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Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Go Big or Go Home?: The Kremlin's Syrian Dilemma

Syrian protesters in Kafranbel, 2012.

Since the illegal seizure of Crimea, every rhetorical twitch from Russia's political elite has been dissected by observers desperate to establish where exactly Vladimir Putin is taking Russia. Faced with an increasingly erratic Kremlin, each policy shift or photo opportunity has unleashed rampant speculation. From the assassination of Boris Nemtsov and Putin's ten day disappearance to a surreal photo session at a gym with the ever hopeful Dmitri Medvedev, such obsessive scrutiny of every move Russia's leaders make has not necessarily had a positive impact on debates over the future course of Kremlin policy. Having witnessed various covert attempts to subvert the Ukrainian state after the Maidan protests brought down Viktor Yanukovich, many mainstream observers immediately see conspiracy and master strategy in every action taken by Putin and his political partners. As a consequence, such analysis often portrays Putin's actions as the product of a coherent covert strategy, though the evidence often suggests they are actually chaotic improvisations from a figure struggling to retain control of Russian society.

Until recently, this tendency among analysts to overinterpret often quite mundane measures as evidence of some deeper agenda has made me reluctant to set out suspicions I shared with many colleagues about a developing shift in Russian foreign policy. Though signs of an expanding Russian presence in Syria started becoming apparent by May this year, too often such rumours, images and social media chatter have proven to be exaggerations or even outright fabrications. As many of those who recently shared a report based on fabricated documents about Russian casualties in Donetsk and Luhansk realised, it is usually best to verify such vague rumours and cross-check striking social media information with experienced colleagues before making any firm claims. Though snippets of information provided tantalizing hints of a growing Russian military presence in Syria, reports were too fragmented to dispel the concern that this would prove to be just another red herring reflecting wishful thinking among external observers and activists on the ground.

Yet in the last ten days there have been a growing signs that what had once been vague rumours may have a basis in fact. Two weeks ago images of Russian soldiers in Syria around the Russian Navy's maintenance base in Tartus circulated on social media. Following this up, the Oryx blog produced reports minutely analysing recent Syrian television reports of combat in Latakia province and discovered voices shouting in Russian from modern armoured personnel carriers. Western media outlets also picked up reports of growing numbers of Russian military personnel in Damascus, though much of this information is difficult to verify. A hardy band of ship-spotters in Istanbul noted increases in the number of Russian naval supply vessels moving through the Bosphorus from Sevastapol to Tartus. By early September Ruslan Leviev established that the Kremlin has systematically reinforced its position in Tartus, and is taking a more active role in the Assad regime's military campaign in Latakia with UAVs and crews for modern APCs. 

As evidence mounted over the past two weeks, a whole range of pro-Kremlin figures in such as the German lobbyist and media personality Alexander Rahr, have kept repeating that Putin's upcoming speech at the United Nations General Assembly might prove the basis for a "grand bargain". Though impossible to achieve anywhere outside of Putin's own propaganda universe, Rahr and other pro-Kremlin media conduits express the belief that such a bargain could be based on Russian concessions in Syria in exchange for Western concessions in Ukraine. At the same time, there have been a spate of on the ground television reports by Russian journalists glorifying Assad's Syrian Arab Army (SAA) on Moscow media outlets such as Lifenews or Rossiya 24.  By 4 September reports in the New York Times and Novaya Gazeta provided more detail about how what the latter called Vladimir Putin's "Second Hybrid War" in Syria may end even more badly for Russia than the first in Ukraine's Donbass region. The US State Department released a transcript in which Secretary of State John Kerry expressed deep concerns over the possibility of a Russian military build up in Syria to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Within four days and after chaotic denials the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledged the implementation of a train and equip programme for the Assad regime's Syrian Arab Army.

With this confirmation that the Kremlin is embarking on its own Levantine adventure, it is worth establishing  why Vladimir Putin should take an enormous gamble that risks dragging Russia into another political quagmire so soon after his efforts in Ukraine have fallen apart. Setting out key strategic factors that may have shaped such a massive change in course could help us establish the possible long term impact it could have on the Middle East and the Putin regime. In particular, there are two key strategic factors that may have played a decisive role in encouraging the Kremlin to opt for escalation. The first is the sudden shift of fortunes in the battle for control of Idlib and Latakia provinces. The second lies in the very nature of the relationship between the Assad regime and the Russian state.

