The Syrian army’s Russia-backed encirclement of Aleppo has caused the Geneva peace talks to collapse, the humanitarian crisis to deepen and massive new refugee flows to take off in the direction of Turkey and, ultimately, Europe. But what is at stake for Moscow in this offensive? How does Moscow see its gains and losses, risks and rewards? What is its strategy? And what can we expect from Moscow in the diplomatic process that was restarted late Thursday night in Munich?
Russia’s goals and limitations
It is now becoming evident that in many ways, Russia is repeating what it did one year ago in the Donbas: escalating militarily in order to impose negotiations on terms that Moscow finds favourable. Last year, Russia and its Donbas proxies encircled the Ukrainian contingent in Debaltseve, threatening Ukraine with massive military losses. Then Russia made use of the fear the European powers held about escalation (associated with US debate on arming Ukraine) to impose the Minsk II agreement that was heavily weighted in Moscow’s favour.
Exactly one year later, the same strategy is being implemented in Syria: the siege of Aleppo has left most other actors with little choice but to accept Moscow’s terms. The Syrian moderate opposition is hunkered down under airstrikes and is desperate for supplies. The US would find it difficult at this point to support the moderates without clashing directly with Moscow. In any case, a counter-offensive to regain the ground lost to Assad would result in a prolonged war, with many more lives lost and even greater refugee flows than we have already seen. The latter would be intolerable for Europe, who understand that people from Aleppo may soon end up on the streets of Berlin and Stockholm. Just like in the Donbas, if the US tried to take military option – which is unlikely anyway – it would struggle to find support from any of the European powers, and certainly not the major ones.
Moscow knows that by encircling Aleppo it has raised the stakes, but it still hopes to win. It expects the moderate Syrian opposition – now cut off from supply routes to Turkey – to accept the terms offered to them, and stop setting demands. It hopes that the West will now be ready to accept almost any solution to stop the bloodshed and the flow of refugees – given that Moscow has given it a glimpse of the scale of carnage and chaos that could be unleashed otherwise. It expects the US to lean on Saudi Arabia and correct the latter’s understanding of who, in principle, ought to be considered legitimate opposition (the earlier delegation shaped by Riyadh was not entirely to Moscow’s liking). Russia expects Turkey to give up on its attempts to help the opposition now that it’s clear that continuing its assistance would lead to direct clashes with the Syrian army and possibly with elements of the Russian one too. Ankara has been experiencing economic and diplomatic punishment from Russia ever since it shot down one of its fighter jets in November and Moscow hopes that Turkey has now learned its lesson once and for all.
The advance of Syrian forces to Aleppo also serves Moscow well on the domestic front, because it looks like a clear military success. For many months Russian air strikes have failed to have any significant impact on the ability of the Syrian army to gain ground, but now, finally, the strategy has started to bear some solid results. This military breakthrough was the sort of military success that Moscow has been waiting for. It adds confidence to their position and looks good on domestic TV-channels, which is important, given that 2016 sees elections to the Duma, and Russia is suffering a period of economic decline. A success story was needed, and Aleppo goes some way towards being one.
Russia’s grand strategy in Syria remains the same as it has been since the intervention started. Moscow’s aim is to arrive at a negotiated settlement, the terms of which would be dictated by the Syrian regime and Moscow, leaving the moderate opposition and the West with no choice but to accept them, however reluctantly. While Assad may have been or may still be hoping for a full military victory, Moscow needs to achieve a diplomatic solution that is at least grudgingly accepted and deemed legitimate by the West. Otherwise, Russia might end up “owning” the conflict and its aftermath for years to come – something it does not want and probably cannot afford.
The difference in aims between Russia and Syria should not be interpreted by the West as a chance to drive a wedge between Moscow and Assad and to nudge Moscow closer to the Western view of settlement. It is true that Moscow is not “wedded” to Assad, but if it does ditch him, it won’t be in order to join the West, but to beat them; Assad can be sacrificed in order to give his regime the best chance to survive and win, but not in order to do away with it entirely.
It is important to remember that the Syrian conflict has a philosophical layer that is important to Moscow, and to Putin personally. The Russian president wants to win the ideological debate with the West, by showing that democratic regime changes and humanitarian interventions sow chaos, and that supporting “legitimate” regimes can be a way of resolving crises more fruitfully. This means that Moscow can never diverge too dramatically from the regime’s agenda, but also that relying on military force alone and “long presence” is not ideal for Moscow because it might seem as if it is getting bogged down the way the US was in Iraq. Moscow’s strategy needs to be understood in the framework of these two limitations.
