On 30 September 2015, Russia started air strikes in Syria to fight ISIS and ‘other terrorist groups’. After weeks of bombing, it turns out that the Russians are mainly targetting, not ISIS, but other rebels fighting the Assad government. (Note that the Assad government calls all those fighting it as ‘terrorists’)
The Russians’ aim is to ensure its continued use of a naval base at Tartus, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. They see Assad as the only one who would allow them to stay there and have decided to directly support him initially with air power. This is clearly a gamble. They could have chosen instead to further develop their lines of communication with the armed opposition (which had gone to Moscow for consultations in the past) in order to ensure that if the rebels win, they will retain their base. Now, by directly fighting for Assad, the chance for a future accomodation with Syrian rebels has been significantly reduced.
In response, a broad alliance of rebel groups (including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army) have denounced what it called the ‘Russian-Iranian Occupation of Syria’, and promised to attack the Russians.
The Russian intervention in Syria calls up memories of the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union started by providing military advisers to its Afghan allies who were struggling to retain control of the country. This gradually led to the full-scale invasion of Afghanistan. Soviet forces eventually withdrew in 1991 after suffering 15,000 casualties.
Syria is not Afghanistan. For one thing, it is not geographically close to Russia. Russian troops could not drive into Syria as they did in Afghanistan; they have to either go by ship, or be flown in.There are also no ethnic connections in Afghanistan, the Soviets had Turkmen, Uzbek and Tadhzik soldiers who spoke the same language as some Afghans; they don’t have something equivalent for Syria.
But there are similarities enough. The Russian military have been called in to prevent the collapse of an ally. The Syrian government army, like the Afghan communists, could not hold on to large parts of the country. Assad’s loyalist troops are tired, demoralized and increasingly being cut off. It is only a matter of time before Russia escalates; first bringing in military advisers, then special forces troops and later regular units.
The rebels are also divided into many factions. This makes it difficult to hit one in order to win the war; other groups will simply take their place. And, like in Afghanistan, the Russian intervention will force the various rebel groups to unite.
Another similarity is that the Sovet Union then, and Russia now, suffer under Western economic sanctions.
The ‘green men’ (Russian special forces troops pretending to be Russian volunteers) that Russia will be deploying to Syria used to operate in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Their deployment to Syria would have some effect on the balance of power in the Eastern Ukraine. Russia would effectively be fighting two wars. This is why Putin has worked hard to make the war in Eastern Ukraine into a ‘frozen conflict’. But this will not be that easy – the Ukrainian rebel areas could not remain stable if there was no war. The economy there is in shambles, and there will be no jobs for thousands of demobilized troops. Also, there are many different militia groups there who would cause trouble if they would no longer be fighting the Ukrainian army. The Russian military was quite stretched at the peak of the war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014.
When the Russians will get more involved in the Syrian war, its forces will gradually become overstretched.
Russian fighter planes violating Turkish airspace have been met by howls of protest from the Turks and NATO. Russia will probably do its best to avoid angering the Turks, because the Turks can severely damage their Syrian operations. First, Turkey could prevent Russian ships from crossing the Bosporus strait (which allows ships from Russian ports in the Black Sea to go out to the Mediterranean Sea); effectively locking in the Russians in the Black Sea. Second, the new Russian military airbase in Latakia is within artillery range of Turkish batteries. If Russian bombs land in Turkey, the Turks could respond by firing on the base. They did something similar when Syrian planes dropped bombs inside Turkey.
And third, Turkey could tacitly allow Syrian rebels to transit through its territory on their way to attacking the Russians
The Russians are trying to promote international talks on Syria in an attempt to achieve its aims without getting mired in a quagmire. There will be talks, but unless Russia agrees to dump Assad as part of the deal, nothing will happen to them. Worse, the Syrian government will not be inclined to make any compromise to attain peace, because it thinks that Russian support will ensure its eventual victory. The rebels, on their part, will reckon that they would gain more by continuing the fight; since, after all, the Syrian army is quite weak. They will no longer trust the Russians in pushing for a peace agreement, since Russia is already a party to the conflict.
The Russians are painting themselves in a corner. When the new Syrian ground offensive falters, Russia will be forced to deploy its own elite troops in order to counter rebel advances..
The problem that Russia will have, in a few months is that the rebels will continue to gain ground in Latakia province, where their naval base is. When Russia finally decides to dump Assad, the rebels may not be willing to make a deal with the Russians.
Assad will not be safe from the Russians either. The Soviets replaced their Afghan clients repeatedly during its intervention in Afghanistan. More recently, the Russians have been constantly changing the leadership of the Donetsk Peoples Republic (the main rebel entity in Eastern Ukraine). So, when Assad’s troops start to lose again (even with the help of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah) he will be replaced by the Russians.
Russia’s Syrian gamble will fail. More jihadists will target Russians in Syria, within Russia, or in the rest of the world. Russia will increasingly be isolated internationally, and it will be hated in large parts of the Arab and Muslim world. And, since a post-Assad government will most likely kick out the Russians, Russia will be forced to stick it out even when the toll grows worse.
Mounting Russian military and civilian casualties will increase the Russian public’s opposition to the war, as well as intensify the military operation in Syria.The trend toward miitary escalation is quite irreversible; the only unknown is how fast it will escalate. For example, if it is proven that ISIS caused the recent crash of the Metrojet plane over the Sinai (killing 224 people, most of whom were Russians); it will only result in increased military involvement in Syria, not less.
When the Russians will eventually leave, it will not only have to pull out its newly deployed troops, but all its military bases in Syria, when the Syrian government falls.