When it comes to recent developments in the battlefield, the swift collapse of the Syrian Army in Idlib province between February and May 2015 has already been described in great detail by perceptive analysts such as Charles Lister or Hassan Hassan. Between mid-February to early June 2015, the Assad regime's SAA lost complete control of Idlib City as well as all other cities and towns in Idlib province. By July, only the Shiite majority market town of Fu'ah held out against besieging rebel forces. From Idlib City onwards, each of these assaults was announced in advance by a new alliance of rebel factions  called Jaish al Fatah. Though dominated by Ahrar-Ash-Sham, a mix hard line Salafists and Muslim Brotherhood supporters, other factions in Jaish al Fatah include more moderate nationalist militias that emerged after the collapse of the Free Syrian Army as well as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has openly declared its allegiance to Al-Qaida. 

Backed with a large influx of Anti-Tank-Guided-Missiles (ATGM) supplied by Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia with the likely knowledge if not consent of the United States, Jaish al Fatah was able to execute tactical battlefield plans and target strategic goals in a disciplined fashion that went far beyond previous Syrian rebel campaigns. From February onwards, daily ATGM attacks devastated the regime's armour and artillery units. Sudden raids in early March cut the regime's supply lines between key towns. By the time Jaish al Fatah announced its assault on Idlib City, the SAA's ability to respond and bring in fresh troops without weakening its positions around Damascus and Latakia had fallen away. On 24 March Jaish al Fatah forces entered the city, which was cleared within four days. Over the next month every other city in Idlib province was picked off in a similar fashion, beginning with days of ATGM strikes before a lightning seizure of regime positions. By 23 April rebels stormed the city of Jisr al Shughur in a single day, opening up the main highway to rebel held territory in Latakia province and enabling Jaish al Fatah to start offensive operations in the Ghab plain to the south, the gateway for any campaign to seize Hama City. 

Along with the new found cohesion and discipline of rebel forces in the Jaish al Fatah alliance, two factors will have caused consternation among those in the Kremlin and the Russian Ministry of Defence who believe Assad's fall would be serious blow to Russia's prestige as a great power. Of especially great concern to both Moscow and Tehran would have been the difficulties the Assad regime has recently founded in recruiting fresh manpower into the SAA. These problems have been made worse by a reluctance among those who have joined a network of militias known as the National Defence Forces (NDF), funded and trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), to fight far from their local communities. 

Researchers with a deep understanding of regime milieus such as Joshua Landis or Aymenn Al-Tamimi have noted that many core supporters within the Assad family's own Alawite community or other key minority groups such as the Druze are increasingly unwilling to risk their lives for a regime that seems unable to secure victory or peace. While Iran has supplied allied Hezbollah and Iraqi militia forces for several years, these units have increasingly been used to solidify the defence of Damascus from another increasingly assertive and well-supplied rebel alliance in the Southern provinces of Deraa and Quneitra. With fewer and fewer fresh troops willing to be moved away from their towns at its disposal, the Assad regime has found it difficult to reinforce strategic positions at moments of crisis. As a consequence, once under pressure and without support from a strong local NDF presence, the SAA has been prone to sudden routs. Since January 2015 these chaotic retreats have become ever more frequent, with the loss of Idlib to Jaish al Fatah and Palmyra to the so-called Islamic State (IS) only the most well known examples.

What is likely to be of equally grave concern to strategic planners in Moscow is the greater willingness of external backers of Syrian rebel groups to coordinate efforts and provide Jaish al Fatah with a seemingly unlimited supply of ATGMs. And this despite its cooperation with Jabhat al Nusra and other groups with a jihadi orientation. In previous years it was exactly this form of collaboration between more moderate Syrian rebel groups and jihadi militias that kept American agencies in particular from providing crucial support to Saudi, Qatari or Turkish efforts to arm opposition forces. Even as late as 2014, moves by Nusra-affiliated units to take apart a rebel group run by the nominally pro-Western Jamal Maarouf, ostensibly because of his links to organized crime, seemed to have ended the possibility of any external support for rebels in Idlib province. Though the reasons why the Americans got out of the way are still a matter of speculation, the fact that the assertive behaviour of Nusra did not sabotage the Jaish al Fatah project indicated that key states in the region were prepared to go much further to weaken the Assad regime than ever before.

