Moscow Plays Poker in Syria: What’s at Stake?

October 21, 2015
Moscow Plays Poker in Syria: What’s at Stake?
Nikolay Kozhanov
Nikolay Kozhanov Non-Resident Fellow in International Relations and Political Economy

Russian military deployment in Syria should not be considered as the core goal of Moscow’s diplomacy but its instrument. It is also a serious mistake to present Russian efforts in the country as the result of a game of “chicken” between Moscow and the West. Moscow is playing a different type of game that could be characterized as “geostrategic poker”, where the Assad regime is logically considered Russia’s main stake. This stake allows the Russians to influence the situation on the ground and demonstrate their importance in the international arena by positioning Moscow as one of those players without whom the Syrian question cannot be solved. By increasing military support to the Syrian government the Russian authorities simply strengthened their stake. Now they are starting to reveal their hand.

Misreading Moscow

Since May 2015, the West and its Middle Eastern partners have been periodically failing to read Russian intentions on Syria. First, this happened when they decided that, after playing a positive role in the settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue, Moscow would immediately help the U.S. and EU to settle the Syrian conflict. In early August 2015, Turkish President Recep Erdogan believed that his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin already made a decision to shift support away from the official Damascus government. During summer 2015, intensive meetings between Russian, American and Saudi officials only strengthened the confidence of those analysts and policymakers who expected changes in the Kremlin’s stance on Syria. They argued that Russian withdrawal of support for Assad was a matter of time and Moscow was only trying to bargain a better deal.

Yet, in September 2015, the Russian authorities finally put an end to these speculations. In spite of all expectations the Kremlin decided to raise its stakes in the Syrian campaign: Moscow not only increased the volume of its military supplies to Damascus and improved the quality of provided equipment but launched air strikes against radical Islamists groupings fighting against the Assad regime.

As a result, by 1 October 2015, Moscow clearly demonstrated that the Russians are not going to alternate their position on Damascus. And that’s where the international community probably made a mistake for the second time: instead of trying to understand the reasons for Russian behaviour, Western media sources launched a hysterical campaign arguing that Moscow is about to send its ground forces to Syria. However, Moscow has neither abandoned Assad, nor plans to put its full-fledged army forces on the ground. This simply does not fit in with the Russian plans and the Kremlin never hid its true intentions. On 28 September 2015, during his speech at the UN General Assembly and meetings in New-York, Putin clearly stated that Russia will continue to talk to the international community on Syria but it does not mean that the military support of the Assad regime will be stopped.

Keep calm …

It is necessary to separate news about the Russian airstrikes and the rumours about Russian readiness to send significant ground troops to Syria for combat. The latter speculations should probably be taken with a grain of salt. First of all, the number of Russian advisors may indeed grow but this has a logical explanation as the volume and range of equipment supplied by Moscow to the Syrian regime raises. Consequently, more personnel are needed to train the Syrians on how to use the new equipment.

Secondly, the deployment of full-fledged ground forces for a long period and far from Russian borders would require immense economic resources. And that’s what the Kremlin lacks. Moreover, Moscow probably remembers from the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979 – 1989) that this was one of the factors that exhausted and shattered the USSR economy; it does not want to repeat this experience.

Thirdly, the war in Afghanistan also left a psychological scar in the Russian popular mind (often compared with the Vietnam syndrome in the U.S.) that make it difficult for the Russian authorities to get popular approval for the massive use of armed forces abroad. Moscow’s experience in Ukraine should not be compared with the Syrian case: Ukraine is still considered as a part of the Russian world/space.

Finally, the limited use of force completely satisfies the Kremlin’s needs. Russia’s actual military presence in Syria definitely increases the regime’s chances for long term survival. Even Moscow’s military experts acknowledge that it would be naive to think that the Kremlin will not use its air power to help the Syrian army. It is believed that the Nusra front is probably one of the main targets of the Russian air force right now as its fighters supposedly represent the main threat to the Assad regime.

Apart from that, the current Russian presence makes any Western military intervention in Syria extremely challenging. Previously, Moscow had suspicions that the U.S.-led coalition could be used to overthrow the Assad regime. The deployment of the Russian air force in Syria allays Moscow’s concerns. At the same time, by exchanging information and trying to coordinate its military efforts with other countries Moscow continues promoting its idea of the anti-Islamic State coalition that would involve the Syrian regime, and, thus, bring Assad back from the international isolation. Russia has also strengthened its own diplomatic position by proving that any decision on Syria cannot be taken without Moscow’s participation.

Everything should go according to our plan

At the same time, the Russian ultimate goal in Syria is much more ambitious than just strengthening the Assad regime.  The Kremlin remains extremely interested in the end of the Syrian war and, as it was recently re-confirmed by Putin in New-York, this settlement is only possible through the beginning of a national dialogue between the regime and the anti-government forces (excluding radical Islamists and foreign fighters groupings).  However, the Kremlin would like to launch this reconciliation process on its own conditions. These conditions include the preservation of the territorial integrity of Syria, immediate formation of a united anti-Islamic State coalition, the saving of remaining state structures and the transformation of the Syrian regime only within the framework of the existing government mechanisms.  Putin continues to insist on a peace settlement in Syria based around the existing Syrian state structures and institutions and with some sort of power-sharing between the Damascus regime and the “healthy” elements in the opposition.

