Last September, Russia deployed dozens of jets to Syria to rescue the ailing regime of Bashar al-Assad. Vladimir Putin aimed to protect one of Moscow’s few foreign allies and gain leverage for the coming peace negotiations over the Syrian Civil War. Russian media presented the mission as a heroic attempt to save the civilized world from Islamic terrorism. In Washington, however, Putin was widely seen as wading into a quagmire. According to The Economist: “If America’s Syria-watchers agree on anything it is that the Russian campaign, which has enabled Mr Assad’s forces to make only minor gains, will fail, and thereby encourage Russia to give up on its proxy. That would be a huge boost to the UN-backed peace talks John Kerry, the secretary of state, is brokering, with the aim of replacing Mr Assad with a transitional government early next year.”
But would a loss for Putin really be good news? While it’s tempting to take satisfaction in the Russian president’s travails in Syria—what you might call Putinfreude—Syria-watchers should question their assumptions. If Putin’s military adventure unravels, the result may not be peace.
It’s certainly easy to imagine the Russian intervention deteriorating. In recent weeks, Assad’s forces have made some limited gains around the Syrian city of Aleppo. But the overall strategic situation for Damascus remains highly precarious. Last year, the Syrian regime suffered a string of battlefield defeats, and Assad publicly admitted to “fatigue” and “a lack of human resources [in the army].” The regime pulled back to defensible territory and was left in control of a rump coastal strip representing around one-sixth of the country. Russian jets are not enough for victory. It would likely take tens of thousands of troops to recapture and hold cities like Aleppo and Raqqa.
Russia is in a perilous position, internationally isolated and enduring economic turmoil. And now Putin has plunged into the unknown. Moscow doesn’t have experience coordinating military operations with Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah. This is Russia’s first military expedition outside of its immediate sphere of influence since the end of the Cold War. Putin has also pinned his fortunes on a highly incompetent dictator; Assad’s policies of systematic torture and barrel bombing of civilians brewed the hell broth in Syria.
And two can play at the great game of proxy warfare. Patrons of the Syrian insurrection, like Turkey and the Gulf states, may match Russian…