Volume IV, No. 1, September 2015; Putin’s Syrian Gambit

Eurasia Analyst

Volume IV, No. 1         @eurasiaanalyst          September 30, 2015

Putin’s Syrian Gambit

By Susan J. Cavan

Russian President Vladimir Putin has leveraged his position well this week, but it is far too soon to tell if his actions will endure or bog Russia down. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, Putin identified the political change represented by the Arab Spring, as the result of “aggressive intervention” and attempts to “export revolution.” As if to underscore his point, Putin provided his take on the origins of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or Islamic State): “The so-called Islamic State has tens of thousands of militants fighting for it, including former Iraqi soldiers who were left on the street after the 2003 invasion. Many recruits come from Libya whose statehood was destroyed….” (1)

ISIL provided the focal point for Putin to justify both the Russian “military-technical assistance” being provided to Syria (and Iraq) and to call for a broad anti-terrorist coalition. He noted that “fighters from many different countries, including European ones, [are] gaining combat experience with Islamic State.” He underscored this point for many leaders as he asked: “Now that those thugs have tasted blood, we can’t allow them to return home and continue with their criminal activities. Nobody wants that, right?” (2)

Putin also described the apparently reasonable and cooperative steps Russia that would take to develop an international coalition: “Russia, as the current President of the UN Security Council, will convene a ministerial meeting to carry out a comprehensive analysis of the threats in the Middle East. First of all, we propose exploring opportunities for adopting a resolution that would serve to coordinate the efforts of all parties that oppose Islamic State and other terrorist groups.” With this resolution, the international community would then work to “restore statehood where it has been destroyed, to strengthen government institutions,” so that refugees could return home to functioning states. (3)

So, what did Putin do after leaving the United Nations and New York? Upon returning to Russia, he convened an emergency session of his Security Council, where the permanent members reportedly discussed “issues of fighting terrorism and extremism.” (4) He then delegated his Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov and two others to approach Russia’s Federation Council with a proposal on the use of military force “beyond Russia’s borders.” (5)

With the Federation Council’s approval (it was unanimous, 162 to 0), Russia then began airstrikes around the Syrian town of Homs, as President Putin declared the Islamic State to be Russia’s enemy. (6) Oh, but wait. According to multiple reports, Russian air strikes apparently did not target the enemy Islamic State. Both U.S. and Syrian activists report that Russian Sukhoi bombers targeted “towns including Zafaraneh, Rastan ands Talbiseh, resulting in the deaths of 36 people, a number of them children. None of the areas targeted were controlled by IS.” (7) If Russian airstrikes continue to target anti-Assad rebel groups generally, rather than ISIL directly, the short term effect is likely to strength Russia’s enemy, the Islamic State.

While the dust settles and claims regarding the targeting of Russian strikes are verified, there are still the diplomatic niceties to discuss: According to U.S. sources, Russia provided a one hour warning in advance of its military maneuvers in Syria, and the approach was less than diplomatic. State Department Spokesman John Kirby confirmed that Russia had provided notice, and New York Times reports added that “The information came from a Russian official in Baghdad, who informed staff members at the United States Embassy there that Russian military aircraft would begin conducting a mission, according to American officials. They emphasized that the Russians did not provide specific information on the mission or take steps to “deconflict” the airstrike with American air operations in the region, as the United States had hoped.” (8)

The issue of “deconflicting” air operations might not be the greatest concern posed by Russia’s sudden commencement of airstrikes, although it does represent a decided backhanded slap after Monday’s Putin-Obama meeting, at which the presidents discussed the need for just such coordination in Syria. According to several sources, the US coalition forces and Russian military likely will not be conducting strikes over the same general areas in Syria, thus alleviating some of the difficulties in “communication” between the two operations. (9) Nonetheless, as one Air Force veteran noted to me, “life in an air war of this complexity (number of participants, ambiguity of targets etc) is probabilistic.”

Perhaps the larger issue will involve one of “dueling coalitions,” and more specifically, Iraq’s divided loyalties. Putin emphasizes that Russian airstrikes are the only military operations actually sanctioned by the Syrian State, (10) and he uses his support for a regime under sanction and condemned by the West as a lure for other states, which also may be unlikely or unwilling to traverse a western path of development. Thus far, Putin’s “inclusive” rhetoric (which sounds a familiar “sovereign democracy” theme) seems to be drawing adherents. The announcement on September 27 that Iraq would join a nominally anti-ISIL coalition with Russia, Iran, and Syria, which would include sharing intelligence raises some alarms, but also leads US officials to reveal previous caution: “the U.S. has long been careful about how much intelligence it shares with the Iraqi military. That’s largely driven by the fact that the U.S. knows Iraq is working with Iran.” (11)

