By Lili Bayer
A cessation of hostilities may be formally in place in Syria, but fighting, airstrikes and maneuvering among world powers have far from halted. Last week, we wrote that the new ceasefire in Syria, or in diplomatic-speak, the much less binding “cessation of hostilities,” will not last. On Monday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that the alliance is concerned about a “significant Russian military buildup” in Syria. Moscow has indeed committed more planes, air defense systems, weapons and personnel to the Syrian conflict over the past months. However, for both strategic and financial reasons, Russia’s military intervention in Syria will likely remain limited.
Strategic Goals in Syria
Moscow’s aims, like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s own objectives at this stage in the conflict, do not include helping the Syrian regime regain control of the entire country. Syria, like Iraq, no longer exists as a sovereign and unified entity.
Instead, Russia has three aims in Syria. First, the Kremlin wishes to improve its bargaining position when negotiating with the U.S. over Ukraine and European security issues. By becoming a significant player in the Syria conflict, Moscow hopes to become indispensable for Washington, thus allowing the Kremlin to make its own demands in other theaters that are critical for Russian national security.
Second, Moscow wants to ensure the survival of its long-time ally Assad and guarantee his regime will be the most powerful of the factions or mini-states that emerge out of Syria’s ashes. The relationship with Assad is strategically significant for Russia due to Syria’s position south of Turkey, one of Russia’s traditional rivals in the Black Sea region. Moreover, Russia’s only current naval facility in the Mediterranean is located in Assad-held territory.
Third, Russia aims to weaken the Islamic State and limit the organization’s ability to pose a threat to Moscow, especially when it comes to Russian citizens who have joined its ranks. Russia’s security services fear both terrorism and the impact militants returning home could have on long-running conflicts in the North Caucasus, a strategic region Moscow has fought two wars to control since the fall of the Soviet Union and still struggles to fully subdue.
Military Operations in Syria
Russian support has helped turn the tide in favor of the Assad regime. Nevertheless, the Russian “buildup” Stoltenberg has referred to does not constitute a significant shift in Russia’s involvement in the conflict. In large part due to Russian assistance, Assad’s forces have made progress in achieving the regime’s three primary strategic objectives: securing the Alawites along the coast, maintaining control over the territory connecting Damascus and Aleppo, and creating strategic depth to defend this core territory.
The air campaign is the centerpiece of Russia’s strategy in Syria. Airstrikes are the primary avenue Moscow uses to boost the position of the Syrian regime as Russian aircraft support Syrian ground offensives. Russian cargo planes also at times drop aid to government troops that are cut off from supply lines.
In November, Russia’s air grouping in Syria involved 69 aircraft. This was a force sufficient for defending Assad’s troops and helping them make some gains. However, it was ultimately a support force. Over the past three months, Russia has deployed even more aircraft and enhanced its logistical capabilities in the country, but the number of new deployments has been relatively modest. At the Humaymin air base in Latakia province, Russia doubled the number of Su-34s from four to eight. In early January, four Sukhoi Su-35S multirole fighter aircraft were deployed to the same base. Overall, Russian state media reported in early February that there were over 70 aircraft and about 4,000 personnel at Humaymin. A new Pantsyr air defense system arrived at the base in February.
Moreover, at al-Shayrat air base, southeast of Homs, there are now four Russian Mi-35 helicopters, four Mi-24s and one Mi-8/17 — twice the amount of attack helicopters previously believed to be based at the location. It is likely therefore that the Russians now have over 80 aircraft in Syria. This is an expansion of Russian activity, but not a game-changer for Moscow’s involvement in the conflict.
Russia’s military involvement in Syria has required it to both boost its logistical capabilities on the ground and deploy air defense systems to protect its personnel and equipment. In early December, a Pentagon official confirmed that Russia deployed operational S-400 air defense missiles in the Latakia area, and that the Russians were working on improving their facilities in the region. That same month, reports emerged that Russian forces were working to develop the runway and fortify al-Shayrat air base. Moreover, in early February the Russians were able to deploy both personnel and air defense systems to the Kuweires air base in Aleppo.
While the air campaign is the main focus of Russia’s support for Assad, Moscow’s involvement is not limited to airstrikes. Since September, there have been repeated, yet limited, reports of artillery units and Russian T-90 tanks deployed in Syria. At the same time, there are unconfirmed reports of Russian officers overseeing some joint operations with Syrian government troops, Hezbollah and other forces.
Despite its strong public support for the Syrian regime and the commitment of advanced air assets and other weapons and equipment to the conflict, Russia’s options in Syria remain significantly limited.
The first constraint the Kremlin faces is the inability to increase military capabilities due to public opposition. As Dr. George Friedman wrote in December, defeating the Islamic State with merely airstrikes is not possible. A large coalition of ground troops working together is needed, and even such a coalition would struggle to effectively eliminate the threat from IS.
Russia, like the U.S., faces a public that is wary of ground interventions. The independent Levada Center conducted a survey in late January and found that 59 percent of Russians support the continuation of the air campaign in Syria. However, Russian policymakers are highly aware that a messy and bloody entanglement, especially one involving ground troops, could alienate Russian voters, many of whom remember the Soviet Union’s costly intervention in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. Russians are supportive of an air campaign with low attrition, but any options involving a commitment of troops and higher attrition rates could quickly sway public opinion.
The second limitation is financial. In mid-February, Russian paper Vedomosti reported that sources said the Defense Ministry’s overall budget will be cut by 5 percent, but that the cuts will not impact operations in Syria and will mostly affect procurement and weapons research programs. Nevertheless, any cuts to the defense budget, which was originally declared immune to planned budget amendments, signal that falling energy prices are increasingly putting pressure on Russia’s expenditures. In this environment, Russia would struggle to find funding for a significantly larger intervention in Syria.
The third and most significant limitation for Russia is its own geopolitical position. Involvement in Syria gives the Kremlin influence and a seat at the table with leading Western powers during discussions about the Mideast’s future. But at its core, Syria is a secondary issue for Moscow. Russia’s primary geopolitical challenge comes from the area to the west of its border, in the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine. Even when Syria is in the headlines and Russian ministers are rushing to meetings on the fight against the Islamic State, their true policy priorities are what happens in Kiev and NATO’s activities in eastern Europe.
As Stoltenberg pointed out, Russia is indeed boosting its involvement in Syria. But Russia’s commitment to the conflict is still relatively limited, and will remain so due to Moscow’s strategic and financial concerns. The country’s participation in talks on the future of Syria and the cessation of hostilities furthers its strategic goals by allowing the Kremlin to enhance its negotiating position with Washington. At the same time, intensive Russian airstrikes and Syrian regime activities in the weeks leading up to the formal cessation of hostilities puts the alliance in a relatively good position tactically. Russian jets have carried out some airstrikes following the onset of the ceasefire, though at a much lower rate than previous weeks. Moscow, therefore, is pursuing its aim of protecting the Syrian regime while also in large part adhering to its pledge to international partners. Russia will remain a player in the Syrian conflict, but like their counterparts in Washington, Russian decision-makers are opting to largely avoid entanglements on the ground and thus maintain their relatively limited involvement.