View: Russia Trapped in Syria

Photo: John Moore/Getty

The military withdrawal from Syria that President Vladimir Putin touts is less than it seems. The stakes are high because leaders in Moscow see the intervention as crucial to their nation’s status as a global power. Moscow faces a dilemma, but there is a way out, if it will only see the wisdom of taking that route.

The dilemma lies in weighing the costs of staying in Syria or leaving. If Moscow were to disengage and the Assad regime falls, many would see Russia as a near-peer competitor unable to close a major deal. If Russian forces stay in Syria, as is more likely, those troops may face building resentment among Syrians that Russia helped destroy the country but cannot provide large-scale aid to rebuild it.

Moscow has a narrow window to achieve enduring success in Syria, but for this, it needs the international community.

Putin’s withdrawal pledge, like a similar vow he made last year, is likely aimed at easing worries at home of further casualties in Syrian fighting and conveying a sense of “mission accomplished” to the Russian people prior to the presidential election next March. But can Russia pull off an actual foreign policy “win” in Syria?

At least since its defeat of Napoleon two centuries ago, Russia has been determined to remain a global power. Under Putin, this determination has become something close to an obsession. This means more than just intimidating states in its near abroad, as Russia did by going to war against Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.

Global powers have the will and means to shape events at some distance and at scale. Most powers, such as France and China, do this in multiple domains: economic; cultural; ideological; political and security. But as an old Russian saying goes, Moscow’s only reliable allies are its army and its navy.

Russia is a global power in the security domain. With its extensive military modernization program,  it aims to push back against what it perceives as increasing NATO encroachment, led by the U.S. This grand strategy is playing out tactically in Syria. Moscow seeks not only influence over the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but also a substantial air force base at Latakia and naval base at Tartus. They would enable Russia to pose new challenges to NATO and Israeli power in the eastern Mediterranean.

In pursuing this goal, Russia faces several obstacles.

First, to boost prospects for political stability in Syria, Moscow wants Assad to broaden the base of governance, perhaps even accept some power-sharing. Moscow’s military rescue of Assad’s regime from near collapse in 2015 underlined its fragility. Although at times frustrated with Assad, Moscow has never abandoned him. Without an allied Syria, Russia could no longer play a great-power role in the Middle East.

A second challenge is that, unless Moscow persuades the international community to help stabilize and aid Syria, the war-ravaged nation might devolve further into a failed state unable to rule its territory and prone to becoming a sanctuary for insurgents and terrorists, including the remnants of ISIS.

To reduce these barriers to “success,” Moscow is pursuing a diplomatic track. It is facilitating conflict-resolution talks with regional heavyweights Iran, Syria and Turkey. This is helpful, but the exclusion of other global powers and aid donors that have participated in the longstanding United Nations-led Geneva peace talks leaves doubt that the restricted format will achieve much.

By touting its “diplomatic marathon” on Syria, the Kremlin is signaling it wants help, both to bolster the political legitimacy of its negotiations and to marshal reconstruction aid. Moscow hopes the peace process also will dilute Iran’s growing influence in Syria, making for a possible overlap in Russian and American interests.

International aid organizations now are seeking  $4.4 billion to help Syrian refugees abroad and the communities that host them in countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. But assistance for the pummeled and hungry people inside Syria is sparse; donors lack confidence that Iranian and allied security forces can protect the delivery of aid. Moreover, memories remain fresh of brutalities those fighters have carried out, some in tandem with Russian forces. When Syrian and Russian aircraft targeted hospitals in eastern Aleppo during the siege last year, the world was shocked. This action seemed beyond the pale, even for the Assad regime.

A recent RAND report suggests that bottom-up, community-by-community reconstruction efforts may be possible in safer areas of Syria. There, with better governance, economic activity may improve and some refugees could return. But possibilities are fewer in more dangerous regions of Syria.

In October 2015, President Barack Obama warned that Russia’s bombing campaign against Syrian rebels would suck Moscow into a “quagmire.” In a long-term perspective, he was not wrong.

Russia alone can neither guarantee the future security of Syria nor mobilize the resources to enable it to recover and rebuild. Only by linking arms with the international community to edge out Iran, forge broader-based governance and spur economic growth can Russia hope to achieve lasting success in Syria.

Colin P. Clarke is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an associate fellow at ICCT-The Hague. William Courtney is an adjunct senior fellow at RAND and was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, Georgia, and the U.S.-Soviet nuclear testing commission to implement the Threshold Test Ban Treaty.

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