Russian Roulette: Parallel Engagement in Syria


The outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 saw the United States and Russia pitted against each other over support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. While the United States and other Western powers call for the overthrow of Assad and have supported rebel groups, Russia has backed the Syrian regime due to both oil and security interests. Over the past few years, up to 10% of all Russian military exports have gone to Syria, with contracts valued at 1.5 billion dollars. Furthermore, Russia and China have stalled UN sanctions against the country and continued their petroleum trade despite Western admonition. Despite these antagonistic actions, Russia has sometimes been an ally to the international community, aiding in the removal of Syrian chemical weapons. Unfortunately, it seems that the country has taken one step forward and two steps back in terms of cooperation with the West. Recently, Russian support has gone from providing weapons to military action, as the country has deployed dozens of fighter-bombers and helicopters to the region, most to the Bassel al-Assad International Airport. Although Russia is allied with the United States in the fight against ISIS and could use its airpower to strike a blow against the terrorist organization, US-backed rebel groups in the region have claimed that they have been targets of Russian strikes. It seems likely that Russia could use its military power to support Assad against both terrorists and rebels, and with Putin increasingly antagonistic to the West, his motives still remain unclear.

On September 30, Russia began airstrikes in Syria, launching over 20 strikes within the first 24 hours. Reports from the ground were mixed, and while Russian news agencies claim successful strikes against ISIS positions, US-backed rebels have claimed that these reports are inaccurate. In fact, these groups have appealed to the United States for antiaircraft missiles, claiming they need them to protect themselves against relentless Russian air strikes. So far, Russia has denied these claims, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov calling reports of attacks against moderate rebels “groundless”. However, US intelligence in the region indicates otherwise.

Recently, US-backed rebels have advanced into a region known as the Ghab Valley in northwestern Syria. With a concerted push to the south, they have threatened to create a corridor to the sea, a corridor that would block Syrian imports and exports and could give the rebels access to naval resupply. With the northern flank of Assad’s military under attack, Russian airstrikes in the region have come at an opportune time. These attacks have been at the heart of American and moderate Syrian rebel suspicion that Russia is more concerned with bolstering the Assad regime than taking down ISIS. While it is true that there are elements of the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front in the region, Russia’s strikes have appeared indiscriminate at best and malicious at worst. Reports from the town of Talbiseh, located in a rebel pocket in western Syria, claim that hospitals and bread-distribution centers have been hit by Russian strikes. With Russia using advanced Su-34 fighter bombers with precise munitions, it seems unlikely that the bombs simply missed their targets and more likely that civilian and moderate rebel organizations were deliberately targeted. In the wake of these attacks, the international community has called for Russia to scale back its airstrikes. In response the Russian military has vowed to increase strikes and has increasingly targeted areas away from northeastern Syria, where ISIS has established bases of operations, instead focusing on western Syria, the last stronghold of Assad’s armies.

Aggravating the situation in Syria by actively going against U.S. and international requests to attack ISIS, not rebels, may seem counterproductive, but could bolster the Russian position in the area. First, as pointed out by Mustafa Moarati, a spokesman for a CIA-backed rebel group, if the moderate rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army are eliminated or significantly weakened, the only forces left in Syria would be the Assad regime and ISIS- or al-Qaeda-backed rebels. If this situation were to develop, it is likely that the United States and its allies would be forced to halt their airstrikes against the regime or even support Assad so that ISIS could be defeated. Furthermore, as rebel calls for anti-aircraft weaponry fall on deaf ears, it is likely that rebels will see the U.S. as abandoning them in the face of Russian airstrikes, which could also lead for further radicalization. Second, the Russian strikes simply are a challenge to U.S. and Western powers in the region. Regardless of whether Russia strikes ISIS or moderate rebels, one thing is clear: the primary purpose of the airstrikes is to support the Assad regime. If Russia’s military action significantly weakens rebels, then it could make for better negotiating conditions for Assad’s regime. At this point it is unlikely that Assad, who controls a mere 25% of Syria’s land, will regain power over all of Syria. Nonetheless, a settlement that is better for Assad would likely be better for Russia.

At the same time, there are potential consequences for Russia. Besides the obvious souring of relations, such a bombing campaign could risk the threat of mistakes as the United States, Britain, and France are all simultaneously conducting air operations in the region. While these three Western powers are cooperating, Russia’s independent strikes could lead to dangerous confusion in the skies, as Western and Russian pilots fly over similar territory. A mistake would be unlikely, but tensions could be aggravated even if pilots are just flying in close proximity. Thus, Russia must proceed with caution. A mistake in the region could be costly for what little international credibility it has left.

On April 25, 1945, Soviet and American troops linked up on the River Elbe, forming a pincer around the remaining forces of Nazi Germany. 13 days later, the forces of the Third Reich laid down their weapons, marking an end to the conflict in Europe. However, amidst the celebration, tensions were rising. The roll of Soviet armies through Eastern Europe and their capture of Berlin had profound geostrategic implications for postwar Europe, with the West afraid of the specter of communism spreading across a vast region. The end of World War II marked the beginning of an uneasy peace, and the next 50 years saw an unsteady world locked in the Cold War. However, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, relations between Russia and the United States have steadily improved, and the two countries have increasingly worked together on issues from climate change to nuclear weapons proliferation. Therefore, many are wondering if joint action in the region could herald a new era of cooperation. Unfortunately, with Russia’s ongoing support for Assad’s despotic regime, it seems that post-Cold War relations will remain icy.

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