Michael Young

Bear trap?

Syrians waving Syrian and Russian flags welcome Russian FM Sergei Lavrov. (AFP)

It’s remarkable that many have reacted to the Russian military intervention in Syria as if it were preordained that it would decisively change the dynamics of conflict there.


The European foreign affairs head, Federica Mogherini, described the Russian move as a “game-changer” earlier this week, while pro-Hezbollah journalists in Lebanon have gone into the details of how Russian-Iranian collaboration is about to shift the military balance in northern Syria.


No doubt the Russian deployment to Syria is a major development in that unhappiest of countries, but is it really the beginning of the end game — at least when it comes to the dynamics of the war? Until now Russia has merely introduced better weapons, while steadfastly refusing to send ground forces that could, potentially, shift the tide. Indeed, what seems inevitable is that the Russians will work in tandem with Iranian troops and pro-Iranian militias, which have been involved in Syria since at least 2013. This may provide tactical advantages in places, but is it really enough to be conclusive?


Not likely. Military action usually invites a contrary reaction to neutralize it, and the Russian deployment has spurred Bashar Assad’s enemies to send many more weapons to the rebels. Of note is that the Obama administration has dispatched new quantities of a particularly effective weapon, namely TOW anti-tank missiles. Reports from last week suggest the TOWs were behind at least two “tank massacres,” as the rebels called them.


TOWs also represent a politically convenient advantage in that they skirt the situation that existed in Afghanistan during the 1980s, when American Stinger anti-aircraft missiles were given to the Mujahideen to shoot down Russian aircraft. The TOWs, which were being used in Syria before the Russians entered, are destroying Syrian armor and vehicles, and therefore do not represent a direct use of American weapons against Russia. They only help undermine Moscow’s ally, allowing the Obama administration to say, albeit somewhat lamely, that Syria is not a proxy war between the United States and Russia. 


But beyond that, what can the Russians do? Their recent use of cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea seemed more a public display of strength than anything else. Usually such weapons are used against integrated air defenses or other major military targets, not against villages that can be more accurately bombed from the air or land. Amid statements from US officials that some of the missiles (perhaps four) landed in Iran, the value of the weapons in a conflict like Syria’s may be relatively limited.


Russian success will, to a great extent, be dependent on the success of its allies engaged on the ground. There have been reports that Russia has taken over the running of the war in Syria from the regime’s side, at Iran’s expense. It has also sought the dissolution of the National Defense Forces, the militia Iran helped establish, and its integration into the army.


That may be true, but as the Iranians showed America in Iraq in recent months, they have many means in Syria to resist developments that may threaten their interests. Russia and Iran are collaborating, mainly because they need each other. But measures that may significantly increase the power of one at the expense of the other will be harder to push through.


That is why for as long as Iran plays a major role in conducting ground operations, the latitude of Russia to impose its agenda and determine military outcomes may be relatively limited. A constant game of compromise between Moscow and Tehran could also create openings allowing the rebels to resist more successfully in certain places. The complex nature of the Syrian conflict and of the alliances involved make it difficult to accept today that the Russian deployment is a definitive game-changer.


The Russians have a strategy and a very clear sense of what they want to achieve in Syria. But ironically this clarity has imposed some clarity on the American side, where there was none. Barack Obama, who has spent nearly five years avoiding Syria, has taken a beating lately as one commentary after the other has affirmed that the president’s passivity toward the country virtually invited the Russian military intervention. Obama may not much care about the suffering of the Syrian people, but he does care about his legacy, and doesn’t want to be seen as the man who delivered the Middle East to Moscow on a silver plate.


A great deal can be said that is negative about the United States at present. But it’s not wise for Vladimir Putin to provoke the Americans, given Russia’s many vulnerabilities. And there is no reason why the political climate in Syria should be any more hospitable to Russia than it has been to the many regional states that have been struggling with the Syrian nightmare.


Indeed, so inhospitable is Syria that some conspiracy theorists have concluded that Obama drew Russia into the conflict to undermine Putin. That may be overestimating the American president’s lucidity, so shocking has been his lack of foresight on Syria, but it does acknowledge Russia’s very real challenges.


Putin is no indomitable Machiavelli. He has rushed into Syria with great self-confidence. While one cannot underestimate the Russians, so well do they know Syria and its dangers, to assume it’s all finished there is premature. As the ground war develops, the complications will become more daunting, the difficulties more numerous. A game-changer does not mean game over.


Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

Syrians waving Syrian and Russian flags welcome Russian FM Sergei Lavrov. (AFP)

Russia and Iran are collaborating, mainly because they need each other. But measures that may significantly increase the power of one at the expense of the other will be harder to push through.”

  • Beiruti

    I think that WVD has Mr. Young's number on this. And what I think is driving Putin is what drives every other autocratic ruler in every strategic decision they make, that is, to hold and retain power at any cost. The Putin Regime is built on a revived Russian economy that floats on oil revenues. It is a natural resource economy rather than a human resource economy. As the price of that natural resource drops, so does revenue to the Russian Regime, its ability to keep people paid off and happy and thus, its ability to survive. This is the price of crude oil the Brent Bench mark over the past year: http://www.infomine.com/investment/metal-prices/crude-oil/5-year/ Putin started his air campaign in Syria on September 30, 2015 when the price for a barrel of crude oil was at $42.00/bbl and dropping. Now the price has recovered to $48.00.bbl and if Putin causes more uncertainty in the region, the price on the speculative spot market will likely go up, though there is a glut of oil and the Chinese recession persists which has driven down demand and along with it the price. The Putin regime cannot stand $35.00/bbl oil prices and so we have this action, probably being paid for by the Iranians to solve a Russian or better yet, a Putin problem, that has little or nothing to do with resolving the Syrian War.

    October 18, 2015

  • WVD

    Beirut: Thinking Russia has only oil to sell shows a complete lack of knowledge of Russia.

    October 21, 2015

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Obviously spurred by your chronic Obama hatred, your comment that the Russians "have a strategy and a very clear sense of what they want to achieve in Syria" is at best a crap shoot to underscore what you view as American incompetence on Syria. What Russian strategy? Maintain the Assad regime in place? Not even one neuron in anyone's brain will actually fire in the belief that this is remotely possible. Maybe Putin has not studied his history well enough to remember his predecessors' failure in Afghanistan in 1979 at propping up their ally Babrak Karmal. They ended up routed and humiliated and, worst, they left the Taliban behind them. On the other hand, I agree with the thinking that non-intervention by the Americans has drawn the Russians in Syria, regardless of whether this is by design or by accident. It would be too conspiratorial to imagine the US and the Europeans "seducing" Putin into the Syrian trap. What is certain is that the Russians will fail, and Islamic fundamentalism will find yet another motive to remain extant, and grow and thrive. It is precisely for this latter reason that Obama has refused to intervene in Syria. The Soviets screwed up in Afghanistan. Bush screwed up in Iraq. Putin will screw up in Syria. No one will, however, say that Obama screwed up in Syria.

    October 17, 2015

  • WVD

    Michael Young is a writer of fiction as he proves on a almost daily basis. Here he writes: 'Barack Obama, who has spent nearly five years avoiding Syria'. I guess that's the reason why the CIA gave many hundreds of TOW missiles to al Qaeda and its partners. And that's the reason why those 7 plain loads of Croatian hardware in 2013 distributed by the CIA went to al Qaeda. Young writes rubbish.

    October 17, 2015