Russia’s recent increase in military aid to the Syrian government is an extension of previous Russian policy on Syria; what is different is not the thrust of Russian policy but the scale of the aid. This ramp-up carries new risks to those hoping for a real political solution to the longstanding Syrian conflict and to those hoping to see the threat of terror groups operating in Syria contained. There is little likelihood of a major U.S.-Russia military confrontation over Syria, but the likely Russian game plan carries new risks for the American administration seeking to contain the Islamic State and eventually see stability restored in Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov himself observed that Russian military assistance to Syria is not new. Indeed, the Syrian Air Force's helicopters and jets that have intensively bombarded Syrian cities are Russian. The Syrian Army has for decades used Russian armor. The Syrian government now has very few foreign exchange reserves, and it is unclear how it can pay the Russians for the new equipment. The new build-up may well have figured on the agenda of the visit of Iranian point man on Syria, Revolutionary Guards Quds Force Commander Qassem Suleimani, to Moscow earlier in the summer.
Russian policy since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution has been consistent: it may not agree with all the regime's brutality, but it seeks to preserve the Syrian state as a Russian ally and as a pillar against Islamic extremists. Moscow sees no alternative to keeping President Bashar al-Assad in place to preserve the state. Unlike the Americans, the Russians won't stipulate that their formal aid program be used only against the Islamic State. The Russians have always perceived the broader armed opposition to the Syrian government to be illegitimate. They especially condemn Islamist rebels, making little distinction between conservative Islamists, such as those in the Islamic Front, and jihadi groups such as al-Qa‘ida's Nusra Front and the Islamic State. In Moscow's eyes, they all are terrorists. The Russian policy goal in Syria is for the (flagging) Syrian government's army to join with remaining secular elements in the Syrian opposition and with help from the international community destroy the Islamist armed groups in Syria.
The Russians tried to sell this idea to selected Syrian opposition groups in a series of discussions in Moscow dating back to January 2015. The Russians even made clear that they would not object to some changes in the Syrian government, but they never urged that Assad himself be compelled to leave or that Assad's intelligence/security apparatus, whose brutality started the conflict in 2011 and with which the Russians have a longstanding relationship, be substantially changed. The Russian ideas got little traction, aside from some of the tamest elements of the Syrian opposition that carry no influence with any rebel fighting factions.
After reaching a dead end with the Syrian opposition, the Russians tried to convince Saudi Arabia and Western countries that Assad and his government should be integrated into the U.S.-led coalition's campaign against the Islamic State. The Russians make a legalistic argument based on the sovereignty of the Syrian state. While Iran enthusiastically supports the Russian idea, and has floated its own peace proposal for Syria close to what the Russians envision, the Saudis were not receptive. Lavrov mumbling that the Saudis were "idiots" when he thought he was off-mike at a joint press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in August probably didn't help the Russian diplomatic effort.
If the thrust of Russian policy is consistent, the question remains why the Russians have changed the scale and tempo of their military assistance. The Russian aid at least in part is to bolster a weakening Syrian government. Assad himself in a national speech on July 26 admitted that his army was tiring and had to retreat from some parts of the country to continue to defend the more vital areas. The shift in battlefield dynamics in 2015 has been as remarkable as it was unexpected to many analysts.
The Russians’ long game is also likely the same: preserve the Syrian state, which they perceive in turn requires keeping Assad in place, and working with the Americans and countries in the region, and with cooperative Syrians (including the acceptable opposition), allow Syrians themselves to tinker with the nametags in the lesser parts of the Syrian government. Greater Russian assistance would also perhaps boost Russian influence in any diplomatic talks at the expense of Iran, which many Syrians and foreign states perceive holds preeminent sway in Damascus.
The immediate impact of the Russian escalation will be increased hard fighting; the Syrian armed opposition is not going to stop attacking the Syrian government's positions even if the Russians intervene directly with their own forces. It is unlikely that the opposition's principal foreign backers in Ankara, Riyadh, and Doha will halt their aid to the rebels either. Countries like Turkey understand how lethal force and diplomacy are not mutually exclusive but rather can blend together in finding satisfactory political deals. They will understand that Russia seeks to exploit an improved military standing to strengthen its position in any subsequent negotiations.
As Washington considers its own options, it faces significant constraints. Unless it threatens drastic action against Baghdad—with all the implications of the effort against the Islamic State there—the Iranian-Iraqi airspace corridor is open full-time for Russian urgent air shipments. Russian President Putin has noticed that unlike in Afghanistan, the Americans won't transfer surface-to-air missiles to the Syrian rebels. Thus, if Putin decides that direct Russian air involvement in the Syrian fighting is necessary to secure Russian goals, he will expect fewer immediate operational risks than his predecessors in Afghanistan did.
Some in Washington may wonder if the United States should join with the Russian military against the Islamic State. This is an extension of the idea of joining with Assad against the Islamic State, and carries even more risks. First, as should be evident by now, air strikes against the Islamic State will not destroy it. Second, given the Russian perception that Islamist fighters are basically indistinguishable and that one of Russia’s goals is to bolster the tiring Syrian military against its enemies, Russian direct military action would probably eventually extend to non-jihadi elements of the armed opposition such as the Islamic Front's factions. American cooperation with Russia would mean in turn that those groups would reject American-trained Syrian fighters whose goal is only to fight the Islamic State. We already have seen the fierce reaction of the Nusra Front to American-trained fighters from the opposition’s 30th division. Yet the only realistic option to contain and ultimately eliminate the Islamic Front in Syria is Syrian fighters.
Finally, the American administration will have to consider how to respond to what are likely to be greater Russian efforts to sell Russian/Iranian ideas about the contours of a peace deal in Syria. It will be important to remember that even if its foreign allies accept Assad staying in a transition role, the Syrian armed opposition no longer will, and there are enough weapons floating around Syria and Iraq to sustain fighting for a long time. The Russian goal of maintaining the existing Syrian state with a few cosmetic changes and bolstering the flagging Syrian government military with help from secular oppositionists is impossible; secular rebel fighters such as those operating in Hama, Dara‘a, and Homs won't join an Assad military effort, ever. For better or worse, Assad has become a symbol among opposition ranks. Even Assad's core constituency, the Syrian Alawi community, is growing weary of the Syrian president.
And if the existing Syrian Army with its Hezbollah allies can't even retake the largely flattened town of Zabadani on the Lebanese border, what are the chances that they could move hundreds of miles east across unfriendly territories to secure central and eastern Syria from the Islamic State? And should the Russians send in small numbers of ground forces to help, would Washington perceive that to be helpful in cutting jihadi recruitment, restoring stability in Syria, and staunching the refugee outflow? It is hard to see how pragmatists in the administration could answer yes to these questions.