Afghanistan is known as “the graveyard of empires.” Russia learned this to be true due to the Soviet–Afghan War when its extended campaign in Afghanistan helped bankrupt the Soviet Union. Although US operations in Afghanistan suffered thanks to the Iraq War, Iraq proved to be the battleground that overwhelmed the US military. In many respects, it was America’s second Vietnam.
As Russia charges into Syria in defense of the Assad regime, Syria could quickly become Russia’s second Afghanistan. Prior to the Iraq War, few would have believed the US military would have so much difficulty stabilizing such a small nation. Similarly, there are those who will find it hard to believe the Russian military will be exhausted by its fight to secure the Assad regime.
Aside from the strain of its involvement in the Ukraine Crisis and its current recession, Russia is entering a war where the population is fighting against its ally, i.e. the Assad regime, while regional powers are also seeking the removal of its ally. Unlike the US entering Iraq, Russia is entering a mature conflict by choice in a weakened state. The scenario is even worse than the one faced when the US decided to enter the Vietnam War.
The reason United States had so much difficulty in Iraq and Vietnam is that America was fighting a ground war against insurgents. The US stayed and allowed itself to be bogged down, because it was trying to nation build, which requires defending a territory. Although it is highly unlikely that Russia plans to nation build, it is likely that Russia will attempt to avoid a ground war by engaging in a campaign of airstrikes.
Unfortunately for Russia and the Assad regime, the goal of US-led airstrikes is to provide air support for ground forces actually fighting the Islamic State, i.e. airstrikes alone cannot defeat insurgents. While Russia’s campaign will be far more intense, Assad has already demonstrated the shortcomings of airstrikes. Russian airstrikes will not be able more successful that US airstrikes.
Consequently, Russia will be forced to either engage in a ground campaign or eventually allow the Assad regime to be overrun. If this happens, Russia’s support of Assad will make it impossible for Russia to play a constructive role in the future of Syria, even if it establishes a military foothold. What appears likely is that Russia will initially rely on Iran and Hezbollah for additional ground forces.
It is, therefore, important to recognize the Islamic State has tens of thousands of fighters in Syria and Iraq, while anti-insurgent campaigns require, at least, ten times the number of troops to suppress establish and maintain security. Russia is unlikely to muster anywhere near the magnitude of ground forces needed to suppress the insurgents, especially since Russia will have to fight pro-Western forces to defend the Assad regime.
The truth is that Russia cannot defend the Assad regime. If they try to do so by indiscriminately bombing the general population as Assad has done and attack pro-Western forces, Putin and his military leadership will turn themselves into proven war criminal, thus making it impossible for Russia to resolve its grievances with the West under the current leadership.
It will also make it impossible for Russia, the Assad regime, and Iran to cooperate with other Middle Eastern powers. In addition, Putin will bankrupt Russia. For Iran, this scenario will undermine the benefits of the Iranian Nuclear Deal. At best, Iran can hope to see the release of billions in Iranian oil money before the Iranian Nuclear Deal collapses, which may well be the reason Russia is will and able to provide military assistance to Iran and Syria.
That said, even if Putin and Assad are willing to accept the consequences, their efforts will only lead to a protracted era of violence, not victory.
Finally, initial Russian and Iranian military assistance for the Assad regime helped reverse gains by Syrian rebels, but it also forced the US and other powers to start arming rebels. It is, therefore, a logical concern that Russia’s military presence in Syria will lead to a NATO presence in Syria.
Western and Middle Eastern leaders should, however, resist political pressure to deploy ground forces into Syria. Doing so will only increase the risk of direct conflict between NATO and Russian forces while Russia’s military presence in Syria will weaken Russia to the advantage of NATO allies. In turn, a weakened Russia will be less of a threat to the International Community. Western powers should find another ways of responding to Russia’s presence in Syria.
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