Putin enters Syria’s quagmire

There is no winning or grandstanding moments any longer in Syria

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

In September of 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin took to the pages of the New York Times to warn the United States that a potential strike against Syria “will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders.” Two years later, Moscow starts out its own bombing campaign in Syria, targeting so far moderate rebels in an attempt to save the Assad regime and improve its geopolitical stature.

Russia’s political posturing aside, Syria today is no place to achieve grandiosity, or claim victories in the Middle East. It is a humanitarian disaster unseen in recent Arab history, a magnet for mercenaries from Afghanistan to Nigeria, and a breeding ground for extremism. If anything, Russia’s intervention on behalf of the Assad regime and aided by Hezbollah and IRGC, will only prolong the conflict, prompt further escalation while derailing the path to a political settlement.

Assad is Russia's redline

The first day of Russian air strikes targeting anti-Assad moderate rebels, leaves no doubt that Putin's entry into the Syrian war is primarily about saving Assad and not fighting ISIS. Putin is not even shy about it, telling Charlie Rose last Sunday when asked if the goal is to save Assad, “That's right, that's how it is...we provide assistance to legitimate Syrian authorities.” Problem is these authorities have lost all their legitimacy, and Syria can’t be saved absent of a major political compromise that neither Assad nor Russia have been willing to make.

The war that has dragged thousands of foreign proxies and fighters into its battlefield for the last four years now has the potential for lasting another four.

Joyce Karam

For Russia, compromising on Assad is a sign of weakness and a redline in its negotiations with the West. Throughout the conflict and while Putin would make public statements that “we are not that preoccupied with the fate of Assad's regime”, it is the exactly fate of Assad regime that halted the progress. Russia has rejected a timetable for Assad to leave power, and is against an overhaul of the Syrian security apparatus that it has invested in since the 1970s.

Today, even after all the barrel bombing, the sarin gas, the massacres in schools, vegetable markets and bakeries, Putin’s bet is still on the Assad regime and a manufactured opposition. Prolonging Assad’s life in power prioritizes targeting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels threatening regime near Wadi Ghab and Daraa and Homs. ISIS for its part is not a direct threat to the regime and there are no signs that Russia will go after its strongholds in Raqqa and Deir Zour at the time being. Putin’s goals appear to focus on solidifying Assad’s positions on the coastline and the Southern front, support his wearied army , enforce new facts on the ground to improve Assad’s standing in any future negotiations. These goals, however, are easier set than done and Russia has not been even able to make the regime release key hostages or halt the barrel bombings in Syria.

Regionally, Putin’s airstrikes are already fueling an anti-Russian sentiment in the Arab blogosphere. Arabic hashtags bearing the names “Russian aggression” or “Russian occupation of Syria” have trended on twitter, and photos of dead children in the attacks on Homs are on display against the images of Putin, Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Assad.

“A new Afghanistan”?

In the lead up to Russia’s escalation, U.S. President Barack Obama reportedly conveyed to Putin this message: Moscow is at a fork in the road in Syria and has to choose between a political settlement or military escalation that would create a “new Afghanistan”. This and U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter warning yesterday that Moscow’s airstrikes are “pouring gasoline on the fire”, reignite the debate of whether Russia’s mission in Syria will galvanize the Jihadists as it did in Afghanistan three decades ago.

Similar to Syria, the former Soviet Union sent “advisers” early on in the seventies to Afghanistan to suppress the rebellion, before escalating to thousands of troops in eighties to fight insurgent groups or Mujahedeen and then being forced to withdraw in 1989.

Twenty six years later, Russia is trying to defeat the Syrian insurgency from air while relying on Assad’s, and Hezbollah’s forces as the boots on the ground. If the objective of Russia’s intervention is to just defeat ISIS, Putin could have joined the 60-plus members coalition led by the United States. In Russia’s view there is little to no difference between the fighters of Jaish Fateh, Nusra, Ahrar Sham and ISIS. This loose branding of the opposition, and collective bombing from air could coalesce these groups together under the cause of targeting Russia’s assets in Syria.

Russian intelligence officials also estimated recently that 1,700 of their nationals have joined ISIS to fight in Syria and Iraq, a high figure that opens the risk of returnees and attacks inside Russia.

Russia’s shortsightedness was also evident in planning for this escalation, by receiving in Moscow last July the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Qassem Suleimani. The Iranian General operates at large in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, training sectarian militias and promoting the agenda of Iran’s hardliners. But Suleimani’s and Hezbollah’s own quagmire in Syria in last two years and after losing over 1500 fighters should offer Russia lessons rather than become the cause of inspiration. Hezbollah has been trying to liberate the town of Zabadani in Syria for three months now, and other than population transfers, the party has no political plan or exit strategy in place.

There is no winning or grandstanding moments any longer in Syria. The war that has dragged thousands of foreign proxies and fighters into its battlefield for the last four years now has the potential for lasting another four. Its settlement will not come through temporary airstrikes or half-hearted political measures. In that vein, Russia's new role is no exception.

Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

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