There is also a growing chorus hearkening Putin’s decision to enter the fight with ISIL so forcefully as a colossal misstep, likely to sink Russia’s military in a Syrian quagmire and “alienate the entire Sunni Muslim world.” (12) While it is clear that Russia’s intervention will have unwanted reverberations for Putin (and I suspect Turkey will have quite some role to play here), it is not necessarily true that Putin’s goals for military action in Syria are quite as simple as we view them. Instead of intending to force the submission of ISIS to Assad’s regime, Putin may just be positioning himself as the indispensible powerbroker to accomplish a post-Assad Syria and certainly to dictate the terms of any such agreement.

Putin’s gains from action in Syria, far from focusing solely on the retention of the Bashar al-Assad regime, also may include impressing other Arab states with his willingness to defy the U.S. led international coalition and proving himself decisive, while demonstrating his military’s power. NATO SACEUR General Breedlove reportedly has suggested that, “he believes Putin’s top priority is to protect Russian access to airfields and warm water seaports in the Eastern Mediterranean.” (13) As Russia has recently and publicly reiterated its intentions to play an active naval role in the Mediterranean and beyond, General Breedlove’s interpretation of events seems to have considerable traction. (14)

In the wake of revelations about Russian military operations in Syria and bolstered by President Putin’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly, speculation over the appropriate answer the US should provide to these seeming Russian provocations has engulfed international policy discussions. Would working with the Russians to fight ISIL represent a victory for Putin? Would an independent Ukraine policy be lost in the bargain? Is Putin attempting to create new facts on the ground in Syria? The debate seems to revolve around an axis of Putin’s making, and this would be a disconcerting development if it truly represented the way US policy toward Syria and ISIL henceforth would be conducted. Hopefully, the only debate at issue is what constitutes our national interests in the region and how best to accomplish those objectives.

Source Notes

1) 70th Session of the U.N. General Assembly, Transcript of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Remarks for the website of the President of Russia, via http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/transcripts/50385.

2) Ibid.

3) Ibid.

4) Meeting with Permanent Members of Security Council, 29 September, 2015, 21:50, Novo-Ogaryovo, via http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/50398.

5) Appeal for authorisation to use Russia’s Armed Forces outside the country submitted to the Federation Council, 30 September 2015, 10:20, via http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/50399; Putin Wins Parliamentary Support for Russian Air Strikes in Syria, Reuters and The Moscow Times, 30 September 2015, via


6) Путин: «Исламское государство» объявило Россию своим врагом, Новость часа, 30 September 2015, 10:50, via http://www.gazeta.ru/news/ On Federation Council vote, see The New York Times, Russia Launches First Airstrikes in Syria, Officials Say, By NEIL MacFARQUHAR and ANNE BARNARD, via http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/01/world/europe/russia-airstrikes-syria.html

7) Syria Crisis: Russia Airstrikes Against Assad Enemies,” BBC News 30 September 2015, via http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-34399164. Video and eyewitness evidence of the bombing locations are spreading throughout social media as well.

8) The New York Times, Russia Launches First Airstrikes in Syria, Officials Say, By NEIL MacFARQUHAR and ANNE BARNARD, via http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/01/world/europe/russia-airstrikes-syria.html.

9) See, for instance, Russia launches airstrikes in Syria, says it’s targeting Islamic State, Stars and Stripes, September 30, 2015, via Russia launches airstrikes in Syria, says it’s targeting Islamic State.

10) “Syria Confirms Assad asked Putin for Military Aid,” Agence France Presse, 30 September 2015, via http://www.afp.com/en/news/syria-confirms-assad-asked-putin-military-aid.

11) U.S. to Putin: Welcome to the Quagmire, The Daily Beast, 29 September 2015, via http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/09/29/u-s-to-putin-welcome-to-the-isis-quagmire.html.

12) Syria, Obama and Putin, Thomas Friedman, New York Times, 30 September 2015, (Op-Ed). See also, ”Welcome to the Quagmire,” via http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/09/29/u-s-to-putin-welcome-to-the-isis-quagmire.html.

13) “Russians In Syria Building A2/AD ‘Bubble’ Over Region: Breedlove,” Breaking Defense By Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on September 28, 2015 at 6:11 PM, via http://breakingdefense.com/2015/09/russians-in-syria-building-a2ad-bubble-over-region-breedlove/

14) See, for example, “Blazing a Trail: Thoughts on Russia’s New Naval Doctrine,”

By Susan J. Cavan, Eurasia Analyst, August 13, 2015, via www.eurasiaanalyst.org.

By Susan J. Cavan


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