Oct 2nd 2015

Why Putin gambled on airstrikes in Syria – and what might come next

by Scott Lucas

Professor of International Politics at University of Birmingham

For those watching closely, the signal for Russia’s first airstrikes came in a statement early on September 30 by Kremlin spokesman Sergei Ivanov, just after the upper house of the parliament authorised military operations:

To observe international law, one of two conditions has to be met – either a UN Security Council resolution or a request by a country, on the territory of which an airstrike is delivered, about military assistance.

In this respect, I want to inform you that the president of the Syrian Arab Republic has addressed the leadership of our country with a request of military assistance.

Within hours, witnesses were reporting that Russian jet fighters were bombing parts of Hama and Homs Provinces in western Syria. Activists said scores of people – almost all civilians – had been killed, disseminating videos and photographs of slain or injured children.

Putin called the airstrikes a “pre-emptive” operation against the Islamic State – the official reason for Moscow’s military escalation inside Syria. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said that “rumours that the targets of these strikes were not IS positions were groundless". The defence ministry, reporting 20 sorties on eight sites, released video of a supposed attack on an Islamic State headquarters.

But even before the Russian leaders set out their line, witnesses and analysts had confirmed – through videos and geolocation as well as testimony – the real story of Moscow’s gamble: all but one of the targets were areas held by the opposition to Syria’s Assad regime, rather than by the Islamic State’s militants.

Of course, Putin and Lavrov probably knew that their obfuscation would soon be exposed. It was all part of a high-stakes bet that with brazen propaganda, political manoeuvres and airstrikes, Russia can save Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, from a likely downfall.

Putin’s gamble

Only six weeks before these strikes began, Russia’s efforts to save Assad were floundering. Working with Iran, Moscow had hoped to convince foreign powers to let Assad stay in power during a political “transition”. The US had appeared receptive, and John Kerry discussed the possibility with Lavrov in early August.

But the Saudi foreign minister torpedoed the initiative, humiliating Lavrov at a press conference after their meeting in Moscow by insisting Assad relinquish power before any negotiations begin.

The Saudis' rejection only deepened Assad’s plight. His weakened army, which lacks serious manpower and remains isolated in parts of Syria, has suffered a series of major defeats since the start of 2015.

Syria’s assorted non-Islamic State rebels had taken much of north-west Syria, including almost all of Idlib Province, so the opposition could establish an alternative government. These rebel blocs had also advanced across the south, along the Jordanian border, while Kurdish militia and the Islamic State held most of the north-east of the country.

Combined with the tanking Syrian economy, the shifting military position raised the prospect that Assad would finally step down – or even that his government would completely collapse. The Syrian air force managed to avert a total defeat, but even this could not stop the rebels capturing government military bases over the summer.

Assessing the situation, a cautious leader might have pulled back from the financial, material and reputational costs of backing Assad. But Vladimir Putin is not a cautious man: when confronted with weakness, whether his own or others', he clearly prefers to prove his strength with aggressive diplomatic and military moves.

And so Russia laid a different path. Starting in mid-August, Moscow began building up its military position in western Syria.

Plan B

Russia expanded an airbase in Latakia Province, bringing in 34 jet fighters, about two dozen attack and transport helicopters, a strategic airlifter, and drones. Russia’s ships brought in advanced battlefield armoured vehicles and weapons. Several hundred additional troops were deployed as “advisers” to Assad’s militia, not only in Latakia and Tartous provinces on the Mediterranean, but also near the front-lines in Hama and Homs provinces.

Moscow’s initial denials of an escalation were just show. The message to the US and its partners was still clear: accept the political talks, with Assad retaining power during the negotiations, or there will be military operations.

The ploy was mostly successful. Russia made the campaign palatable with the pretext that its forces were being positioned against Islamic State, allowing the US to replace its opposition with the acceptance of discussions for an “anti-IS” coalition. Britain and Germany agreed that Assad could stay pending a transition, paving the way for the US secretary of state, John Kerry, to say that the Syrian leader did not have to depart on “day one or month one” of a transitional period.