With an attempt by regime forces to regain control of the Ghab plain led by the rather eccentric 'Tiger' Suhail al-Hassan ending in fiasco by 27 August, it has become clear that the SAA is no longer able to conduct effective offensive operations without extensive external support. Though Iran has channelled enormous efforts into building the NDF militia network and providing thousands of Shiite foreign fighters through Hezbollah, the sustained losses these units have had to endure have forced it to focus its efforts on securing Damascus and the Lebanese border. Moreover, facing the tasks of keeping Assad afloat in Syria, Hezbollah dominant in Lebanon and Islamic State out of Baghdad, Iran may be experiencing strategic overstretch with few spare resources to help reinforce areas of strategic interest to Russia if they come under attack.

Since February 2015 the Kremlin has therefore had to watch a battlefield dynamic unfold in Syria that is bringing rebel forces backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia within striking distance of the regime's area of core support in Latakia and Russia's naval facilities in Tartus. At the same time, in the east IS has seized the final set of oil fields that were once supposed to provide the basis for cooperation between the Assad regime and Rosneft as well as other Russian corporations. Rather than representing a piece of a master strategy to defeat the West as several excitable commentators in the United States have suggested, the Russian surge in Syria is actually a response to the accelerating breakdown of the ability of its only ally in the region to sustain effective military campaigns. Though a collapse of the SAA would not mean Syrian rebels or IS would be able to overcome the NDF or Hezbollah in regions where Alawites or Shia communities are dominant, it would reduce Assad's ability to prevent the further political fragmentation of these regions into the playground of rival militia warlords who have emerged through the NDF. Without a cohesive military and intelligence structure directly under the control of the Assad family, there will be no Syrian regime left to sustain the Kremlin's role in the Middle East, a role Vladimir Putin seems to believe is crucial to Russia's great power status.

Yet the Kremlin's current Syrian dilemma should not necessarily have made a direct Russian military intervention inevitable. With greater diplomatic room for manoeuvre in which Putin may have sustained better relations with France or the United States by not doing things like, say, invading Ukraine, the Kremlin could have been in a better position to strike an agreement with various powers involved that sustained its perceived interests. Even in an environment in which it faces deep distrust from the United States, the Europeans and the Saudis, greater openness to proposals to replace Assad with a less morally compromised figure from within the pre-2011 state structures such as Farouk al Sharaa, could have given the Kremlin the diplomatic flexibility to pursue some kind of compromise agreement that allowed it to save face. By opting to "go home" rather than to "go big", even now Vladimir Putin could use the slight improvement in relations with Washington over the nuclear deal with Iran to maintain some influence in any new Syrian government involving both regime and rebel elements while winding down a costly commitment eating up resources Russia needs elsewhere. If he were still alive, this is perhaps the course Yevgeny Primakov, with his vast experience of the Middle East and better appreciation of the limits of Russian power, would have recommended to the Kremlin's current Vozhd.

Beyond Vladimir Putin's own great power complex, however, there are also some deeper structural factors embedded in the very nature of the Kremlin's long-standing relationship with the Assad regime that are likely to have increased the pressure on him to "go big". For the way in which the Kremlin has provided support to the regime since the Syrian revolt of 2011 has been shaped by the longstanding relationships built through forty years of Soviet and then Russian collaboration with the Assad family. As Efraim Karsh pointed out in 1993, the foundations of an often fraught alliance between Moscow and Damascus were based on extensive military cooperation, arms deals and limited intelligence sharing. Though Moscow did not provide unlimited support in order to avoid going too far in provoking Israel and the United States, this military cooperation was extensive enough to build deep links between the Russian army and intelligence services and their Syrian counterparts. Most recently, the capture of an extensive GRU listening post near the Golan Heights in October 2014 only just abandoned by Russian technical staff provided further proof of how this well-established relationship was sustained even after the Assad regime embroiled itself in a civil war.

