Below is my latest piece on War on the Rocks, analyzing the Russian intervention in Syria and the collapse of the ceasefire.
The current situation in Syria is the civil war’s most dangerous and arguably tragic phase. Months of U.S.-Russian efforts to arrange a nationwide ceasefire in Syria and set up a military coordination agreement have collapsed spectacularly, leading to venomous recriminations as a Russian-backed coalition renewed its assault on Aleppo. The tone of official rhetoric — Ambassador Samantha Power called the renewed bombing campaign “barbarism” — together with a suspension of military contacts raises the risk of a military clash that much further. Meanwhile, interventionist circles in the West have renewed their cries for the United States to use force, while Russia signaled that such a move would lead to uncertain consequences and possible military conflict, reminding the United States to “think carefully” before hitting any Syrian regime forces. If this is not the greatest foreign policy train wreck of 2016, it will certainly do until that calamity arrives.
On October 3, the United States suspended its attempts to implement a ceasefire with Russia and scrapped the proposal for a joint military coordination body. Russian President Vladimir Putin retaliated by shelving a 2000 deal on disposal of weapons-grade plutonium and canceling a bilateral agreement on research cooperation between nuclear sectors. The two countries have since cemented an escalatory cycle of tit-for-tat blows, as U.S. intelligence agencies publicly blamed Russia for its hacking of the Democratic National Committee to interfere with U.S. elections. The prevailing impression in policy and media circles is that Russia has abandoned efforts at peace, instead making a bid for military victory on the ground. Increasingly, many in Washington are certain that Russia strung the United States along in negotiations to help Syrian forces recapture Aleppo in the closing days of the Obama administration. References to the Cold War abound as tensions increase.
These well-structured narratives are built upon grains of truth, but they miss more than they capture. Important facts get in the way of this story. Since the first day Russian planes took flight over Syria in September 2015, analysis in Washington too often flailed between declaring the Russian intervention a hopeless quagmire and decrying that Russia is winning at everything. These depictions suffer from being wedded to merely tactical snapshots. They bend whichever way the wind is blowing that day in Syria. At times, we have been treated to contradictory strategic assessments based on the same battle.
In late August, Reuters told us that fighting in Aleppo exposed the “limits of Russian airpower,” and a few days later The New York Times explained how Syrian forces made their gains in that siege thanks to Russian help. This results in great stories but poor analysis. I offer a different perspective on why the ceasefire collapsed and what it tells us about the Russian intervention. Essentially, Russia got caught selling something they did not have — Assad’s agreement to a ceasefire before the Syrian Arab Army subdued Aleppo — and U.S. Secretary of State Kerry accidentally trapped them by conceding to a grand deal sooner than Moscow expected.
There’s Something Wrong with This Story
Setting aside popular misunderstandings in Washington, many experts and analysts in Moscow also do not seem to understand why the ceasefire collapsed. That is what makes the current situation so dangerous: It was actually unplanned on the Russian end. “Unplanned” may be the defining characteristic of U.S. policy on Syria, but it has not been similarly true of the Russian approach. Since September 19, when the ceasefire was visibly on life support, experts and intelligence officials have opined that Moscow’s strategy is to seize Aleppo in the coming months and present the next U.S. administration with a fait accompli. They are working the problem backwards from what happened in the last two weeks.
Russia may not have expected for the ceasefire to last — and most in the West did not either — but this entire episode is not a Kremlin-managed scheme. To start, there is little evidence of Russian preparation to support Syrian forces in their campaign to seize Aleppo. There was no Russian military buildup in Syria to better enable an attack on the city or a large-scale expansion of the air wing based at Hmeimim Airbase. While Russia’s air force has been flying more sorties over the city, its presence in-country is arguably lower than it was during heavier fighting last winter. Following the March announcement by Putin that Russia was “withdrawing” from Syria, there was a visible reduction in both fixed- and rotary-wing aviation deployed. Russia’s newspapers reported that Russia was sending aircraft back to Syria, including the 12 Su-25 ground attack aircraft that were previously withdrawn. Yet, at the peak of this deadly air campaign against Aleppo, we have satellite footage from IHS Jane’s showing that they have not arrived back in Syria.
Russia’s attempt to use Iran’s Hamadan airbase back in August, which would have greatly increased the payload its Tu-22M3 bombers could carry into battle, failed embarrassingly in a public spat with Tehran. Because they thought the arrangement should be kept secret, Iran’s leadership bristled at Russian attempts to turn cooperation into a public relations opportunity, claiming Moscow “betrayed trust.” There is also no visible increase in Russian ground forces present in Syria to suggest that a “final solution” to Aleppo had been in the works all these months, while Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov kept Secretary of State John Kerry distracted with notions of peace. If there is a Russian strategy to make timely gains with Aleppo as the primary operational objective, the Russian military does not seem to have been informed.
Typically, militaries build up assets in theater for an offensive operation beforehand, but in this case, we cannot discern a substantial increase of Russian support to Syrian and Iranian forces even after the ceasefire’s collapse. Instead, Russia had been busy with its annual strategic exercises in September that simulated amphibious landings in Crimea, and much of the country’s national attention had turned to the situation in Ukraine. Russia has engaged in a dizzying number of troop movements, multinational exercises, wargames, and military events in August and September, many centered around contingencies in Ukraine or with NATO but none resulting in additional combat capabilities transferred to the campaign in Syria.
Following fiery exchanges between Russian and Western officials, Moscow has become noticeably wary of a possible U.S. lurch toward considering military intervention. The calls to do something grow louder in U.S. policy circles. America’s penchant to meet such calls by lobbing cruise missiles as a low-risk form of military action is well known. To ready for such a development, the Russian General Staff sent an S-300V4 air defense system, along with several missile corvettes from the Black Sea Fleet, hoping to deter any inclinations the United States may have toward a campaign of strikes against Syrian forces. This complements the S-400 system that is already in theater. Moscow’s generals, such as Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, are not leaving much room for doubt as to what these systems are for: “Any missile or air strikes on the territory controlled by the Syrian government will create a clear threat to Russian servicemen.” Although Russia continues to block for Syria, the bloody battle for Aleppo and this subsequent political maelstrom does not appear to be the product of a deliberate strategy.
If the Kremlin wished to take advantage of the Obama administration’s closing days to consolidate some sort of gains in Syria, then why was Lavrov permitted to spend so much time negotiating the intricate technical details of a ceasefire agreement going back to mid-July when Kerry first flew to Moscow with a proposal to establish a joint military coordinating body? What was the point of agonizing delays in announcing a deal, delving into the minutiae of who is positioned where around Castello Road? This is a Rube Goldberg theory of Russian scheming in Syria, and one that does not make much sense if Moscow simply sought a military solution in the last months of the administration.
Instead, what we have is a case of policy capture and, as I explain below, a reasonably well-thought out Russian political strategy unraveling at the hands of its allies. In September, the contradictions inherent in Russia’s approach and the divergent interests of its allies finally came home to roost. We may assign blame to Russia, but what is happening right now in Syria is Russian-led in name only.
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