The Saudis, however, would not budge. As their foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, repeated: “There is no future for Assad in Syria … One option is a political process where there would be a transitional council. The other option is a military option, which also would end with the removal of Bashar al-Assad from power.” 

Russia, which had already carried out drone surveillance to scout targets, then played another card with its airstrikes. Putin, who had proposed a grand “anti-Hitler” coalition in his UN General Assembly speech on September 28, effectively told the world to either join him or stand back as he bombs Syria and props up Assad’s military.

Initially, US officials such as Kerry and defence secretary, Ashton Carter, complained that Washington had been treated rudely, with only one hour’s notice of the Russian operations, and that it appeared Islamic State had not been targeted. But by late afternoon on September 30, their objections were easing.

After a meeting with Lavrov, Kerry put the emphasis on “deconflicting” to prevent an accidental US-Russian clash.

Trouble ahead

The initial success of Putin’s gamble does not guarantee a long-term pay-off. No display of military strength can in itself deal with threats and crises, both inside Syria and in Russia.

Moscow’s warplanes can help the Syrian military keep a hold on its vital defence line, which runs from the Mediterranean to Homs and then to Damascus. But just as the Syrian Air Force has not been able to help Assad’s ground forces reclaim lost territory, Russia’s jet fighters cannot wage a front-line battle against the rebels.

With no prospect of a revitalised Syrian Army, Putin is left with two unpalatable options: to either deploy Russian troops on the battlefield or accept the de facto partition of Syria – allowing the rebels to hold their positions in north-west and southern Syria.

Meanwhile, Putin still has to face down a crisis in the Russian economy: there are difficulties with investment and production, the rouble is in perpetual trouble, prices for oil exports are falling, and international sanctions imposed during the Ukraine affair are biting hard.

The Kremlin has already embarked on a series of anti-crisis measures – and Putin has so far defied the economic difficulties, arguably trying to divert attention from them through Russia’s aggressive approach to Ukraine. But with the Syrian push, he is adding yet another expenditure to the government’s overloaded books. While many Russians are so far sympathetic, with the Orthodox Church giving its blessing to the airstrikes, popular support could dissolve if there’s no quick resolution and the costs continue to stack up.

With the US so far declining to raise a ruckus against Moscow, Putin can hope that Saudi Arabia finally gives way and joins the Americans and the Europeans to support Assad on a temporary basis. If that happens, Putin will have won his bet. But if the Saudis remain intransigent and the Americans' mood turns sour, his losses could be dire indeed.


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Scott Lucas became Professor of International Politics in 2014, having been on the staff of the University of Birmingham since 1989 and a Professor of American Studies since 1997.

He began his career as a specialist in US and British foreign policy, but his research interests now also cover current international affairs --- especially North Africa, the Middle East, and Iran --- New Media, and Intelligence Services.

A professional journalist since 1979, Professor Lucas is the founder and editor of EA WorldView, a leading website in daily news and analysis of Iran, Turkey, Syria, and the wider Middle East, as well as US foreign policy.

Scott Lucas has written and edited 12 books including Divided We Stand: Britain, the US and the Suez Crisis; Freedom’s War: The US Crusade Against the Soviet Union, 1945-56; George Orwell: Life and Times; The Betrayal of Dissent: Beyond Orwell, Hitchens, and the New American Century; Trials of Engagement: The Future of US Public Diplomacy; and Challenging US Foreign Policy: America and the World in the Long Twentieth Century  and published more than 50 major academics articles.


To follow what's new on Facts & Arts, please click here.




