After Bailing Out Assad, the Russian Military Risks a Syria Quagmire
The Kremlin wants to avoid mission creep
It has been well over one year, seven months since Russia’s military intervened in Syria’s civil war. From the get-go the Kremlin brushed aside claims that its campaign would lead to an Iraq or Afghanistan-like quagmire.
Relying heavily on air power, Russia helped the Syrian regime to rebound from a defensive posture, launch offensive operations and reclaim substantial territory. Russia also retains a sizable amount of troops and equipment in Syria, despite two highly publicized but phony withdrawals in March 2016 and January 2017, which were both normal military rotations.
Russia has meanwhile only slowly added to its military presence in the country, according to experts. The Russian air force’s operational tempo has also decreased now that Bashar Al Assad’s regime appears stable. Propping up the regime was one of Russia’s primary goals in Syria—and accomplishments.
“They are really cautious to keep the bare minimum force presence and nothing more,” Michael Kofman, a leading Russia expert and Global Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute told War Is Boring.“I don’t see Russia taking steps that would lead to mission creep and eventual conflict ownership, but with that comes a lack of control over local actors, so its a double-edged sword.”
“The best indicator is force posture. If it’s increasing then it’s a bad sign.”
Neil Hauer, an expert on Russian-Syrian relations at SecDev, says there are several factors at play.
“Russia has scaled down its combat operations significantly over the last several months. It’s kept up bombing on rebel strongholds in Idlib, but even that has been reduced compared to the first 16 months of its intervention,” Hauer said. “So in a strictly kinetic sense, their operations have decreased.”
Russian sappers clear explosives left behind by Islamic State in Palmyra. Russian Ministry of Defense photo
Nevertheless, Russia now has more military forces in Syria than ever before. These soldiers, airmen and contractors number nearly 10,000, according to Hauer—including roughly 5,000 personnel at Hmeimim Air Base, 2,500 Wagner group mercenaries and 1,000 North Caucasian military police.
Russia has “also placed a lot of political capital behind these proposed ‘de-escalation zones,’ which will reportedly be partly secured by Russian or North Caucasian military police,” Hauer added.
This comes as the war in Syria approaches a new phase marked by the looming defeat of Islamic State. “The questions that follow—the fate of Idlib, Raqqa city, how the regime will interact with the Syrian Kurds and so forth—are much more volatile and likely to cause Russia diplomatic headaches as well as generating potential military conflict,” Hauer added.
On May 18, 2017, U.S. warplanes struck Iranian-backed paramilitaries who were approaching U.S.-backed New Syrian Army militia fighters around Al Tanf near the Iraqi border, the same area where Russia dropped cluster bombs on the NSyA in June 2016. “Russia apparently tried to get the regime and Iran to turn back, but they didn’t listen,” Hauer said.
“Problems with its allies have already caused Russia to have to deploy additional ground forces to ensure its goals are achieved in key areas, with the Chechen military police coming as a response to Iranian interference with ceasefire and evacuation deals in Aleppo.”
Given these circumstances, it’s possible Russia could deploy more ground troops—most likely more military police from the North Caucasus, an option which Russian officials have suggested.
“While there isn’t a need for large-scale Russian military activities, I do think we’ll see more Russian ground personnel, in the form of Chechen special forces and Wagner mercenaries, increasingly deploying to Syria as Russia’s desire for greater influence on the ground grows.”
However, Timur Akhmetov, an analyst on Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, believes the Kremlin is trying to minimize its military involvement in Syria while pushing for a political solution to end the conflict. Russia prefers air strikes, advising and supplying military equipment—not a larger ground presence.