Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Syria: Let Putin Bleed

by Steven A. Cook
September 24, 2015

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (L), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stand together before a trilateral meeting in Doha, Qatar August 3, 2015 (Brendan Smialowski/Reuters). Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (L), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (C) and Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stand together before a trilateral meeting in Doha, Qatar August 3, 2015 (Brendan Smialowski/Reuters).


Early September brought the news that the Russians were deploying military forces to Bassel al-Assad International Airport near Latakia on the Syrian coast. The Aviationist website recently reproduced satellite imagery showing twenty-eight combat aircraft, including four Sukhoi Su-30SM multirole (air-to-air and ground interdiction) fighters, twelve Sukhoi Su-25 attack planes, and twelve Sukhoi Su-24 attack planes. In addition, the Russians have deployed fifteen helicopters, nine tanks, three missile batteries, cargo planes, refueling aircraft, and about five hundred soldiers to the same airfield. The Obama administration has not said much about the deployment, only that it was seeking clarification from Moscow. Pentagon officials were generally mum last Friday after Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, saying only that they are watching the situation closely. The administration’s critics and supporters have responded to these developments in ways one might expect—howling criticism or over rationalization justifying why the presence of Russian forces in Syria is actually no big deal. They both have it wrong, though. Of course, the Russian buildup is a very big deal and marks a new, even more complicated and potentially dangerous phase in the Syrian conflict, but that is precisely why we should welcome it.

Over the weekend I heard former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband explain that the Russian deployment was a function of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s weakness, of which Moscow has become all too aware. Under these circumstances the deployment should be seen as an elaborate Russian maneuver to improve its negotiating position in the inevitable diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis, which, while not including Assad himself, will have to include “regime elements.” In Miliband’s estimation the Russians are ready to dump Assad in return for American flexibility on the nature of the post-Assad ruling coalition.

Miliband is hardly an outlier. I have heard or read variations of these claims on any number of occasions, and each time they ring hollow. They are interesting reflections of what we think the Russians would be doing if the Russians were us. It reminds me of late February 2014 when all the smart kids were saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not be so stupid as to take over Crimea and that he merely sought to pressure and manipulate Ukraine from the outside. Those might be things that we would do, but they were never part of Putin’s playbook. Even as that big, creepy, crying bear was being pushed around the closing ceremony of the Sochi Olympics and I was being told that the Russians were full of bluster and not much else, they were gassing up the tanks. More directly, Moscow has been fairly clear about its intentions in Syria, no? According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s growing military presence in Syria is intended to combat the self-declared Islamic State and defend the Syrian state. Two caveats are in order here. First the Russians could be lying, but they really have no reason to dissimulate, confident that the United States is going to accept the Kremlin’s fait accompli just as it has in Ukraine. Second, Miliband may be correct; Russian statements have referred specifically to the “Syrian state” and not the Assad regime, which Kremlinologists of yore might interpret as an implicit nod to the confluence of Russian and American interest in a unitary Syrian polity. We’ll see.

All this is a long wind up to the idea that while the West should not exactly learn to love Russia’s intervention in Syria, the United States, Europeans, and the Gulf states might actually come to like it. Moscow may think it is somehow calling Washington’s bluff in the fight against the Islamic State, but folks should separate out the Russian bluster and the political posturing of Obama administration opponents and supporters on Twitter and consider the serious implications of the Kremlin’s move. The Russians just put themselves squarely in the middle of an extremely nasty, brutish civil war featuring a grab bag of extremist groups that includes the Islamic State, which would likely love to take a shot at the Russian military. If the reports of large numbers of Chechens filling the ranks of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s forces are accurate, it is payback time. Those jihadists are arrayed against Moscow’s allies, a nefarious group that includes Hezbollah, Assad’s militias, what is left of the Syrian military, and agents of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. If the risks to the Russians in this environment are not clear, they should be. They are no longer an indirect party to the conflict, they have a huge target on their backs, and they are going to have a serious fight on their hands that does not seem to favor Russian forces. Sure, Syria in 2015 is not Afghanistan in 1979, and one would think that the Russians have learned lessons from their painful past, but Putin seems to have drawn all the wrong lessons from the late Soviet period.

This is not to suggest that Washington should continue to wash its hands of Syria. There seems little chance that the Obama administration or the next one will commit (beyond general rhetoric) the United States to bringing about the end of the Assad regime, but they should do everything to help the refugees fleeing Syria’s hellish conflict. There seems to be no reason to match the Russians militarily there, however. Everything in foreign relations is linked, and it is precisely because Russia is a major strategic threat and because of the Kremlin’s adventurism in Ukraine, which threatens NATO allies like Poland and the Baltic states, that I welcome Moscow’s coming entanglement in Syria. Let Putin bleed.

Post a Comment 12 Comments

  • Posted by nike

    First of all it is pretty sick to want young men to die in the war.

