Pulling Back the Veil on the Syrian Conflict

Ruslan Pukhov (Dec, 2016)–The key Russian foreign policy event of 2016 was the ongoing military operation in Syria. On March 15, President Vladimir Putin announced a partial pullout of the Russian forces, saying that the key mission objectives had already been fulfilled. But despite that announcement, the scale of the Russian intervention continued to grow.
Russia is engaged in a very delicate balancing act in Syria, waging war on Islamic State forces and the moderate opposition to the Assad regime at the same time. The goal here is to defeat them all and prop up the friendly regime in Damascus. There is also another goal: to demonstrate that Russia has reemerged as a global power and force the West to work with it, breaking the foreign policy isolation imposed on Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine.
After more than a year of the Russian military intervention in Syria, the results so far are not an unalloyed success. The forces deployed in Syria remain fairly limited, and the losses have been small. For the Russian military machine, the campaign in Syria is like a large drill; it does not put much strain on the resources, while at the same time providing an opportunity to field-test new weaponry and equipment. Meanwhile, the Russian public doesn’t really see the point of the military involvement in Syria — but there is no great public anger or rejection of it, either. It mostly serves to stoke up the patriotic sentiment to some degree, and those who expected Syria to become another iteration of the disastrous Soviet campaign in Afghanistan have been left disappointed for the time being.
Nevertheless, from the military point of view, it is clear that the original goals of the intervention have not been achieved. Russian military assistance has been crucial in inflicting some painful defeats on ISIS (such as the liberation of Palmyra) and on the anti-Assad opposition (the siege of Aleppo). It has stabilized the regime’s situation — but there has been no turnaround in the Syrian war. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces have proved too weak to win any decisive victories; all they can do is firefight crisis after crisis on individual stretches of the front. To win the war, Assad needs large reinforcements on the ground — and those are nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, continued Russian involvement in Syria inevitably gets Moscow ever deeper into commitments to its Syrian allies, complicating any future attempts to extricate itself from the entire situation.
The foreign policy balance of the Syrian campaign is even less in the Kremlin’s favor. The intervention has damaged Russia’s relations with many powerful, regional actors, the bust-up with Turkey being a case in point. Even though Putin managed to put an end to hostility with Ankara much quicker than many expected, this was achieved at the cost of Moscow’s acquiescence in Turkey’s own military intervention in northern Syria, which clearly runs counter to the interests of both Russia and Assad.  Meanwhile, the Russian campaign in Syria has driven relations with the West to a new low. In the second half of 2016 there was an outpouring of Western condemnation on humanitarian grounds; there was even talk of new sanctions. For the first time in decades, a direct military confrontation between the Russian and U.S. forces became a distinct possibility, especially if Washington had gone through with plans for establishing a no-fly zone in Syria, which some US politicians had been advocating for years.
As a result, by late 2016 Moscow had found itself facing a set of growing risks in Syria. Military logic dictated the need for ramping up the scope of the Russian intervention — but that could lead to even more serious complications on the foreign policy (and at some point, on the domestic) front.
The election of Donald Trump as the next US president can bring about radical shifts in the situation in Syria. It appears that in many respects, Trump will be a typical Republican president — but his foreign policy instincts are very unusual for the Republican establishment. First, he has a clear proclivity for isolationism. Second, he seems to be a cynical, business-minded pragmatist who cares little for promoting US values on the international arena, exporting democracy or fighting for human rights. And third, he appears to have a strong anti-Islamic streak, making little distinction between the “radical” and “moderate” Islam and mistrusting anything coming out of the Islamic world.
This sets the stage a major change in US policy in the Middle East, despite the pressure put on the president-elect by proponents of the traditional interventionist views in the Republican Party. Trump has already made a U-turn on many of his most controversial campaign promises on internal American issues — but in his interview with The New York Times on Nov. 20, he reiterated his intention to seek cooperation with Putin on Syria and once again expressed his distrust of the Syrian opposition, which continues to enjoy Washington’s backing for the time being.
This opens up a window of opportunity for Putin on Syria. The key question now is whether Trump will stick to his current stance on Syria after his inauguration and whether Moscow will be able to make use of it. It is quite clear that if Putin is genuinely determined to strike a deal with the incoming new administration in Washington, he will have to offer some major concessions and be prepared to meet Trump halfway. The Syrian problem could become the key to a broad normalization of US-Russian relations — or it could trigger their further deterioration and a new upsurge of international tensions.
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