US options in responding to Russia’s military intervention in Syria

Last spring, I argued in a talk at Berkeley that the Ukraine crisis was still very dangerous despite the signing of the Minsk II Agreement on the Donbas conflict. In brief, my reasoning was that (1) the Ukraine conflict is the product of an intensifying geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West in general and the United States in particular; (2) there is a powerful ideological component to that struggle, which is one reason why it is very likely to last for the foreseeable future; (3) the most dangerous dimension of the struggle is the military one; and (4) there is a non-negligible risk of a military clash between NATO and Russia.

I’m going to double down on my Chicken Little-ism today and make three points about Russia’s military intervention in Syria: (1) the immediate effect of the intervention is to increase the risk of a military clash between Russia and the United States or one of its allies; (2) it is very unlikely that Russia’s intervention will lead to a genuine “grand coalition” against ISIS or “terrorism”; and (3) there are no good options for Washington in Syria in general, and no good options in responding to Russia’s intervention in particular.

US-Russian airstrikes and Syrian battle spaceIncreased risk of a military clash

If anyone doubted that Russia’s move would increase the risk of a direct military clash between Russia and the United States or NATO, those doubts should have been dispelled by Turkey’s decision to shoot down the Russian Su-24 on November 24. Russian-Turkish tensions remain high, as Putin made clear in his annual press-conference marathon today:

They [Turkish authorities] thought that we would turn tail and run! No, Russia is not that country. We have increased our presence in Syria, have increased the number of combat aircraft deployed there. There was no Russian air defense system there –now there’s the S-400. If before, Turkey had constantly violated Syrian airspace, let them try it now.

Doubtless the most memorable sound bite from his performance, however, was the following: “The Turks decided to lick the Americans in a certain place.”Russian v. Turkish claims re Su-24 flight path

There are also reports today that the US has suspended operations by manned aviation (so excluding UAVs) along the Turkish-Syrian border to the west of the Euphrates River. This includes the so-called “Azaz corridor,” a vital supply line for anti-Assad forces fighting on the Aleppo and Idlib fronts. US military officials apparently did so because US aircraft were being lit up by Russian air defense radars (see below) as they entered the zone, the implication being that Russian SAM operators are trying to distinguish US from Turkish aviation after being instructed to shoot down any Turkish plane on the Syrian side of border (or worse, the other side of the border).

The Azaz corridorTurkey, needless to say, is a member of NATO. Were the escalating hostility between Russia and Turkey to provoke a military clash, particularly one in Turkish airspace, Ankara could invoke NATO’s Article 5, the collective security provision in NATO’s foundational treaty. If that happened, the Alliance’s decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council, would have to decide whether the invocation had legal standing. In effect, it would have to interpret, for only the second time in NATO’s history (the first instance having been when Washington invoked Article 5 after September 11), what is meant by an “armed attack.”

Should the North Atlantic Council accept the validity of Turkey’s request, the Alliance collectively and member states individually would then have to decide what to do about it. The provision, I should note, is rather more ambiguous than is widely assumed. It requires member-states “individually and in concert with the other Parties” to take “such action as it deems necessary…” The Council and member governments would be making that decision with the knowledge that a robust response could lead to war with a nuclear superpower, and not just in Syria.

Having to make that decision would, I believe, put a major strain on Alliance unity, particularly if some member-states felt that Turkey had provoked the attack. NATO unity is already under strain over NATO’s response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, as well as from the increasing popularity of anti-EU and anti-NATO nativist parties across much of the continent.

Crowded airspace in Syria cartoon

Even if Turkey hadn’t raised tensions by shooting down the Su-24, Russia’s military involvement in Syria risked provoking a clash with the United States or one of its allies. For the first time since the end of World War II, Moscow and Washington have open military operations under way in the same conflict zone. And Syria is not just any conflict zone, but an extremely complex and dynamic one, with a very large number of external and especially internal actors – according to a recent report by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), there are 54 more-or-less autonomous fighting organizations on the Aleppo front alone.

Along with these immediate risks are the long-run implications of Russia’s military presence in the country. To begin with, the US now has another “anti-access/area denial” (A2/AD) problem with Russia. The reference is to strategically important areas where the Unites States and its allies can’t be confident they would prevail in a conflict. These include the South China and East China Seas with respect to China, and the Arctic, the Black Sea, and especially the eastern Baltic Sea region with respect to Russia.

In late September, well before the extent of Russia’s buildup had become clear, General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s senior commander, commented on Russia’s intervention in Syria as follows:

As we see these very capable air defense [systems] beginning to show up in Syria, we’re a little worried about another A2/AD bubble being created in the Eastern Mediterranean. We see some very sophisticated air defenses going into these airfields. We see some very sophisticated air-to-air [fighter] aircraft going into these airfields. These very sophisticated air defense capabilities are not about ISIL.”

S-400 Range 1Since then, Russia’s air defense and air-to-air assets in Syria have increased significantly. In particular, Russia has deployed its most sophisticated air defense system, the S-400 TRIUMF, to Hmeymim Air Base near the city of Latakia. (The NATO designation for the S-400 is the SA-21 Growler.) The land-based S-400 system is supplemented by a shorter-range, but still very sophisticated, sea-based version of the S-300 on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet flagship, the missile cruiser Moskva, which has been stationed off the coast of Latakia since late November.

