Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is working to create an alternative anti-ISIS alliance that includes Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime in a direct challenge to the U.S.-led coalition currently active against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. He floated the idea in a speech on September 15 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan at the 2015 summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the post-Soviet military alliance led by Russia. Putin has also discussed sending troops to advise and provide logistical support along Tajikistan’s southern border, as the ISIS affiliated Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) operates in Afghanistan’s neighboring Kunduz Province.
Russia’s deployment to Syria — its largest outside the former Soviet Union in two decades — has included advanced fighter jets, antiaircraft missile systems, tanks, and armored-personnel carriers.
But much of the Russian weaponry has been positioned — officially anyway — at the Latakia air base in western Syria.
Russia first launched air strikes to support President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s four-year civil war on September 30, but has repeatedly stated it has no intention of launching a ground offensive.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refused to comment on the CIT finding, the latest to leave the Kremlin squirming.
The Kremlin also recently announced the deployment of paratroopers to Egypt to participate in a major counter-terrorism exercise. Putin’s comments at the CSTO summit were likely a preview of his upcoming speech at the UN General Assembly on September 28.
RUSSIA’S OBJECTIVES IN SYRIA
The Russian deployment to Syria likely supports multiple objectives. It enables Russia to pursue the limited objective of securing its military interests on the Syrian Coast, where the port of Tartus is Russia’s only remaining Middle East base and where many dual Russian-Syrian citizens live.
The deployment of Russian military forces to Syria more importantly provides timely support to the wavering Syrian regime that may preserve Russia’s only Arab ally. Russia views the Syrian regime as the only realistic bulwark against the expansion of ISIS and other militant groups in the Middle East. The Syrian regime has lost control of significant terrain near the Alawite-majority regions of Latakia and Hama provinces.
Rebel forces led by Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) seized Idlib City in northwestern Syria in March 2015 and expelled the Syrian regime from all but one of its remaining positions in Idlib Province by early September 2015. These advances placed anti-regime forces in position to launch offensives into the heartland of the Syrian regime in Alawite-majority regions of Latakia and Hama Provinces. These setbacks for Syrian regime forces on the ground reflected deeper structural problems. The Syrian Arab Army continues to suffer from persistent shortages of manpower due to overstretch, attrition, and endemic draft evasion that have increasingly led the regime to rely upon fighters from Iranian proxy groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah.
Regime forces are stretched by the dispersed military posture demanded by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s determination to maintain his claim as the legitimate ruler over ‘all corners’ of Syria. Concerns regarding recent rebel advances fueled a rare wave of public demonstrations against Assad among pro-regime civilians in Damascus, Homs, Hama, and the Syrian Coast, expressing wider discontent regarding the failures of the regime’s military strategy. These conditions have called into question the regime’s ability to defend its core terrain – and therefore its long-term survivability.
The risk of uncontrolled regime collapse may thus have prompted Russia to provide the Syrian regime with increased capability in order either to defend against future offensives by Jabhat al-Nusra and rebel forces targeting Latakia and Homs Provinces, or to conduct counter-offensives that preclude those operations. The deployment also serves Russia’s geopolitical objective of building military capability on the Mediterranean Sea that can withstand the collapse of the Syrian regime or its removal through a political transition process.
The mobilization of Russia forces alongside the Syrian regime in an ostensible “anti-terrorism” campaign places complex pressures on the existing U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. Russian calls for cooperation in a broad new anti-ISIS coalition which includes Iran and the Syrian regime may gain additional traction with Russian forces on the ground, particularly if Russian aircraft begin flying sorties against ISIS. The Russian mobilization may be aimed at precluding expanded U.S. action against the Assad regime.
The July 2015 agreement between the U.S. and Turkey granting the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition access to Turkish airbases, incorporating the Turkish Air Force into coalition air tasking orders, and providing for the formation of an “ISIS-free” zone controlled by moderate rebel forces along the Turkish border likely also helped prompt the Russian deployments. Putin may seek to thwart cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey in order to end the prospect of a “safe zone” in northern Syria that could serve as a haven for rebel forces fighting the Syrian regime. Iranian leaders have repeatedly condemned the idea of such a safe-zone as violating the sovereignty of the Syrian state.
RUSSIA AND THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR
The Russian deployment to Syria also bolsters Putin’s leverage over a renewed push for negotiations towards a political solution to the Syrian Civil War, finally. The conclusion of the Iranian nuclear accord on July 14 generated a surge of diplomatic activity aimed at ending the conflict, including a trilateral meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Qatar on August 3. These efforts have provided Russia with a forum to protect its interests in Syria and promote its image as a responsible international actor to recover from the damage it caused itself by the crypto-invasion of Ukraine.
European nations, pressured by a mounting refugee crisis driven in part by the Syrian Civil War, have already moved into closer alignment with the Russian position regarding the Syrian regime in recent weeks. Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz stated on September 8 that the international community needs to adopt a “pragmatic approach” that incorporates the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad into the fight against ISIS. The next day, British Foreign Minister Philip Hammond announced that President Assad could remain in his position for up to six months in any transition agreement.
Russia has also forged a “common position” on the conflict in order to strengthen its ability to dictate a favorable end state in Syria. The announcement on September 15 that Iran will soon enter the “operational phase” of its political plan to end the Syrian Civil War following close consultation with Russia suggests that the Russian deployment may have been coordinated with Iran in order to achieve maximum political effect on the U.S. and its allies.15 This coordination may have been one of the main purposes of Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani’s visit to Moscow.