Moscow also insists that the removal of Assad from power should not be a precondition for the beginning of the national dialogue. The Kremlin does believe that the fall of Assad’s regime or his early removal will turn Syria into another Libya. According to Moscow decision makers, this will inevitably mean the further radicalization of the Middle East and the exporting of Islamic radicalism to Russia, the Caucasus region and Central Asia. The Russian authorities genuinely believe that by helping Assad they are protecting their national security interests.  In August 2014, Lavrov called the radical Islamists “the primary threat” to Russia in the region.  According to Russia, Assed is the only person able to guarantee the integrity of the Syrian state and the military institutions needed to fight against Daesh/IS and other radical Islamists. Although Moscow does not exclude that Assad could be replaced in the future, it should happen no earlier than when there is confidence in any new leaders who are able to control the situation in Syria.

This vision of the situation drastically differs from that of the West and many Middle Eastern powers that consider Assad as the source of the Syrian problem rather than its solution. Yet, the Kremlin is determined to change the international opinion. Presumably, the Russian authorities adopted a two track approach. On the one hand, since the spring 2015, the Russian authorities intensified their dialogue with the international community. This step made some policymakers mistakenly think that Moscow was looking for ways to trade Assad for some economic and political concessions. Meanwhile, the main task of the Kremlin was to impose its views on the conflict settlement. On the other hand, the Russians increased the volume and quality of military supplies as well as launched the military operation in the country to guarantee that the Syrian regime will make it long enough to see the moment than the Kremlin achieves the break through on the diplomatic track.

It works

So far, the Russian plan works. The Syrian regime will stay in power for some time. Meanwhile, the Russian idea to establish an anti-Islamic State coalition with an active role for the Syrian regime, and, thus, brings back Bashar Assad from the international isolation, is gradually finding support outside of Russia. Thus, during his August trip to Moscow, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi expressed support to the Russian initiative. Some western politicians also started to express their ideas that the West probably should deal with Damascus to succeed in its anti-IS struggle.

All of this, in turn, makes Moscow believe that it has chosen the right strategy.  Consequently, any attempts to convince the Russians not to increase military support for Damascus or change their stance on the conflict will be challenging. Under these circumstances, it makes sense to ask whether the international community should deal with Russia on Syria?

It not only should, but probably has to continue the dialogue with the Russians. First of all, Moscow does not want to escalate confrontation with the West over Syria beyond the current level. Moreover, the Russian authorities are doing their best to clarify their position. Thus, on 15 September 2015, during the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) summit in Dushanbe, Putin unexpectedly devoted most of his speech to the Syrian issue. His presentation was balanced, devoid of any anti-American rhetoric and definitely addressed to the West, as this topic lies far beyond the interests of the other CSTO members. Putin stressed that the real goal is a peace settlement in Syria.

The Russian vision of the future of Syria is also changing.  Recent statements made by Putin and Lavrov in September show that Moscow has finally stopped labelling all fighting opposition forces as “terrorist” and recognized at least some of them as legitimate players. Previously, Moscow agreed to deal only with the political wing of the Syrian (preferably, official) opposition. I t is still unclear who those military forces are that Moscow now wants to include in the national reconciliation process and the building of anti-IS coalition. It definitely plans to build relations with the Syrian Kurds but also with those whom Putin vaguely determined as “healthy” opposition.  On 9 and 13 September 2015, the Russian MFA clarified this definition by stating Moscow’s readiness to include into the anti-IS coalition the Syrian moderate opposition and those Syrians who are not foreign fighters or international jihadists. Theoretically, this statement allows for the legitimisation in Moscow’s eyes of those moderate Islamists whohave serious influence on the ground but whoRussia previously avoided dealing with. Finally, in the early October 2015, the Russian MFA openly declared Moscow readiness to negotiate with the Free Syrian Army.

In September 2015, Russian officials also became more certain about the possibility of political reforms in the country and views about a post-Assad Syria. Until now, the Russian authorities have considered Assad the only person capable ofguaranteeing the integrity of the remnants of the state and military institutions which survived the previous years of conflict and are still capable offighting against Daesh/IS. Yet, Moscow does not exclude that he could be replaced in the future. However, this should not happen before there is confidence that the new leaders are able to control the situation in Syria. Ultimately, Moscow sees the gradual transformation of the regime as inevitable and has raisedthe possibility of conducting early parliamentary elections.

Keep on playing

Moscow has few doubts, so far, that it has chosen the right strategy. In view of this, any attempts to browbeat Moscow into stopping its military build-up in Syria, not to speak of changing its longstanding stance on the conflict are a waste of time. The Kremlin has carefully stage-managed this entire effort that turned its military presence in Syria into a new regional factor. Moscow is still determined to change the international position on Syria’s future via a two-track approach. Yet, what the Kremlin is going to get at the end is not necessary completely contrary toWestern interests: Moscow accepts the idea of the post Assad Syria and simply wants to guarantee the Russian presence in it.