.
A

fter nearly a decade of conflict, it appears that efforts are underway, or at least beginning to get underway, to re-normalize relations with Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria. Assad, who has overseen one of the most vicious civil wars in recent history, including the repeated use of chemical weapons, began receiving overtures in late 2021 from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. The United States and Qatar, for their part, indicated that there would not be any normalization—yet, this latest development is indicative of Washington’s limited pull when it comes to the Syrian Civil War. Indeed, America’s present political and diplomatic weakness grew out of its unwillingness to intervene in the first place, and created an opportunity for another country to fill the gap: Russia.

Putin's War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America's Absence | Anna Borshchevskaya | I.B. Tauris | November 2021.

It is not without some irony that Putin proved Obama’s claim that Syria would be a quagmire for Russia almost wholly, and thus far, wrong. Russia’s involvement in the country was driven in no small part to the strategic vacuum left when the United States chose neither to intervene nor to lead a coalition to solve the crisis in the Levant. Rather than prove to be a quagmire or disaster for Moscow, the intervention seems to have met with operational and political success, to say nothing of the fact that Russia’s presence in Syria is simply accepted as a matter of fact, at minimal cost.

That Obama’s assessment was manifestly wrong is unsurprising. The West’s—particularly America’s—understanding of Moscow’s intentions and capabilities has been woefully inadequate and predicated on false assumptions about Russia’s power, interests, and dynamics. In Syria, in particular, these flawed assumptions manifested themselves in successive administrations that were disinclined toward intervention, were keen to pull out of the Middle East, and concurrently pivot toward Asia. For his part, Obama saw few, if any, upsides, and despite statements suggesting that he would take a different tack than his predecessor, President Donald Trump did little different.

Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, offers a critically needed assessment of Russia’s intervention in Syria in her thorough new book “Putin's War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America's Absence”, a copy of which was provided by the publisher. Borshchevskaya’s book is one that has been long overdue—this is perhaps the only book available that looks exclusively at Russia’s intervention, its causes and consequences (both internationally and domestically), and what it means more broadly for Russia’s geopolitical position. “Putin’s War in Syria” is a detailed and fascinating, but at times challenging to get through, much like the challenge of divining the Kremlin’s real intentions. Despite this quibble, it is nonetheless exceptionally enlightening and fills in the significant gaps in media coverage and popular analysis. As with most, if not everything, when it comes to Russia, things are vastly more complicated than they first appear.

Borshchevskaya seats Putin’s intervention in Syria within not just the context of the civil war, but the broader Middle East, as well as Russian domestic politics and history. This is by far its greatest strength. Rather than treat the intervention in isolation or by focusing on one element to the exclusion of others, Borshchevskaya looks at Moscow’s support for the Assad regime in total, offering a much richer look at this tortured conflict.

This context is key and of considerable value. Opening the book with an exploration of Russia’s historical relationship with the Middle East and the varying political, diplomatic, economic, and military efforts in the region, Borshchevskaya provides the reader much needed historical grounding to understanding Moscow’s interests in the region. She successfully strikes the balance between contextualizing Russia’s contemporary policy in history, without going to the extreme, as other books do, of making Russia a victim of some historical predestination.

“Putin’s War in Syria” goes beyond the simple, surface-level analysis for Russia’s intervention, merely that it was to prop up the Assad regime and thumb Moscow’s nose at the United States and President Obama. To be sure, as Borshchevskaya shows, these were certainly driving factors, but there are other, complex factors at play in both the motivation of the intervention and its execution. This is where Borshchevskaya shines.

A chief consideration of the Syria intervention, as Borshchevskaya describes, Russia’s entry into the conflict sought to seize upon the void created by the United States and to portray Moscow as a both a global power and, at the same time, peacemaker. That Russia was both fanning the flames it was supposedly attempting to put out—an arsonist wielding a fire extinguisher—is apparently lost on the Kremlin’s propagandists. Syria provided a strategic opportunity for Russia to extend its geopolitical reach at the expense of Washington, and further its reach across the Middle East. Borshchevskaya describes how Moscow cooperated with Damascus and Tehran, using the latter to do much of the heavy-lifting on-the-ground, while competing and cooperating with other regional powers all at once.

