Understanding the Russian intervention in Syria, its motives and its prospects has become much less of a complicated task as we are now more than a month into the Russian air campaign in Syria. Nonetheless, it remains a complex task, especially given the fact that monolithic explanations of International Relations are now obsolete and multidimensional approaches must be used while looking at such events.
Putin’s end objective is saving Assad, the world’s bloodiest war criminal. The man does not try hard to hide that fact. Putin also wants to dive into his obsession with flexing his muscles, building a personal legacy and glory, and asserting the Russian presence on the international stage. Repeatedly, Putin speaks of the end of the Monopolar world order and the American hegemony. Now, he is proving it with his unilateral adventures both in Ukraine and recently in Syria.
As Assad regressed, Russia tried to pump him up from a distance through constant arms shipments and through providing a political cover in the UN. Russia also tried to play on Western fears of the rise of ISIS and to re-package Assad as a tool for fighting ISIS, hoping for a Western endorsement of Assad. The idea dangerously resonated with some Western officials but was fortunately not fully accepted. The main reason behind why the idea of Assad vs ISIS did not sell is that there is a third party with a strong presence on the ground, namely the Syrian moderate rebels that are neither genocidaires nor terrorists. It just so happens that this third party, the Syrian rebels, is Assad’s biggest threat. This explains why it is the Syrian rebels, not ISIS, that have been the primary target of the Russian airstrikes in Syria.
Tactically, the Russian plan appears to be simple: tiring the Syrian rebels with very heavy air bombardments while providing an air cover for the Assad troops to advance and re-capture territory. This plan has, thankfully, been going badly. “Thankfully” because any expansion of Assad is bad for the wellbeing of the Syrian people. And the Russian plan went “bad” because it underestimated the resilience of the Syrian rebels, overestimated the strength of the Assad forces, and also overestimated the effectiveness of the air force which is not novelty in the Syrian context. The Syrian rebels are very skilled at dealing with air attacks as they have been dealing with the Assad air force for 5 years now. And although the jet fighters used by Russia are way more sophisticated than the ones being used by Assad, they still do not qualify to be a game-changer.
For the first time in years, the Assad forces launched an offensive on rebel positions in the Hama and Lattakia countryside. The offensive was supposed to be an occasion of celebration for the Russians. They wanted a victory, no matter the cost or the size. The offensive was repelled and the Assad forces endured huge loses with tens of tanks destroyed.
ISIS will likely remain intact from the Russian strikes. It is simply irrational to assume that Russia can be more effective in weakening ISIS than the US-led coalition. The coalition has carried out more than 7000 air strikes against ISIS, and ISIS only got bigger. Russia also cannot count on Assad forces as ground troops to fight ISIS because there are only few friction points between Assad and ISIS forces. Russia is well aware of this reality and that is why it is not even trying to focus on ISIS, but is rather focusing on the real threat to Assad that is the Syrian rebels.
The practical implications of the Russian intervention are likely to be more destruction, more refugees, and more civilian casualties. But it is unlikely, despite all the power it possesses, that Russia would radically change the power equation on the ground.
Meanwhile, the US will continue struggling to understand what is happening. It moved from one failure to another in the Middle East. The US has been very ineffective in tackling the question of ISIS, a question that goes way beyond simple military operation and requires an understanding of the Root Causes of the emergence of ISIS. These Root Causes are in large part related to the history of the US presence and policies in the region, and that is probably the reason why the US is struggling to understand the regional conflicts in the Middle East, especially because any such understanding would require the US to admit its own flawed and damaging policies.
The irrelevant EU will likely maintain its “observation” mode while being simultaneously concerned as the Russian strikes send new waves of refugees to the EU.
It is precisely because of the feeble international reactions to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine that the man could afford another adventure in Syria. Allowing Putin to have another easy ride in Syria will be dangerous for everyone, including for the Russian people in the long run.
Soon the Russian intervention will start fading from the news, the Syrian rebels will not be significantly weakened, Russian planes will continue striking, and the Syrian people will continue to bleed as well as continue their struggle for Freedom.