Russian forces were successfully pulled into the Syrian Civil War in September of 2015 by the Assad regime, which desperately needed brute Russian force to repel rebel attacks. Instead of seizing upon the opportunity to broker a peace agreement between rival political factions and transition away from the no-longer viable Assad regime, Russian President Vladimir Putin has continually bolstered his efforts to prop up the Assad regime. Not only has Putin overcommitted Russian forces to intervene in Syria’s domestic affairs, he has imperiled Russia’s broader national security interests by transforming the conflict into a multilayered proxy war.
Although civil discontent against the unresponsive governance of Syria and the Assad regime’s violent crackdown on dissenters sparked the Syrian Civil War, the conflict has long been fueled by external interference on behalf of regional revivals that hope to further their own agendas. Where Iran and Hezbollah attempted to save the Assad regime from a strong rebellion at the onset of the conflict, the opponents of Assad responded by arming rebels. While it been widely been painted as proxy war between the US and Russia, as well as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Syrian Civil War is now largely a proxy war between former-Assad friend Turkey and Russia.
The Islamic State is the goal of international intervention in the Syrian Civil War, but it cannot be achieved as long as the far more devastating struggle over the Assad regime goes unresolved. With that in mind, Turkish-Russian relations soured in 2015 after Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft for violating Turkish airspace. With Operation Euphrates Shield in full swing and evolving, Turkish units are wading deeper into Syrian territory in support of Free Syrian Army forces. Given Russia’s stubborn commitment to the Assad regime, and subsequent targeting of all Assad’s enemies, including Western-backed rebels, NATO ally Turkey and Russia are on opposites sides of the conflict in Syria, thus making Russia and NATO enemies in the Syrian Civil War.
Because Putin is choosing to escalate the Russian air campaign against all of Assad’s enemies, the most pressing threat to Western-backed rebels is Russian airpower, which means it is only a matter of time before rebel requests to be armed with anti-aircraft missions are granted by some party. At that point, Russia will either have to agree to a no-fly zone over rebel held territory or Russian jets will be shot down. As anti-aircraft missiles might be used against US-, Saudi-led Coalition jets, there is always a risk of friendly fire. This might force Coalition members to curtail missions against the Islamic State. Alternatively, Turkish forces might move to protect rebel factions against Russian bombardments, which could easily force a NATO-Russian confrontation.
On the surface, an end to Coalition airstrikes could be misconstrued as beneficial to the Assad regime. After all, Coalition airstrikes have allowed rebel groups to withstand attacks from the Islamic State. Free of counterbalancing Coalition airstrikes, Russian airstrikes could be used to push and corral Islamic State fighter into rebel held territory where the groups would be forced to eliminate each other. The problem for Russia is that it cannot secure Syria from insurgents without ground forces nor can it subdue armed factions without US-, Saudi-led Coalition help especially as Russian bombardment become less effective with rebel factions scattering and embracing guerilla warfare. Russia certainly cannot withstand a direct conflict with Turkey and its allies. Beyond war, Russia cannot hope to rebuild Syria.
There is, however, still the Turkish Conundrum to consider. Unless Russia stops its bombardment of Western-backed rebel territory, Turkey’s geography and national security interests force Turkey and Russia onto a collision course to engaged in armed conflict. Conspiracy theories paint the United States as the mastermind of a plot to invade Syria and the whole of the Middle East, yet the US is more like the “dumb muscle” rival political factions in the region need to achieve their agendas. Armed factions in Syria need US arms and air support to survive. Saudi Arabia and Turkey need the same thing. In turn, Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime need the US to no longer work against their agendas, yet they also need the US to support their objectives.
In many ways, Russia is the “dumb muscle” of the Assad regime. Vladimir Putin understood this when he directly intervened in the Syrian Civil War, but he also thought he could outsmart the United States. Not only did Putin hope to use the Syrian Civil War to distract the West and the Russian People from the Ukraine Crisis, which was drowning Russia, Putin thought he could use Russia’s position as Assad’s ally to restart US-Russian cooperation and shift US priorities to serve the interests of the Assad regime. In essence, Putin hoped to force the United States to choose between fighting the Assad regime and defending the Islamic State. As supporting the Assad regime helps foster insurgency in Syria, Putin made a terrible miscalculated based on a faulted assumption.
Frankly, the only value Russia has ever offered the US and its allies in the Syrian Civil War is its ability to help transition the Assad regime out of power. As Russia cannot offer Coalition forces the removal of Assad, the trap of the Syrian Civil War is fast becoming Putin’s Afghanistan and Iraq. As long as Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and all other rival factions do not convince US leadership to move beyond America’s support role, the Russians will be the ones bogged down by needless fighting in the Syria. Once the Russian and Assad threats to stability in Syria are eliminated, the focus can shift to policing terrorism and rebuilding Syria. Unfortunately, the longer it takes for Vladimir Putin to realize his misplaced faith in a nonviable Assad regime, the greater the destruction and the harder it will be to rebuild Syria.
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