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A nation must think before it acts.
On August 26, Politico reported that U.S. service members were injured after an altercation with Russian forces in northeast Syria.
This pattern of Russian challenges to U.S. forces was enabled by the Trump administration’s decision to retreat from parts of northern Syria in 2019, allowing Russia to fill the void. Until this decision was made, the two countries had agreed to make the Euphrates River the deconfliction line to keep U.S. and Russian forces separated. Russia stayed on the west side of the river, and the United on the east side, where this incident took place.
Robert Hamilton, Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, commented on the story and warned that it will not be a one-off incident: “We need to respond to this immediately and forcefully. Russian forces deliberately escalated against U.S. partners when I was running the ground deconfliction cell for Syria in 2017, but tended to be careful when U.S. forces were present. Unless we make it clear that we’ll defend ourselves, these escalations will continue with dangerous and unpredictable results.”
Below, we offer readers an excerpt from a chapter written by Robert Hamilton from a forthcoming edited volume on Russia’s Way of War in Syria. Featuring chapters by Michael Kofman, Anna Borshchevskaya, Les Grau, Charles Bartles, Ivan Lavrov, and Igor Delanoe, the volume is scheduled for publication on September 10, with a book launch event scheduled for September 14. Click here to learn more about the volume.
Five years on from its intervention in Syria, Russia presents a different and more formidable set of challenges for the West. Western policymakers will need to get used to the idea that Russia is intent on establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with in the geopolitical region that extends from the Black Sea to the eastern Mediterranean.
Whether Russia has “won” in Syria is an open question. It certainly achieved its immediate goal of preventing the collapse of the Assad regime, but it has yet to restore the government’s sovereignty over large parts of the country and seems to have no idea how to do so. The two states standing in Moscow’s way here are the United States, which controls the Al Tanf region and much of Syria north and east of the Euphrates, and Turkey, which has forces deployed in Idlib protecting its allies there. Russia seems to have neither the means nor the will to dislodge American and Turkish forces from their perches inside Syria. But it may not need to. Russia’s intervention is a limited war in pursuit of limited objectives, and Moscow may be comfortable with the status quo, as it serves those objectives. What remains to be seen is whether the Assad regime and Iran, Russia’s primary partners in the war, will accept such an inconclusive outcome.
Syria holds important lessons for how Russia fights. As Kofman notes, Moscow “grew hungrier from the eating” in Syria. After achieving its initial goal of preventing the collapse of the Assad regime, Russia then decided to make Syria the centerpiece of its regional presence. But this does not reflect an expansion of the Kremlin’s ends in Syria as much as the logical outgrowth of its initial success. Having saved the Assad regime from collapse and stabilized the western part of Syria, it was natural that Russia would try to gain geopolitically from its efforts. What it will not do is engage in nation-building or significant reconstruction in Syria, as Western states might be tempted to do. The Kremlin will be content with a client state that is just stable enough to protect Russian interests there.
Russia’s strategy in Syria was minimalist in the means that it devoted to the effort and flexible in the ways it chose. The number of forces deployed was never more than 5,000 and was below 4,000 by 2018. Moscow was patient in Syria. Rather than deploy more Russian ground forces when they understood the incapacity of the Syrian Arab Army, Russian military leaders chose to rely on local and regional militias in the immediate term as they rebuilt Syria’s ground fighting forces over the long term. The overriding concern was to avoid “owning” the ground fight and to avoid being more committed to Syria’s success than Syrians themselves were.
Russia pursued multiple routes to success in Syria, reinforcing those that showed promise and abandoning those that did not. It finally settled on a geographically phased approach, with the use of de-escalation agreements to allow it to pause fighting in certain areas so that it could focus on others. Russia also chose not to discriminate between the UN-designated terrorist organizations in Syria and Western-backed moderate opposition groups that were parties to the cessation of hostilities agreement pursuant to UNSCR 2254. The Russian military in Syria also intentionally escalated the situation with the United States in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to deter the United States and its partner forces from moving into areas that Russia hoped to secure for the Assad regime. Finally, Moscow launched diplomatic and informational campaigns designed to support the military one.
An examination of the ways that Russia pursued its ends in Syria leads to the following lessons for Western observers. First, Russia is more risk-acceptant than most Western governments would be. Russian forces in Syria intentionally escalated the situation with the United States to deter it from taking action counter to Russian interests, confident that they could manage the level of escalation, and de-escalate successfully when required. Russia does this because in Syria and globally, it knows that the United States is the more powerful party and the party more interested in preserving the status quo. Intentional escalation and other forms of risk-acceptant behavior are a way for Moscow to equalize the power imbalance and to cause general disruption of the order the United States leads and hopes to preserve.
Next, Russia is less concerned about reputational damage than Western governments would be. Put simply, Russia is willing to commit war crimes in Syria because they serve the ends of Russian strategy and because Moscow believes its propaganda efforts will muddy the waters enough that it will pay no real price. Finally, Western policymakers should understand that Russia sees all agreements that it concludes in Syria in instrumental terms. Whether it is UNSCR 2254, de-escalation agreements with opposition groups, or de-confliction agreements with the United States, Russia will violate the agreement the moment that it sees an advantage in doing so.
Finally, the Syria experience was transformational for the Russian armed forces, but the extent of that transformation was uneven. The Russian Aerospace Forces was the most transformed by its experience in the war. As Lavrov says, through its performance in Syria, the Aerospace Forces won the competition with the Navy to determine which service would be Russia’s premier power projection force. Russian pilots are more experienced and more confident in their equipment than they have been at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. U.S. pilots who have flown over Syria express great respect for the capabilities of some of the Russian aircraft they have seen there, especially the Su-35. Deficiencies remain, especially in the availability and performance of precision-guided munitions, but the Russian Aerospace Forces are a more formidable adversary than Western air forces have faced in decades.
The Russian Army was partially transformed by its experience in Syria, with the greatest gains coming in its staff operations and among those branches that had the most direct contribution to the fight. The Russian model of advising, which transplanted the entire staffs of combat units to Syria, should make those staffs better able to plan and oversee complex ground operations in any future conflict. And branches such as the artillery, engineers, MPs, and Special Forces gained much from their experience in Syria. Russia’s tank and motorized rifle regiments, long the centerpiece of its land power, were largely left out of the war.
The Russian Navy’s performance was uneven. It showed agility and staying power in establishing the “Syrian Express,” which has met the logistical needs of the Russian military contingent for five years. Its Kalibr cruise missile strikes on Syria from the Caspian and Mediterranean Seas demonstrated a new Russian capability that Western militaries will have to contend with from now on. But the Navy’s 2016 attempt to contribute to the air campaign from its lone aircraft carrier was a debacle that has essentially taken that capability off the table for the time being. Instead, Russia will put to sea a “littoralized” and “kalibricized” navy.
The final lesson for Western observers from Russia’s experience is that it may have changed the way in which the Russian military views war. Kofman notes that in 2013 Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov wrote, “Each war represents an isolated case, requiring an understanding of its own particular logic, its own uniqueness.” In other words, before Syria, the Russian military rejected the idea of a “template” for waging a certain type of campaign. This is very different from the way that Western militaries operate. In the West, it is the type of warfare that determines how the war is to be fought, not the environment it is to be fought in. If, as Kofman says, Russia is moving away from the idea that each war is an isolated case and is moving toward the idea that the lessons of Syria can be “doctrinally assimilated into a template of sorts for how to deploy forces in future interventions,” the implications for those who study the Russian way of war would be profound.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
 U.S. Air Force pilots, conversations with the author, August-October 2017.