  

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Feb 18th 2020
Extract: "In late 2019, Zogby Research Services (ZRS) once again had the opportunity to poll public opinion across the Middle East and North Africa about many of these issues that are of such critical concern to the region and its peoples..............One of the more intriguing results in our 2019 survey were the changes in Arab views toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Most Arabs still blame the US and Israel for the absence of peace and have little confidence that the conflict can be resolved in the near future. Maybe as a result of this despair, this issue now ranks low as an Arab priority. Also noteworthy is the fact that majorities in most Arab countries now say that normalization with Israel, which they acknowledge is already happening, may be a good thing. This development shouldn’t be overstated, however, since there is still no love for Israel. It appears, from our survey, to be born of frustration, weariness with Palestinians being victims of war, and the possibility that normalization might bring some economic benefits and could give Arabs leverage to press Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians."
Feb 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Global dissatisfaction with democracy has increased over the past 25 years, according to our recent report. Drawing upon the HUMAN Surveys project, the report covered 154 countries, with 77 countries covered continuously for the period from 1995 to 2020. These samples were possible thanks to the combination of data from over 25 sources, 3,500 national surveys, and 4 million respondents. Not surprisingly, the gloomy headline finding – rising democratic dissatisfaction – attracted the most attention. Less widely discussed, however, is the “good news” – that a small sample of countries has bucked the trend, and have record high levels of satisfaction with their democracies."
Feb 14th 2020
EXTRACT: "This is how dictatorships begin. As the US prepares for its next presidential election in November, it is every citizen’s responsibility rationally to examine Trump’s dictatorial impulses, which reelection would only reinforce. It is not safe to assume that he won’t go too far, or that he is too much of a “mediocrity” – as Leon Trotsky called Stalin (an assessment with which many Bolsheviks agreed) – to transform his country......Vladimir Lenin, himself a ruthless Bolshevik, wrote in 1922 that, “Stalin concentrated in his hands enormous power, which he won’t be able to use responsibly,” owing to traits like rudeness, intolerance, and capriciousness. Trump has all of them in spades. The more power he concentrates in his own hands, the dimmer the long-term outlook for American democracy becomes. His reelection could mean lights out."
Feb 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Does this mean that the dream of European unity is over? Does the exodus of a member state obliterate the vision of Victor Hugo and Václav Havel? Does Europe now fit the description of what the great American president Abraham Lincoln called a house divided against itself? Not necessarily. History is more imaginative than we are. The EU still has the option of keeping Britain close in heart and mind. We can still benefit from our absent partner, by resurrecting the partnership through our actions."
Feb 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "There, no formal change from a republican system to an autocratic system ever occurred. Rather, there was an erosion of the republican institutions, a steady creep over decades of authoritarian decision-making, and the consolidation of power within one individual – all with the name “Republic” preserved.........Will the GOP-led Senate’s endorsement of this defense clear a path for more of the manifestations – and consequences – of authoritarianism? The case of the Roman Republic’s rapid slippage into an autocratic regime masquerading as a republic shows how easily that transformation can occur."
Feb 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "So all that is why Cramer is talking about the death knell of petroleum stocks. We probably agree on almost nothing else, but when people are right, you have to give them credit. He is right."
Feb 3rd 2020
EXTRACT: "........as the citizens of the remaining 27 states have observed the destabilising impact that the referendum decision has had on British politics, they have been inoculated against the desire to secede from the EU. Outside the UK, national-populist parties have moderated their anti-EU rhetoric and nowadays profess to want to change the EU from within instead of destroying it."
Feb 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Senators will soon decide whether to dismiss the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump without hearing any witnesses. In making this decision, I believe they should consider words spoken at the Constitutional Convention, when the Founders decided that an impeachment process was needed to provide a “regular examination,” to quote Benjamin Franklin. A critical debate took place on July 20, 1787, which resulted in adding the impeachment clause to the U.S. Constitution. Franklin, the oldest and probably wisest delegate at the Constitutional Convention, said that when the president falls under suspicion, a “regular and peaceable inquiry” is needed."
Feb 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Britain will be celebrating its glorious independence from the complications of international cooperation at a time when the intellectual, political, and economic hostility between China’s communist leadership and liberal democracies is becoming ever clearer. If liberal democracy is to survive, it must stand up for itself. And we should be under no illusion: open societies under the rule of law, from the Americas to Europe, Africa, and Asia, are in China’s hostile sights. The West should not aim to encircle or pen in China. But liberal democracies cannot allow it to distort international norms in its own favor."