    Secondly, Putin will not put a single Russian to fight ISIS or whomever, he will gladly provide weapons but not troops as Russians will not welcome losing a single Russian life for 100,000 of Syrians.

    Third of all, many of these Chechen and Dagestani jihadists are there because Russia wants them out of the country and out in Syria getting killed, the terrorism in Russia has actually gone down in recent years because so many of the jihadists are simply no longer in Russia.

  • Posted by Kafantaris

    About time Russia had a dog in the fight in the Middle East.

  • Posted by Sharon

    There may be a “dog in the fight” but that dog won’t hunt if things get too gnarly in Syria. Putin is no dummy. If ISIS continues to grow in strength in Syria, I think Putin will look at Assad, waive his hand and say, “See ya!” He’s not going to take the chance of getting involved in a war with ISIS that might drain his army numbers. He’ll go back to Mother Russia, re-group and come back to fight another day when the odds are more in his favor. I think his current presence in Syria is merely political positioning for a chance to get more oil and a finger in the face of Obama, basically, whom he has very little respect for — he’s testing.

  • Posted by Sean Bennett

    finely put! I came to similar conclusions, myself. The trouble posed by maintaining combat operations so far afield will no doubt put further strain on the regime’s finances and capacity for further belligerence.

  • Posted by Omerli

    Hoping for a Stinger moment a la Afghanistan Mr. Cook? Alas, the U.S. then and the U.S. now are very different and there is no stomach or moral fibre to stand up to the Russians and their support for Assad’s bloody reign. Having acquiesced to Iran’s role in the region, do you think the Administration would stand up to Russia? No chance, this is an administration adept at evading its responsibilities and the vacuum this has created is now beginning to emerge as the biggest security challenge to the West in decades.

  • Posted by Chaker Abu samra

    Talking about bleeding, Americans are bleeding too in afganistan without any reliable local backup there, at least Russians have good fighting allies in Syria, as for chechenian fighters this was one of the reason of the Russian deployment in order to find a way to eradicate them.

  • Posted by Ben

    Oh look … , I think I see the 1970’s waving hello … like when the Israeli government announced that Russian pilots are flying Egyptian jets on air defense missions over Egypt .

    The parallel to that is Russia bringing ground to air defense batteries with them to Syria .
    Do you know how many anti-Assad rebels fly planes ? Zero .
    So those batteries are there to complicate things for someone else then .

    Are they for the Israeli’s , who occasionally fly over Syria to conduct raids on weapons shipments form Iran to Hezbollah ?
    Or is is against the Allied forces to assure that as long as Russia “stays” , it can abort any attempt by the Allies to create no-fly zones in Syria ?

  • Posted by Matt

    Assad hold 10 percent of the country and now Russia hold 10 percent for him. There can be no diplomatic solution, as after an interim transitional government, there has to be free and fair elections. In which the majority Sunni anti-regime will win. In which case the Russians lose out. So they can’t have a diplomatic solution, they just have to try to kill everyone.

    It is like prisons, they make you move sand from one end of the yard to the other, for no purpose, the weak break, their spirit breaks, the dudes that go agro, get bashed, solitary and extended sentences and the third group, get mentally and physically stronger and release into the community among the sheep.

    That is what will come after the weak break, they kill the second group. The third group. Society gets the type of criminal they deserve, a product of the system, created by society. Syria will end up with what they deserve, what they created.

  • Posted by John

    We should have sent NATO troops or the very least aid to the Ukranians After our failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, Putin knows that Obama won’t challenge him

  • Posted by Szalay

    It seems to me that many people forget the fact that russians tend to fight differently then the west. The russians don`t shy away from bombing a military target because there are possible civilian losses.

    If they want Assad back in power and the Isis defeated they have the military power to achieve it.

    Syria 2015 is really not Afghanistan 1979. Since then the russians adapted to the idea that quality beats quantity and most importantly with the help of modern intelligence gathering devices you can combat guerrilla tactics more effectively.

  • Posted by Dax7

    Correct assessment. Russia is joining our common fight against ISIS – the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And from a domestic perspective, Putin needs a good distraction.

    As for the neocons who are irresistibly drawn to foolish wars, too bad – the U.S. is wisely shifting its strategic focus to Asia. Which provides a big opening for Russia to invest itself in the endless tribal and religious conflicts of the ME.

    Let’s remember that one of the real benefits of U.S. energy independence is the ability to stay out of non-strategic conflicts. We’ve spent far too much treasure and lives in the region, while China invested in its economy. Smart countries learn.

  • Posted by Bob

    I am an Ohioan and I don’t get why Americans don’t understand that as bad as Assad may be, the terrorists that he is fighting are worse. Look at Lybia and tell me that would be good for Syria? Russia is looking out for their interests but it is also the best decision.

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