Strategic Insights: Will the Russians Escalate in Syria?

Dr. W. Andrew Terrill

In an unexpected effort to protect a key Middle Eastern ally, the Kremlin intervened in Syria with military forces in late September 2015. This effort was undertaken to protect the Bashar Assad regime from Islamist and secular rebels now threatening his regime. Moscow initiated this action with a limited force that may be primarily designed to prevent Assad’s ouster but does not have the capabilities to help him retake large tracks of the country from the rebel groups that are now holding them.  The Russian leadership made the decision to use military units in Syria at some political cost, aware that it was poisoning relations with many conservative anti-Assad Arabs and complicating its troubled relationship with Western powers.1  At some point, the Russians will have to consider the questions of how well these efforts have met their goal of bolstering the regime and what will be their next moves.  They may also be rapidly faced with pressure to escalate their commitment to support the regime, if current actions do not produce meaningful results.  They may also learn the painful lesson of other great powers, that military intervention in the Middle East is often much more problematic than national leaders initially expect.    

The Russian intervention has moved forward with limited assets in a sort of “intervention lite.”  The centerpiece of this policy is the introduction of Russian air units into Syrian combat.  At this time, these air assets are composed of around 30 fixed-wing combat aircraft and 20 helicopters operating out of a regime airbase outside of Latakia.2 Russian aircraft have been reported to be using a variety of munitions including precision guided munitions, cluster bombs, thermobaric bombs, rockets, and even cruise missiles.3  The majority of the attacks are nevertheless carried out with simple gravity bombs (“dumb bombs”) and large numbers of civilian casualties have been reported.4  The Su-25 ground attack aircraft appear to be primarily using unguided rockets fired from pods on the aircraft. Unfortunately for Moscow, perhaps a third of this limited number of aircraft are grounded at any one time as Russian maintenance crews struggle to cope with harsh desert conditions.5

Russian ground troops are present in Syria, but their primary duties seem to be protecting their forces at the Latakia base, advising the Syrians, and perhaps helping the Syrian military with the task of absorbing large numbers of new weapons that have been transferred to them as a part of recent military activity.  At the present time, the Russians seem to expect that ground fighting against anti-Assad rebels will be done primarily by Syrian forces along with limited numbers of expeditionary troops from Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah group, and Shi’ite militias from various countries including Iraq.6  These forces have been increased over the past few months, but not dramatically, and certainly not in war winning numbers. The Russians have also been reported to have transferred special operations troops from Ukraine to Syria.7

In pursuing this effort, Moscow has created serious difficulties for itself and others with its targeting policies and its tendency to label all Assad opponents as terrorists.8  Anti-Assad groups such as the Free Syrian Army and the various non-ideological “brigades” of the Southern Coalition are clearly weaker than the radical-jihadist Islamic State organization or the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra front, but they are not non-factors.9  Bombing them is therefore extremely problematic for relations with the West and probably for a future political settlement.  In areas where these organizations work together and are physically close with al-Nusra (none currently work with the Islamic State), there may be some limited justification for spillover bombing of these groups, but such actions are still a problem.10 The danger is that the Russians may be trying to limit the number of relevant players in Syria to the Assad regime and the Islamic State in the hopes that the rest of the world will accept Assad under these circumstances.  The real problem here is that by reducing the number of players to two, they would effectively be reducing it to one, the Islamic State.  The Assad regime increasingly appears to be a spent force, heavily dependent on its allies, with little chance of bouncing back and no chance of reconquering the entire country.  Moreover, if attacks on non-jihadist rebels continue, anti-Assad Arab states may seek to provide these opposition forces with more and better-shoulder fired MANPADS (Man Portable, Air Defense Systems) to defend themselves against air attack. Saudi Arabia already appears to have dramatically increased its anti-armor support to non-jihadist opposition groups.11

