Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory over the Islamic State, as well as others the Assad regime considers terrorists, during a surprise visit to a Russian military base in Syria on December 11th, 2017. Although Russian forces appear to be reducing their involvement in the Syrian Civil War, Russia does not have any plans to withdraw from Syria. More importantly, the Russian victory is incomplete as the nature of the Islamic State threat has simply been transformed into that of a guerrilla war while Assad has yet to reassert and solidify control over the bulk of the Syrian territory. The nature and objective of Russia’s intervention is, therefore, transforming.
If Putin’s plans for Syria, which may have been put on the back burner due to Russian elections, hinge on the stability of Syria, Russia may well be embarking on a very lengthy, costly, and bloody war effort as the US did in Iraq. On the other hand, Russia may well only be using Syria as a platform to assert greater influence over the Middle East. In which case, Syria would not have to be stabilized. Russia would simply have to secure the territories surrounding its militarily bases. This strategy would give Russia greater influence over the world’s supply of petroleum and irritate those viewing Russian influence through a Cold War era lens.
The Ukraine Crisis helped reignite the Cold War competition between the US and Russia, which helped motivate Putin’s intervention in Syria. One persistent theme has been the Russian military’s use of close encounters to test boundaries and agitate competitors. The interception of two Russian Su-25 jets that crossed the “de-confliction line” in Syria by US F-22 fighters serves as a bold example. It demonstrates the willingness of Russia to risk a military incident in order to test the resolve of its competitors. What it also does is allow Russia to assert its influence by demonstrating what its competitors are willing to tolerate and the limits of their responses.
That said, Russian influence matters, but not as much as it once did. In terms of economics, Westerners do not want Russia uniting with OPAC members, because their combined influence on the oil markets would be costly to consumers. In terms of military might and diplomatic clout, growing Russian influence in the Middle East is a low priority threat. After all, Middle Eastern powers have a habit of using the might of military powers to accomplish their strategic goals then discarding them when it is most convenient. Middle Eastern powers will either use Russia to advance their own standing, e.g. Iran, or use the perceived threat of growing Russian influence to elicit greater US support, e.g. Iraq, Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.
Complicating Russia’s calculations is the presence of US forces in Syria. In many respects, Russia needs US forces to help stabilize Syria, but Russia also hopes to bog down US forces in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan by raising alarms over growing Russian influence throughout the Middle East. It is the same approach Iran used against the US during the reconstruction of Iraq. If Russia can draw the US into a protracted military campaign against terrorists in Syria, Iraq, and Iran, the US will help defeat threats against Russia’s allies, safeguard Russian forces, and weaken the US military’s ability to respond on a global scale, which is where Russia truly hopes to regain influence.
With that in mind, US President President Donald Trump has also tried to take credit for dislodging the Islamic State from the large swaths of territories it seized, but the simple truth is that the Russian-back military campaign likely contributed more to the down fall of the Islamic State than any other military effort. Since the transition from the Obama Administration to the Trump Administration, US military commanders have had greater freedom to engage targets. Russia’s heavy-handed and indiscriminate approach has been very effective in terms of forcing the Islamic State to abandon its control over territory. Russia success has, however, come at a grave cost.
Destroying people’s homes and killing their loved-ones tends to make people hate those responsible. When the US would destroy village or house to eliminate Al Qaeda, it became more of a threat than Al Qaeda to the Peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan, which hurt the war effort and US influence. The same is true of Russia in Syria. Because the Middle East is globalizing and democratizing, the sentiments of the Syrian People have regional ramifications. If the Trump Administration decides to compete over influence in the Middle East by further entangling the US in the Syrian Civil War and continues to adopt the indiscriminate, heavy handed approach of Russia, the US will also make itself an enemy to the Syrian People and undermine long-term US regional influence, which is what Russia has done.
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