Borshchevskaya details the torturous political negotiations that sought to resolve the conflict and Moscow’s role in these discussions. Joby Warrick’s “Red Line” explores the crisis over Syria’s chemical weapons, for which Russia kindly provided Assad a diplomatic escape route. She notes, interestingly, that Russia will often stick to the letter-of-the-law or agreement, but not the spirit. By way of example, according to Borshchevskaya, the U.S. and Russia established a de-confliction process to ensure that their forces would not engage one another. In one incident, the Russians identified ISIS fighters near the front, informed the U.S. of the pending strike via the agreed upon process, and struck the target. Yet, it was not ISIS, but allied Syrian forces. Separately, according to reports, the United States sought to use this de-confliction mechanism multiple times when Russian private military forces engaged U.S. special operations troops in Syria, an engagement in which upwards of 300 Russian fighters were killed.

That Russia seeks to portray itself as a partner to the region, notably one that will not judge the internal dynamics—or repression—of the nation-states in the Middle East is an important point to note. With Moscow, there are no value judgements, and, at a time when successive White House administrations seem inclined to extricate themselves from the region, the Kremlin is positioning itself as a long-term partner diplomatically, militarily, and economically.

Militarily, Russia’s presence in Syria certainly supports Assad against the rebels, but it is also an opportunity to get real-world operational experience for the Russian military—the first since the war with Georgia in 2008. Granted, this experience is largely limited to air strikes against insurgent forces, which has limited utility against a near-peer or peer adversary. Nonetheless, this battlefield experience stress-tests operational procedures, simulates wartime conditions, and allows the Russian military invaluable training experience that cannot be replicated in a wargame. Communications, surveillance, air-to-ground and ground-to-air coordination, close air support, intelligence coordination, electronic warfare, and more, are all worked through while dropping real munitions on real targets. The legacy of this military involvement is an experienced force that will have utility in Ukraine, the Baltics, or other operational theatres.

Russia has also taken advantage of the deployment to field new weapons systems for the dual purpose of increasing its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, denying the United States potential dominance of those strategic waterways, but also to demonstrate its wares. It is often forgotten that Russia remains the world’s second-largest weapons exporter, behind the United States, and real-world battlefield conditions present a unique opportunity to show potential customers the efficacy of various systems. Yet, in the case of the former, it is of particular long-term interest to the United States and NATO that Russia now has a notable presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, one that could complicate Western operations in the region and the Middle East writ large.  

The domestic angle is one of Borshchevskaya’s strongest sections as she both places the conflict within the context of Russia’s politics, but also its historical memory, not the least of which was informed by Afghanistan. The Kremlin portrays Russia’s intervention—at the formal request of the Assad regime, marking it as distinctly different from American interventions—as necessary to stop terrorism (not the least of which was fomented by the United States) and support a regional ally. Here, Putin often uses foreign adventures as a means of portraying Russian strength, particularly against an “aggressive” west, and to show that the country remains a great power. It is a function of look at what the left hand is doing, but ignore the fact that the right hand is doing little for the average Russian. That the Kremlin is able to do this is due in no small part to the limited footprint, low (if negligible) casualties, and limited aims of the intervention—all lessons learned from Afghanistan.

Thus far Russia has avoided the failures of Afghanistan in Syria. It is far from a “quagmire” as Obama suggested, yet the future of both Moscow’s relationship with Damascus and the Kremlin’s engagement remains to be seen. There is no Marshall Plan equivalent from Putin for Syria and it is highly doubtful there ever will be one. Yet, so long as the Syria does not descend into Afghanistan-esque levels of cost, casualty, and diplomatic damage, one imagines, as Borshchevskaya shows, that the Kremlin can sustain its engagement. Indeed, the long-term benefits to Russia are quite clear—the West can ill-afford to ignore Russia in Europe and it can certainly ill-afford to ignore Moscow’s reach into the Middle East and further afield.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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The Price of America’s Absence in Syria

Destroyed buildings next to a mosque in the city of Aleppo in Syria. Photo by Ali Albahri.

