue that the Russian air support was meant to pre-empt the U.S.-led coalition from establishing a no-fly zone in northern Syria. Others have argued that the enhanced Russian firepower was a necessary substitute for the crisis of manpower facing Asad’s military, which is struggling to find new recruits. Still others claim that the Russian deployment was intended to shore up Asad’s forces in response to the rebels’ effective use of BGM-71 TOWs (tube launched, optically tracked, wire-guided missiles), which have been instrumental in their efforts to threaten Asad’s ʿAlawi stronghold along the Syrian coast during recent months. Therefore, Russia’s tactical aims may be complementary rather than mutually exclusive. In any case, there is little argument with the broad assessment that Russia’s increased involvement in Syria was coordinated with Iran and designed to prop up the regime. However, beyond this short term aim, there is much less clarity about what Russia is trying to accomplish in Syria over the longer term.
On October 9, Leonid Bershidsky, the founding editor of Vedomosti, argued that Russia was using Syria as a training exercise and a showcase for its military hardware. Indeed, Vladimir Khozin, an aide to Putin, said, “Everything they [Asad’s forces] need from Russia’s armory will be supplied to Syria.” TheNew York Times, citing Gustav Gressel’s October 12 report, appeared to echo that assessment claiming that the operation in Syria was “a testing ground for an increasingly confrontational and defiant Russia under Mr. Putin.”
Andranik Migranyan, a Russian analyst, framed the Russian intervention as filling a vacuum in Syria. He argues that Putin has several objectives: to strengthen Asad; “to bolster ground forces in Syria, Iran, and Iraq as they prepare a counteroffensive” against the IS; and “to address the problem of Russian and other extremists from former Soviet republics who are fighting in Syria and may return [to Russia] to cause chaos.” While Bershidsky described the Russian intervention as “low risk,” Mikhail Barabanov, Editor-in-Chief of the Moscow Defense Brief, described it as “very risky.” Barabanov explained that the broad Russian goal in Syria was “righting the boat of US-Russian relations” that was “heavily tilted” in 2014-2015, following events in Ukraine and Crimea. He pointed out that the maneuver had an immediate effect, forcing the U.S. to reinstate military contacts with Russia, which has been suspended in early 2014. Barabanov also emphasized Russia’s aim at preventing a repeat of the 2011 Libya intervention, during which the international coalition used a UN-sanctioned “no-fly zone” to topple Qaddafi’s regime.
Peter Pomerantsev, a Senior Fellow at the Legatum Institute, argues that the Russian offensive in Syria is meant to confuse Western officials and paralyze their judgment, providing a psychological victory that will break the image of American omniscience and power. Adam Garfinkle, the Editor of The American Interest, explains Putin’s aims in terms of three concentric circles. The innermost circle, or aim, is to reinforce the Asad regime. Garfinkle provocatively argues that Russia’s war in Syria may also be intended to destroy the European Union. As the fighting in Syria pushes towards the IS territory in eastern Syria, thousands more Syrians are bound to flee the violence and seek asylum in Europe, exacerbating the European Union’s political crisis. The middle circle, or aim, is to position Russia as the decisive arbiter of Syria’s post-Asad future, which would provide Russia with important political leverage with Iran and all of Syria’s neighbors.
Deciphering Putin’s view of the “middle-circle” – the end game in Syria – is perhaps the most…