In September 2015 the Russian government intervened in the bloody conflict raging in Syria. Russian troops deployed alongside regulars defending the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a well-known friend and widely-perceived puppet of Russia. The chaos of war raging between the al-Assad government forces, the U.S.-supported Free Syrian Army, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and a medley of other groups motivated by sectarian and ethnic causes, offered a ripe target for an interested power to shift the situation its way.
Assuming that altruism is not his guiding light, what does Russia stand to gain by propping up the tottering al-Assad regime?
Syria is dead as a functional country; the civil war brought to a head too many divisions (and explosives) to heal what was always essentially an al-Assad family empire. Even with the government in place, a Syrian peace would not be a return to the antebellum status quo.
Signaling long-term engagement with Syria and the Middle East, Russia quietly announced in October 2016 it would be expanding its tiny, Soviet-era footprint at Tartus into a permanent naval base. The same month, a Russian SA-23 anti-aircraft, anti-missile weapons system appeared in-country, presumably to be a fixture at the new base. This is unsurprising. Since Putin took office, Russia’s military expansion has escalated rapidly to encompass sophisticated A2/AD (anti-access/area denial) systems, aimed at preventing Western incursion into whole swathes of sea and land. Extending these systems to Syria provides the state with a haven from American air/naval strikes from Turkey and Israel, should the United States choose to respond with force.
The Tartus naval base supports power projection by the Black Sea Fleet into the Mediterranean Sea, and the Suez Canal. Additionally, it allows Russia to magnify its influence in the Middle East cheaply and effectively, achieving a result similar to that of the Soviet Union but with far less cost. This is an essential feature of Putin’s foreign policy. It is little wonder that Putin’s Syria strategy looks very little like the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s, where the Red Army sent vast numbers of men and equipment to occupy a huge country. Lacking the communist legions of his predecessors, Putin’s military is built to fight high-intensity, rapid missions using top-notch weapons systems and excellent special forces. Geographically-limited and lacking in secure bases, the modern Russian military excels at lightning strikes — but lacks the depth to fight a protracted conflict. Shorn of the wealth of empire and hampered by resource constraints Soviet leaders were unhindered by, modern Russia has cultivated unconventional electronic warfare capabilities out of necessity, including cyber warfare, signals disruption, and communications jamming.
Putin’s Syrian intervention is a gamble, but an intelligent one. By operating at the boundaries of what Western countries will accept — playing upon their citizens’ utter lack of resolve to send soldiers to yet another Third World country — his regime can manipulate the pieces of an unstable world to their benefit. In this, Syria is no different than Ukraine and the Crimea.
Yet Putin is undoubtedly aware that foreign adventurism is not without risk. Just as their entrance into Afghanistan sped up the unravelling of the USSR, so too could modern Russia’s forays into Syria cost them dearly — say, if they ignited a conventional war they are unprepared to wage.
Yet, for the time being, the gambit seems to have paid off. This should worry America. That Putin has managed to take a rump state shorn of its global empire and return it to great power status in a matter of years is impressive, and abysmally dangerous to the states around it. If Putin’s regime has taught us anything, it’s that Russians have not forgotten their place in the sun.
Part Five — the final in the series — will discuss the realities President Trump will likely face over the next four years in confronting Russia, and how he should respond.
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