December 4, 2021

When it comes to the Syrian Civil War, America’s present political and diplomatic weakness grew out of its unwillingness to intervene in the first place, and created an opportunity for another country to fill the gap: Russia.

A

fter nearly a decade of conflict, it appears that efforts are underway, or at least beginning to get underway, to re-normalize relations with Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria. Assad, who has overseen one of the most vicious civil wars in recent history, including the repeated use of chemical weapons, began receiving overtures in late 2021 from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. The United States and Qatar, for their part, indicated that there would not be any normalization—yet, this latest development is indicative of Washington’s limited pull when it comes to the Syrian Civil War. Indeed, America’s present political and diplomatic weakness grew out of its unwillingness to intervene in the first place, and created an opportunity for another country to fill the gap: Russia.

Putin's War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America's Absence | Anna Borshchevskaya | I.B. Tauris | November 2021.

It is not without some irony that Putin proved Obama’s claim that Syria would be a quagmire for Russia almost wholly, and thus far, wrong. Russia’s involvement in the country was driven in no small part to the strategic vacuum left when the United States chose neither to intervene nor to lead a coalition to solve the crisis in the Levant. Rather than prove to be a quagmire or disaster for Moscow, the intervention seems to have met with operational and political success, to say nothing of the fact that Russia’s presence in Syria is simply accepted as a matter of fact, at minimal cost.

That Obama’s assessment was manifestly wrong is unsurprising. The West’s—particularly America’s—understanding of Moscow’s intentions and capabilities has been woefully inadequate and predicated on false assumptions about Russia’s power, interests, and dynamics. In Syria, in particular, these flawed assumptions manifested themselves in successive administrations that were disinclined toward intervention, were keen to pull out of the Middle East, and concurrently pivot toward Asia. For his part, Obama saw few, if any, upsides, and despite statements suggesting that he would take a different tack than his predecessor, President Donald Trump did little different.

Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, offers a critically needed assessment of Russia’s intervention in Syria in her thorough new book “Putin's War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America's Absence”, a copy of which was provided by the publisher. Borshchevskaya’s book is one that has been long overdue—this is perhaps the only book available that looks exclusively at Russia’s intervention, its causes and consequences (both internationally and domestically), and what it means more broadly for Russia’s geopolitical position. “Putin’s War in Syria” is a detailed and fascinating, but at times challenging to get through, much like the challenge of divining the Kremlin’s real intentions. Despite this quibble, it is nonetheless exceptionally enlightening and fills in the significant gaps in media coverage and popular analysis. As with most, if not everything, when it comes to Russia, things are vastly more complicated than they first appear.

Borshchevskaya seats Putin’s intervention in Syria within not just the context of the civil war, but the broader Middle East, as well as Russian domestic politics and history. This is by far its greatest strength. Rather than treat the intervention in isolation or by focusing on one element to the exclusion of others, Borshchevskaya looks at Moscow’s support for the Assad regime in total, offering a much richer look at this tortured conflict.

This context is key and of considerable value. Opening the book with an exploration of Russia’s historical relationship with the Middle East and the varying political, diplomatic, economic, and military efforts in the region, Borshchevskaya provides the reader much needed historical grounding to understanding Moscow’s interests in the region. She successfully strikes the balance between contextualizing Russia’s contemporary policy in history, without going to the extreme, as other books do, of making Russia a victim of some historical predestination.

“Putin’s War in Syria” goes beyond the simple, surface-level analysis for Russia’s intervention, merely that it was to prop up the Assad regime and thumb Moscow’s nose at the United States and President Obama. To be sure, as Borshchevskaya shows, these were certainly driving factors, but there are other, complex factors at play in both the motivation of the intervention and its execution. This is where Borshchevskaya shines.

A chief consideration of the Syria intervention, as Borshchevskaya describes, Russia’s entry into the conflict sought to seize upon the void created by the United States and to portray Moscow as a both a global power and, at the same time, peacemaker. That Russia was both fanning the flames it was supposedly attempting to put out—an arsonist wielding a fire extinguisher—is apparently lost on the Kremlin’s propagandists. Syria provided a strategic opportunity for Russia to extend its geopolitical reach at the expense of Washington, and further its reach across the Middle East. Borshchevskaya describes how Moscow cooperated with Damascus and Tehran, using the latter to do much of the heavy-lifting on-the-ground, while competing and cooperating with other regional powers all at once.