In the longer term, Moscow’s effort to keep Assad in power and move against non-jihadist Assad adversaries could severely complicate any Russian hopes for an eventual withdrawal from Syria as the dictator becomes increasingly dependent on Moscow and Tehran.  At some point, a militarily floundering and more pragmatic Kremlin may wish to ease him out of power in favor of a temporary coalition government composed of moderate rebels and perhaps some elements of the Syrian military and regime, but not Assad or his closest cronies.  While this may not be Putin’s first choice for Syria, he may come to prefer it to endless, inconclusive, and expensive military involvement in Syria on behalf of Assad. The Russians do not always appear to be aware of the subtleties of military intervention far from their own borders or the dangers presented when a stubborn Third Word client decides to ignore foreign advice.  The endless difficulties presented by such people is a problem the United States has faced from at least Ngo Dinh Diem to Nuri al-Maliki.  Moreover, Assad can easily accept Russian help while still demanding more and insisting on additional input into Russia’s Syria policy.  These actions will not be a problem if Russian and Syrian interests are identical, but they are not and they are increasingly likely to diverge over time as the war continues to bog down for them.  

The problem with any military intervention is that if it does not rapidly achieve military goals, the choice often becomes to escalate or withdraw without accomplishing the objectives.  The former choice can simply reinforce a bad decision and raise the stakes for a doubtful outcome, while the latter is a humiliating admission that the entire enterprise was a costly mistake.  While Vietnam analogies are overused to death, the current Russian strategy does echo the U.S. ideas about infrastructure protection and use of airpower in 1965 after the Viet Cong attack on the Pleiku Barracks (Camp Holloway) and the initiation of Operation ROLLING THUNDER as part of a process of ongoing and eventually very dramatic escalation. If the Russians find themselves unable to push the Syrian regime forward with meaningful military progress, they will surely be tempted to escalate as well.  The price of achieving a military solution to Syria could be staggering and it is difficult to see how the Russian economy could support it.

In summary, the Kremlin has not committed the resources to do much more than help prevent Assad’s short-term defeat.  It cannot win the war even with the help of Iran and its Middle Eastern allies and may be faced with ongoing pressure to escalate. Under these conditions, it may be tempting for some Western policymakers to simply let them flounder, but this is not a good idea.  The problem here is that while Russia and the West do not have the same Syrian friends, they have at least one important enemy in common, the Islamic State.  Letting Russia wallow in an increasingly difficult intervention is not the way to defeat the Islamic State. The United States may therefore have to remain open to some form of cooperation, provided that the Russians stop bombing groups like the Free Syrian Army and focus their attention on fighting the Islamic State. Also, Moscow needs to understand that by attacking non-jihadist rebels, it harms the ability of other nations to help end the war through an eventual political settlement involving non-jihadist groups. This outcome seems to be in Russia’s long-term interest. In a best case scenario, the Russians might also be especially useful in convincing Assad that it is time to retire abroad.  Otherwise they may remain in Syria propping up an unpopular and probably doomed regime until the economic burden of such efforts forces them to face a humiliating withdrawal with Syria in even more chaos.    


1. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies particularly detest Assad, while Egypt is more concerned about the danger of an Islamist Syria.  I have considered these issues in some depth in W. Andrew Terrill,  Arab Threat Perceptions and the Future of the U.S. Military Presence in the Middle East, Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Press, 2015, especially pp. 7-15.

2. Matthew Bodner, “Russia Shows Early Success, New Capabilities in Syria,” Defense News, October 19, 2015, p. 4.

3. Ibid., p. 4.

4. Kareem Fahim and Maher Samaan, “In Huge Spike, Civilians Flee Syria Violence,” New York Times, October 27, 2015.

5. Tom Vanden Brook, “Harsh Conditions are foiling Russian Jets in Syria,” USA Today, October 25, 2015.

6. Loveday Morris and Mustafa Salim, “Tehran’s proxies ordered to Syria,” Washington Post, October 20, 2015.

7. Thomas Grove, “World News: Russia Sends Units from Ukraine to Aid Assad,” Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2015, A-6.

8. Adam Entous, “U.S. Says Russia Targets CIA-backed Rebels in Syria,” Wall Street Journal, October 6, 2015.

9. On rebel groups see International Crisis Group, New Approach in Southern Syria, Brussels, Belgium, ICG: September 2015, especially pp. 2-10.

10. Agence France Presse, “Apparent Russian raids in Syria’s south for first time,” Daily Star (Beirut), October 29, 2015.

11. Anne Barnard and Karam Shoumali, “U.S. Weaponry Is turning Syrian into Proxy war with Russia,” New York Times, October 12, 2015.


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