Early September brought the news that the Russians were deploying military forces to Bassel al-Assad International Airport near Latakia on the Syrian coast. The Aviationist website recently reproduced satellite imagery showing twenty-eight combat aircraft, including four Sukhoi Su-30SM multirole (air-to-air and ground interdiction) fighters, twelve Sukhoi Su-25 attack planes, and twelve Sukhoi Su-24 attack planes. In addition, the Russians have deployed fifteen helicopters, nine tanks, three missile batteries, cargo planes, refueling aircraft, and about five hundred soldiers to the same airfield. The Obama administration has not said much about the deployment, only that it was seeking clarification from Moscow. Pentagon officials were generally mum last Friday after Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, saying only that they are watching the situation closely. The administration’s critics and supporters have responded to these developments in ways one might expect—howling criticism or over rationalization justifying why the presence of Russian forces in Syria is actually no big deal. They both have it wrong, though. Of course, the Russian buildup is a very big deal and marks a new, even more complicated and potentially dangerous phase in the Syrian conflict, but that is precisely why we should welcome it.
Over the weekend I heard former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband explain that the Russian deployment was a function of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s weakness, of which Moscow has become all too aware. Under these circumstances the deployment should be seen as an elaborate Russian maneuver to improve its negotiating position in the inevitable diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis, which, while not including Assad himself, will have to include “regime elements.” In Miliband’s estimation the Russians are ready to dump Assad in return for American flexibility on the nature of the post-Assad ruling coalition.
Miliband is hardly an outlier. I have heard or read variations of these claims on any number of occasions, and each time they ring hollow. They are interesting reflections of what we think the Russians would be doing if the Russians were us. It reminds me of late February 2014 when all the smart kids were saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not be so stupid as to take over Crimea and that he merely sought to pressure and manipulate Ukraine from the outside. Those might be things that we would do, but they were never part of Putin’s playbook. Even as that big, creepy, crying bear was being pushed around the closing ceremony of the Sochi Olympics and I was being told that the Russians were full of bluster and not much else, they were gassing up the tanks. More directly, Moscow has been fairly clear about its intentions in Syria, no? According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s growing military presence in Syria is intended to combat the self-declared Islamic State and defend the Syrian state. Two caveats are in order here. First the Russians could be lying, but they really have no reason to dissimulate, confident that the United States is going to accept the Kremlin’s fait accompli just as it has in Ukraine. Second, Miliband may be correct; Russian statements have referred specifically to the “Syrian state” and not the Assad regime, which Kremlinologists of yore might interpret as an implicit nod to the confluence of Russian and American interest in a unitary Syrian polity. We’ll see.
All this is a long wind up to the idea that while the West should not exactly learn to love Russia’s intervention in Syria, the United States, Europeans, and the Gulf states might actually come to like it. Moscow may think it is somehow calling Washington’s bluff in the fight against the Islamic State, but folks should separate out the Russian bluster and the political posturing of Obama administration opponents and supporters on Twitter and consider the serious implications of the Kremlin’s move. The Russians just put themselves squarely in the middle of an extremely nasty, brutish civil war featuring a grab bag of extremist groups that includes the Islamic State, which would likely love to take a shot at the Russian military. If the reports of large numbers of Chechens filling the ranks of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s forces are accurate, it is payback time. Those jihadists are arrayed against Moscow’s allies, a nefarious group that includes Hezbollah, Assad’s militias, what is left of the Syrian military, and agents of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. If the risks to the Russians in this environment are not clear, they should be. They are no longer an indirect party to the conflict, they have a huge target on their backs, and they are going to have a serious fight on their hands that does not seem to favor Russian forces. Sure, Syria in 2015 is not Afghanistan in 1979, and one would think that the Russians have learned lessons from their painful past, but Putin seems to have drawn all the wrong lessons from the late Soviet period.
This is not to suggest that Washington should continue to wash its hands of Syria. There seems little chance that the Obama administration or the next one will commit (beyond general rhetoric) the United States to bringing about the end of the Assad regime, but they should do everything to help the refugees fleeing Syria’s hellish conflict. There seems to be no reason to match the Russians militarily there, however. Everything in foreign relations is linked, and it is precisely because Russia is a major strategic threat and because of the Kremlin’s adventurism in Ukraine, which threatens NATO allies like Poland and the Baltic states, that I welcome Moscow’s coming entanglement in Syria. Let Putin bleed.