It seems that Soleimani made quite an impression on Putin. Rather than simply supplying Assad with more arms and ammunition as the Policy Tensor had imagined, Russia has chosen to deploy a significant number of military assets in Syria. What is the scale of the Russian deployment and what prompted it? What is Putin up to now? And where is this going?
What seems to have forced Putin’s hands is the recent setbacks suffered by Assad this year. Islamist rebel forces led by Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) conquered Idlib City in March and kicked regime forces out of all but one of their positions in Idlib Province by September. This has placed the rebels in a position to launch attacks into the Alawite heartland on the Syrian coast. That the primary purpose of the deployment is to thwart the rebel offensive is clear from the location and nature of Russian assets in Syria.
Instead of deploying assets to their existing naval base at Tartus, the Russians have deployed their forces further north in Latakia Province where they will be closer to the frontline. The center of activity is the Bassel al-Assad International Airport at Jableh in Latakia Province. Satellite imagery provided by AllSource Analysis has confirmed the presence of tanks, armoured personnel carriers, howitzers, trucks, and prefabricated housing for 1,500 personnel. The equipment in the field so far is consistent with the deployment of a single army brigade.
That’s right: Russia is deploying ground forces in Syria. On September 13, reports filtered in that fifteen buses carrying Russian troops arrived in Hama City and turned its Equestrian Club into military barracks. More troops are on the way. Transport aircraft continue to airlift assets to what is now a de facto Russian military base at the rate of up to two per day. Under the cover of a large military exercise involving a hundred thousand troops, Russia has buildup its military assets at Taganrog Central airbase in southern Russia. Located 800 miles from Latakia, the airbase is perfectly positioned to supply the war effort in Syria.
Putin’s goals are limited: Protect Russia’s only naval base in the Middle East at Tartus and make sure than the Assad can hold on to the territory still under his control. The troops in the field are mandated to thwart the rebel advance and perhaps conduct counter-offensives against JN et al. These limited objectives are likely to be achieved.
Given that the United States is conducting daily airstrikes in the vicinity, it is necessary to have military-to-military contacts to ensure that there are no incidents. The Russian intervention has changed the calculus somewhat in as much as it is now even harder to see how Assad could possibly be dislodged. The United States should finally surrender its futile opposition to Assad and play ball. A great power settlement in Syria is very much possible and was held up by US opposition to Assad. Now that the United States seems finally ready to fold, a deal is indeed likely in the coming months.
That Putin has managed to force Obama’s hand is not altogether surprising. US policy in Syria has been ham-handed from the get-go. It was very much possible in the beginning to get ahead of the curve. The US could’ve armed moderate rebels while they were still viable and forced Assad to the table with the threat of military escalation. The Obama White House foolishly outsourced the arming of the rebels to the oil monarchies; with predictable results. Once the Islamists had essentially taken over the rebellion there was no choice but to back Assad. Yet, the White House could not drop its opposition to the Assad regime. This short-circuited any possibility of a great power settlement in Syria. Forging a Syrian army to oust Assad might have worked had it been given sufficient time and resources. But it served no discernible US interest and was not worth the effort given that the alternate strategy of backing Assad was always available. The actual effort of course was laughable.
Russia is not about to replace the United States as the dominant power in the region for the obvious reason that the United States continues to be vastly stronger than Russia. Strength alone is not enough however. If the US leaves security vacuums in the region, like it has in Syria and Iraq, others will be pulled in despite themselves. (Although one can’t help but feel that Putin must relish deploying Russian troops in the region for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.) The extent to which Russia has been pulled in will become clear in the coming months.
Russia is also not about to conquer the Islamic State. Despite all the anti-ISIS rhetoric emanating from Moscow, nothing so far suggests that Russian ground forces will even engage the fighters of the Islamic State. And even if they did, it would require a considerably bigger military deployment than a single army brigade to make an impression on Baghdadi. The existence of the Islamic State is the principal security threat to US protectorates in the region. It cannot be conquered without ground forces; as I predicted and is now amply clear after 4,700 airstrikes with little to show for them. And the Russian troops heading to Syria non-withstanding, no state has taken up the mantle. In particular, President Obama has effectively decided to kick the can down the road to the next administration.
Stephen Walt has proposed that the Islamic State can be contained. I have very serious misgivings about such a course of (in)action. Specifically, the Islamic State poses an existential threat to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It could potentially overrun the entire Arabian peninsula in short order on the backs of a very sympathetic populace. It may not be in a position to do so now, but it is bound to get stronger as state formation proceeds apace. It would be a grave mistake indeed to tolerate the existence of the Islamic State and run this risk for an extended period. In any case, there is no sign that the US security apparatus would tolerate a Salafist-Jihadist state bang in the heart of the Middle East to survive for long. If not this president then the next one will be going after the Islamic State.
The big news is not the likely survival of the Assad regime or the Islamic State. Both of these were already baseline scenarios. The big news is the military alliance between Russia and Iran; something that has never obtained previously. The alliance is not a serious threat to the United States for the simple reason that Russia cannot protect Iran against the United States. In the event of a confrontation between the United States and Iran, Russia would be in no position to intervene. And in the worst case scenario, if the Russians did threaten to do so, their fleet could be bottled up in the Black Sea. In any case, the US could easily blockade both nations without incurring significant damage.
So the military alliance is no game changer for the global balance of power. It does however have significant implications for the balance of power in the Middle East. The biggest losers as a result of these developments are Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have expended significant resources to take down the Assad regime. The Islamist rebels on their payroll can no longer hope to topple the government in Damascus. Perhaps it is time to throw them under the bus.