Moscow has been relying on hard power in Syria over the last three months and risks falling into a trap of over-reliance on it next year. While this strategy has yielded some results, such as engaging the U.S.-led coalition into more decisive talks, in 2016 the same approach is likely to prove its inefficiency.
Military personell of the Russian air group at the Hmeymim airfield in Syria. Photo: Russian Ministry of Defense
Vladimir Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria in late September was undoubtedly one of the most important events in global politics this year. Involvement in a conflict outside the former Soviet Union means that the Russia is taking a shot at regional leadership, if not at contesting the global role of the U.S. altogether. Now in Syria, there is no going back for Moscow. While it is not entirely clear for how long Russia can sustain its military campaign at the present level, it will need to act accordingly to its newly stated geopolitical ambitions.
Up until late 2015 Russia was very cautious in its Syria policy. It openly supported Syrian President Bashar Assad but was reluctant to make more assertive moves fearing that it would put Russia at odds with other regional powers, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The second half of 2015 brought about a dramatic change in Russia’s vision of Syria. The deployment of Russian warplanes to the country and their military involvement in the conflict put Moscow in the heart of the conflict. It is remarkable how the rhetoric about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to take part in the settlement of the crisis has changed since late 2014.
A year ago, powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar were voicing their anger over Russia’s support of Assad saying that Moscow has no role to play in this crisis. Now that the Syrian war has become Russia’s war, they have accepted Moscow as a legitimate stakeholder in the conflict, albeit on the other side of the barricades.
By cementing its military presence in Syria in 2015 Russia has essentially guaranteed itself the leading role in the Syrian crisis in 2016. This is especially important given the fact that there are hopes now that starting in January, the Syrian government and the opposition may start negotiations on a ceasefire.
While previously Russia’s participation in diplomatic efforts to bring the Syrian war to an end weren’t backed by any influence on the ground, this time there is hard power that Moscow may employ at any time, meaning that its bargaining power in Syria has increased markedly in 2015.
The U.S.-Russia resolution that calls for a ceasefire and political talks in Syria is largely a result of the military build-up in the country that Moscow carried out in autumn. The Syrian crisis is far from over and Russia will need to use all of its diplomatic clout to guarantee Assad’s presidency for the transitional period. As of now there is a degree of certainty that Moscow may in fact achieve this goal since some Western powers have become more flexible on the issue of Assad.
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However, it is wrong to argue that, with the resolution on Syria having been unanimously adopted at the UN Security Council, violence in the country will subside. Some opposition groups have already voiced their pessimism about the plan that Russia and the United State have proposed, while the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat Al-Nusra have no intention to stop fighting in the first place.
Moscow itself is not entirely sure whether a diplomatic settlement of the crisis is possible, which is why a further military build-up in Syria is still possible. Putin has hinted at this when he recently said that Russia is using far from everything it is capable of and that it could resort to other military means in Syria if needed.
This is probably a key element of Russia’s strategy in Syria for 2016: Moscow has prepared a variety of tools to be employed if necessary but will prefer not to expand its military activity in Syria. This is easy to explain given the fact that military gains in Syria have so far been limited and there is no clear exit strategy.
Some of these existing options that are available to Russia in Syria but have not been used yet likely include two new airbases. While the Russian Defense Ministry denies that it needs new facilities in the country, some reports as well as satellite images suggest that Russia has been conducting construction work at old Syrian bases and that its helicopters have been spotted at two such facilities.
It is hard to imagine the scope to which Russia’s military presence may expand in Syria due to the fact that Russia has access to virtually any military facility under the control of the Syrian Arab Army.
In the event that the UN resolution on Syria succeeds and a ceasefire commences it is still likely that Russia will continue its military build-up in the country. A ceasefire between Assad and the opposition will mean that the sides will have to concentrate on the fight against ISIS, Jabhat Al Nusra and other extremist groups as opposed to fighting each other.
Russia will have to take one of the leading roles within a wider coalition against terrorists to back its ally Assad but also to stay relevant in this conflict to exert more power on the diplomatic front.
Precisely because of the fear of losing existing influence in Syria, Moscow will not change its position on Assad and his role in the country. While Western powers seek to convince Russia that the Syrian President is the cause of the war, Putin believes that Assad is the only force that may stop jihadists.
But Moscow knows it all too well that the act of abandoning Assad will be interpreted in the West as its weakness and a strategic loss. Even worse, it will mean the inability of Russian military prowess to yield meaningful results, which would cast shadow on the entire strategy behind Putin’s foreign policy.
All in all, it seems that Moscow will find itself in a difficult position in Syria in 2016. While reluctant to do so, Russia will need to maintain its military force in the country and will likely even increase it in an attempt to secure a spot of a key player in the Middle East. Consequently a pullout from Syria looks more and more unrealistic because it will leave Russia without its main lever against the West in this conflict.
Moscow has been relying on hard power in Syria in the last three months and risks falling into a trap of over-reliance on it next year. While this strategy has yielded some results, such as engaging the U.S.-led coalition into more decisive talks, in 2016 the same approach is likely to prove its inefficiency once it becomes clear that real territorial gains of Assad forces aren’t commensurate with resources that Russia invested in the campaign.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.