Jan 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Switzerland and Denmark have gone furthest into negative territory, both offering unprecedentedly low rates of -0.75%. The Swiss National Bank, which has kept its rate at this level since 2015, signalled recently that it intends to stick with this experiment and is not ruling out going even more negative. It has said that negative rates were boosting the economy and that the country’s fundamentals were not being significantly affected."
Jan 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "Electricity will dominate the future global energy system. Currently, it accounts for only 20% of final energy demand,......Without assuming any fundamental technological breakthroughs, we could certainly build by 2050 a global economy in which electricity met 65-70% of final energy demand,....."
Jan 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "With the world economy operating dangerously close to stall speed, the confluence of ever-present shocks and a sharply diminished trade cushion raises serious questions about financial markets’ increasingly optimistic view of global economic prospects."
Jan 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "Gibson’s diagnosis is supported by international attitude surveys. One found that most Americans rarely think about the future and only a few think about the distant future. When they are forced to think about it, they don’t like what they see. Another poll by the Pew Research Centre found that 44% of Americans were pessimistic about what lies ahead. But pessimism about the future isn’t just limited to the US. One international poll of over 400,000 people from 26 countries found that people in developed countries tended to think that the lives of today’s children will be worse than their own. And a 2015 international survey by YouGov found that people in developed countries were particularly pessimistic. For instance, only 4% of people in Britain thought things were improving. This contrasted with 41% of Chinese people who thought things were getting better."
Jan 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "........while over 80% of the ECB scheme buys government and other public sector bonds, a huge chunk still goes into corporate bonds and other assets. At the time of writing, the ECB holds €263 billion worth of corporate bonds – a very significant amount in relation to individual firms and the sectors in question. According to the ECB, 29% of these bonds were issued by French firms, 25% by German firms and 11% each by Spanish and Italian firms. As at September 2017, the sectors they came from included utilities (16%), infrastructure (12%), automotive (10%) and energy (7%)."
Jan 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "Thanks to cutting-edge digital technology, cars are increasingly like “smartphones on wheels”, so manufacturers need to have access to the latest patented 4G and 5G technologies essential to navigation and communications. But often the companies that hold the patents are reluctant to license them because manufacturers will not accept the high fees involved, which leads to patent disputes and licensing rows."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Recent polling from Pew Research demonstrates how the public’s attitudes toward the US and President Trump have witnessed sharp declines in many nations across the world. In Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East favorable attitudes toward the US went from lows during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency to highs in the early Obama years to lows, once again, in the Trump era. And in our Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling we found, with a few exceptions, much the same trajectory across the Middle East."
Jan 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "In the absence of a declaration of war against Iran, the killing of a foreign official – by a drone strike on Iraqi territory – was possibly illegal. But such niceties do not perturb Trump. The evidence is that Trump’s decision was taken without consideration of the possible consequences. The national security system established under Dwight D. Eisenhower, designed to prevent such reckless measures, is broken to non-existent, with ever-greater power placed in the hands of the president. If that president is unstable, the entire world has a very serious problem."
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "It is possible that Trump’s reverential base won’t be sufficient to keep him in the White House past 2020. But such ardent faith is hard to oppose with rational plans to fix this or that problem. That is why it is so unsettling to hear people at the top of the US government speak about politics in terms that rightly belong in church. They are challenging the founding principles of the American Republic, and they might actually win as a result."
Jan 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "If anything has become clear in our recent Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling in Iraq, is that most Iraqis are tired of their country being used as a playground for regional conflict, especially the conflict between the US and Iran. In fact, our polling has shown Iraqis increasingly upset with the role played by both the US and Iran in their country. Majorities see both of these countries as having been the major beneficiaries of the wars that have ravaged their nation since the US invaded in 2003. "