Borshchevskaya details the torturous political negotiations that sought to resolve the conflict and Moscow’s role in these discussions. Joby Warrick’s “Red Line” explores the crisis over Syria’s chemical weapons, for which Russia kindly provided Assad a diplomatic escape route. She notes, interestingly, that Russia will often stick to the letter-of-the-law or agreement, but not the spirit. By way of example, according to Borshchevskaya, the U.S. and Russia established a de-confliction process to ensure that their forces would not engage one another. In one incident, the Russians identified ISIS fighters near the front, informed the U.S. of the pending strike via the agreed upon process, and struck the target. Yet, it was not ISIS, but allied Syrian forces. Separately, according to reports, the United States sought to use this de-confliction mechanism multiple times when Russian private military forces engaged U.S. special operations troops in Syria, an engagement in which upwards of 300 Russian fighters were killed.

That Russia seeks to portray itself as a partner to the region, notably one that will not judge the internal dynamics—or repression—of the nation-states in the Middle East is an important point to note. With Moscow, there are no value judgements, and, at a time when successive White House administrations seem inclined to extricate themselves from the region, the Kremlin is positioning itself as a long-term partner diplomatically, militarily, and economically.

Militarily, Russia’s presence in Syria certainly supports Assad against the rebels, but it is also an opportunity to get real-world operational experience for the Russian military—the first since the war with Georgia in 2008. Granted, this experience is largely limited to air strikes against insurgent forces, which has limited utility against a near-peer or peer adversary. Nonetheless, this battlefield experience stress-tests operational procedures, simulates wartime conditions, and allows the Russian military invaluable training experience that cannot be replicated in a wargame. Communications, surveillance, air-to-ground and ground-to-air coordination, close air support, intelligence coordination, electronic warfare, and more, are all worked through while dropping real munitions on real targets. The legacy of this military involvement is an experienced force that will have utility in Ukraine, the Baltics, or other operational theatres.

Russia has also taken advantage of the deployment to field new weapons systems for the dual purpose of increasing its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, denying the United States potential dominance of those strategic waterways, but also to demonstrate its wares. It is often forgotten that Russia remains the world’s second-largest weapons exporter, behind the United States, and real-world battlefield conditions present a unique opportunity to show potential customers the efficacy of various systems. Yet, in the case of the former, it is of particular long-term interest to the United States and NATO that Russia now has a notable presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, one that could complicate Western operations in the region and the Middle East writ large.  

The domestic angle is one of Borshchevskaya’s strongest sections as she both places the conflict within the context of Russia’s politics, but also its historical memory, not the least of which was informed by Afghanistan. The Kremlin portrays Russia’s intervention—at the formal request of the Assad regime, marking it as distinctly different from American interventions—as necessary to stop terrorism (not the least of which was fomented by the United States) and support a regional ally. Here, Putin often uses foreign adventures as a means of portraying Russian strength, particularly against an “aggressive” west, and to show that the country remains a great power. It is a function of look at what the left hand is doing, but ignore the fact that the right hand is doing little for the average Russian. That the Kremlin is able to do this is due in no small part to the limited footprint, low (if negligible) casualties, and limited aims of the intervention—all lessons learned from Afghanistan.

Thus far Russia has avoided the failures of Afghanistan in Syria. It is far from a “quagmire” as Obama suggested, yet the future of both Moscow’s relationship with Damascus and the Kremlin’s engagement remains to be seen. There is no Marshall Plan equivalent from Putin for Syria and it is highly doubtful there ever will be one. Yet, so long as the Syria does not descend into Afghanistan-esque levels of cost, casualty, and diplomatic damage, one imagines, as Borshchevskaya shows, that the Kremlin can sustain its engagement. Indeed, the long-term benefits to Russia are quite clear—the West can ill-afford to ignore Russia in Europe and it can certainly ill-afford to ignore Moscow’s reach into the Middle East and further afield.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.