Russia’s risks and losses
Has Moscow also lost anything through this offensive? So far, Moscow’s outright political losses belong to virtual reality. It has clearly killed the illusion that it is somehow involved in an anti-ISIS coalition with the West. Those who might have hoped for such a coalition to emerge in the aftermath of the Paris attacks no longer hold their breath.
The question of why Moscow considered this illusion to be so dispensable is an interesting one, but less so in the Syrian context than in the Ukrainian one. It is not a secret that, among other things, one reason underpinning Moscow’s intervention in Syria was the stalemate it had reached in eastern Ukraine, and the pain caused by sanctions. Moscow hoped that by broadening its conversation with the West in general, and the US in particular, it could manage to at least marginalise the Donbas as part of its agenda with the West, bring it out of the spotlight, and thereby move closer to an acceptable resolution. It is not quite clear how, in the Kremlin’s mind, the siege of Aleppo and the anger this has caused in the West is expected to influence the diplomatic process associated with the Donbas, or whether the Kremlin has been thinking about it at all.
The strategy includes other badly thought-through components too, and these have to do with regional powers. In its “great power”-centric world view Russia tends to have an inflated notion of how much big powers can dictate to their smaller partners. Moscow has probably calculated that the US can pacify Riyadh in ways it cannot do. Saudi Arabia’s announcement to intervene is therefore probably something that Russia did not expect and does not know how to deal with.
Even more importantly, the Kremlin has not thought through how Turkey might react. Moscow already made one miscalculation when it failed to understand and address Turkey’s sensitivities related to Syria: Moscow simply expected Turkey to fall in line and allow Russia to dictate the terms. This led to Turkey expressing its utter frustration by shooting down a Russian fighter jet, which led to even more tensions. The siege of Aleppo is a further blow to Turkey, and Moscow does not really know how Ankara will react.
These days, Turkey is the main worry in Moscow’s expert community. What if Turkey still tries to equip the Syrian opposition it no longer has direct access to? What if it clashes with the Syrian army, and with the Russians helping the Syrians? Would Moscow retaliate? How? And what would NATO make of the whole situation? Would they consider it an article 5 situation? “I do not have answers to these questions and I don’t think Putin does either,” was the gloomy assessment of one of Moscow’s best-informed experts.
The personal/professional dichotomy
This complex melange of calculation and carelessness that has come to characterise Russia’s strategy in Syria offers a fascinating insight into Russian foreign policy making in general, and in the Middle East in particular.
If one looks at the three major directions of Russia’s foreign policy: the West, Asia, and the Middle East, then Russia’s approach to the latter comes across as the most professional by far. The West – Europe and America alike – are seen in Moscow through heavily distorted ideological lenses. Moscow has a wealth of factual knowledge about the West, but fails to interpret it correctly. The few experts who do understand Western policy drivers properly are not in demand from the powers that be, because those in power think their own view of the West is good enough.
Thinking on Asia is different – there are no ideological lenses in this case, but there is not much knowledge and until recently there has been very little interest. Russia has some excellent experts on Asia, but they tend to have a purely academic focus. The few who do have more of a practical edge still have very limited influence on policy making. Asia largely remains terra incognita for Russia.
This is not the case with the Middle East. In Soviet times, Russia had a plethora of Middle East experts who became influential far outside their narrow academic spheres: many Arabists ascended to prominent positions in the Politburo, or later in the Russian power structure. The Arabist tradition still remains very strong, despite the post-Soviet slump in financing of expertise. Unlike when it comes to the West, Middle East experts are also in demand. The Kremlin may have assumed (incorrectly) that it knew everything about Ukraine, but at least it acknowledges that it doesn’t know the whole story when it comes to Syria. The West disagrees with the philosophical foundations as well as the concrete aims of Russia’s policy in Syria, and condemns its often ruthless means, but one needs to acknowledge a certain professionalism in its strategy. Russia’s policy in Syria has been influenced by expertise more than is usual, and this shows. Moscow knows what it wants to achieve in Syria and has a plan on how to do it.
However, this professional approach only holds as long as policy is driven by expert calculations. When the leadership’s emotions take over, all professional advice is brushed aside. This is exactly what happened in Russia-Turkey relations and “now it is so personal that it can lead anywhere,” confessed one of Russia’s experts involved in negotiations. From November onwards, Russia’s Syria policy has been - and continues to be - guided by this dichotomy between professionalism and personalisation, which makes it less predictable and more dangerous than would have been the case otherwise. After the Munich meeting it looks like Moscow is moving closer to achieving its ends when it comes to the professional front - but the personal component is still there, a powder keg next to a bonfire that may yet trigger a larger explosion.