These established structures of military cooperation provided the basis for the Russian effort to support its Syrian ally and sustain its influence in the Middle East since 2011. The large deliveries of Russian arms and equipment have been usually designed to sustain the power of a Syrian military reeling from the mass desertion of Sunni conscripts and officers. In a similar fashion, intelligence cooperation between Moscow and Damascus has run through established institutional relationships between the GRU and the gaggle of intelligence agencies that Hafez al Assad, Bashar's father and predecessor, established in the 1970s to cement his control over Syria and influence in Lebanon. Without any alternative institutions or social movements through which it can project its power in the Levant, the Kremlin is completely dependent on these links with the pre-2011 Syrian military and intelligence establishment to sustain its position in the Middle East. Even if Bashar al Assad were to survive in some capacity, the final crumbling of the Syrian army and intelligence services into just one group of militias among many would severely limit the ability of the Kremlin to influence outcomes in any grand bargain over the future of the Middle East between the EU, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

Moreover, while Vladimir Putin may be dependent on the old pre-2011 establishment to keep his place at the Middle Eastern diplomatic table, the Iranian government has pursued a course in Syria that provides it with options in case Assad falls. Rather than relying on established institutions, by setting up a new institutional framework around the NDF network of militias coordinated by Hezbollah, Tehran ensured that it would have an extensive range of proxies around Damascus, Homs and Latakia to protect its interests in any post-Assad settlement. At times Tehran's focus on strengthening the NDF has run completely counter to the Kremlin's attempts to rebuild the SAA, with pro-Assad militias pressuring the leadership into diverting Russian arms deliveries to their fighters rather than an increasingly fragile army. 

Even in a future peace settlement, the integration of NDF militias alongside rebel armies such as Jaish al Fatah can enable Iran to retain significant influence in Syria through a new security framework that would see a reduced role for exactly those pre-2011 elites on which Russia relies so heavily. While many commentators have viewed the Russian surge as a sign of a solidifying alliance between Russia and Iran, it is in fact the product of a situation in which Tehran has gradually expanded its diplomatic and military flexibility in Syria through means that have severely narrowed Moscow's own freedom of action. Such a growing divergence of interests in the Levant indicates that the high point of cooperation between both sides has been reached and that a more fraught period in Russian-Iranian relations may lie before us. 

As a result of both recent major shifts on the battlefield and deeper structural factors, it seems the Kremlin had decided that to "go home" it has to "go big" first. A Russian surge based on an extensive train and equip programme for the SAA would rebuild a Syrian military primarily dependent on Moscow that can balance the power of Hezbollah and NDF forces loyal to Tehran. In its ideal scenario, the Kremlin presumably believes that through a revival of the pre-2011 Syrian security infrastructure it can entrench its position in the Levant, help defeat IS and play a primary role in shaping the development of a post-Assad order. Without this direct influence, it is doubtful whether the remaining diplomatic tools at Moscow's disposal such as its seat at the UN Security Council would be enough to provide it with the leverage to remain a major player outside Europe and Central Asia. In this context, while Brian Whitmore is right in pointing how the Russian surge is part of wider diplomatic strategy to encourage the West into considering a second "reset" in relations with Russia, the emerging train and equip programme for the SAA is the central pillar to this last ditch Kremlin attempt to restore its great power status rather than an afterthought.

No doubt Vladimir Putin and his allies in Russia's elites have convinced themselves that they have the military means to restore the SAA and even make a major contribution to defeating both IS and Syrian rebel armies. But to any observer of both Russia and the Syrian civil war outside the Kremlin information bubble, this strategy seems loaded with borderline-insane levels of risk. Following a string of defeats on all fronts against Syrian rebel armies, IS and on a more covert level the Kurdish YPG, it is increasingly apparent that Assad's Syrian army is closely approaching the point of no return. At the same time, there are signs that Iran is using its influence over the NDF to prepare for a post-Assad future in which any preservation of the Kremlin's influence is at best a secondary concern. Just as the British and Americans faced pressures to escalate their involvement further in Iraq or Afghanistan every time local security forces proved unable to hold on, in a few months the Kremlin may be confronted with the same dilemmas it faces now over deepening involvement or abandoning the SAA. Yet the introduction of further Russian troops into Syria risks bringing the moment closer when Russian families start asking why their husbands and sons are dying in Qardaha or Homs, compounding a domestic crisis from which Vladimir Putin is so desperately trying to escape.