Defense specialists consider the S-400 to be the most sophisticated air defense system in the world. It can be armed with one of three kinds of surface-to-air missiles. The “missile engagement zone” (MEZ) of the shortest range missile is around 150 miles, which would put it in range of central Syria, most of Lebanon, and parts of southern Turkey. The latter includes Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base near Adana, which is being used by the US and allied aviation conducting air missions in Syria and Iraq. The longer-range missile has a range of around 250 miles, which would bring its MEZ well into Israel, Jordan, and southern Turkey.

Russian aviation and especially its air defense assets in Syria were affecting the tempo and costs of the US-led air campaign in Syria prior to the deployment of the S-400. That is all the more the case now. And it is also why the US apparently suspended manned aviation flights along the Turkish border to the west of the Euphrates River today.

The deployment of S-400’s also complicates a coalition decision to establish a no-fly-zone (NFZ) or zones in Syria, particularly over the key central and northern fronts. It is possible that Russia and the US could agree on respective NFZs, but it would be difficult politically for Western governments to do so unless it were part of a general political settlement, which I consider very unlikely (see below).Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 11.08.52 AM

Over the longer term, Russia’s deployments are going to affect the balance of power in the region as well. That is particularly the case because I doubt that Moscow will scale back its current deployments anytime soon. As Putin put it in his remarks today: “We will continue launching airstrikes and supporting the offensive of the Syrian army as long as the Syrian army carries out these operations.” If you assume, as I do, that the Syrian army is not going to halt its military operations, we are more likely to see an increase in Russian military assets in Syria than a draw down.

With respect to the balance of military power, Turkey now finds itself confronting an even more serious new defense challenge along its southern border, particularly given that the Kremlin is not going to forget the Su-24 incident anytime soon.

But perhaps more importantly, I suspect that Russia’s Syrian presence is going to be a major problem for Israel as well. It is widely assumed that Putin was given the green light by Netanyahu to proceed with the intervention during their meeting in Moscow in late September. What is not clear, however, is just what they agreed to. No doubt they committed to some kind of de-confliction protocol (there have been follow-on military meetings since), but one wonders if Netanyahu anticipated the scale of the operation or its probable duration. (Indeed, it is not clear that Putin anticipated how significant the intervention would be back in September.)

S-300 in IranRegardless, the Israelis are probably now having second thoughts. Moscow is in a position to declare its own no-fly-zone in Syria, possibly with US acquiescence, and if it does it would almost certainly encompass the Syrian-Lebanese border. That would interfere with – or perhaps even preclude – Israel’s efforts to interdict the flow of military supplies from Syria and Iran to Hezbollah. The Israelis also have to be very unhappy about Moscow’s plans to sell its S-300 air defense system to Iran, with recent satellite images showing Russian military aviation on the ground in Iran, and with reports that Russia is providing cover for the deployment of Iranian fighter aircraft to an air base near Homs.

It is not clear what Israel can do about these developments at this point other than try to improve its damaged relations with Turkey (that effort that is already under way). What is clear is that Israel is almost certainly going to continue with air strikes along the Syrian-Lebanese border in an effort to interdict military supplies to Hezbollah. Doing so will put its aviation in range of a Russian-owned and Russian-manned air defense system. That, too, will increase the risk of some kind of accident and a dangerous clash between two very potent militaries.

Why an anti-ISIS coalition that includes Russia is unlikely

There are at least six reasons why military cooperation between Russian and the United States (other than de-confliction measures) is unlikely.

  1. Washington and Moscow are not going to agree on which party would oversee a coordinated campaign

The Russian military is not going to agree to play second fiddle to the US military, and the US is not going to play second fiddle to Russia. Which party would command any joint operations was a major problem when the US and Russia tried to cooperate during the Kosovo crisis of 1999, and it would be even more of a problem today.

  1. The US is going to object to the tactics of Russia’s air campaign

The Russian military has become much more capable since 2008, but it is very expensive to engage in a prolonged military operation far from one’s shores. It is particularly expensive to do so if you prioritize minimizing civilian casualties. Precision-guided munitions (PGMs) are costly, and Russia has a limited stock and production constraints. The Russian air force also has much less experience with precision campaigns than do its US and Western counterparts. Finally, Moscow may not be particularly worried about civilian casualties – more violence means more refugees in Turkey, Jordan, and the EU. Regardless, the fact is that Russian air campaign is producing a lot of civilian casualties, which makes it even more difficult for Washington or its allies to do anything that facilitates it.

  1. Russia and the US are not going to agree on who the “moderates” are in Syria

Although Russian air strikes targeting ISIS have increased in recent weeks, they have mostly hit other rebel groups, including those supported by the United States and the collation. Presumably that is the case because Russia is coordinating its campaign with Damascus, and it is the rebels in the Latakia, Idlib, Homs, Damascus, and southern regions that pose the most acute threat to the regime. Nonetheless, Russia and the US have different understandings of what a “moderate” entails in the Syrian conflict. More importantly, there is a vast array of ever-evolving rebel groups, few of which, if any, are truly secular in the Western sense.

  1. It would be very difficult for Washington to get key allies to agree to military cooperation with Moscow

Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Israel are all independent actors with different, and very complicated, interests and objectives in Syria. Washington would have a particularly difficult time getting Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf States, and Turkey to stop supplying weapons or providing other forms of assistance to rebel groups fighting the regime as part of a deal with Russia.

  1. Moscow and Washington have very different objectives in Syria

Media coverage has stressed disagreements between Moscow and Washington over whether to allow Assad to remain in power either permanently or during a transition period. This is not, however, the basic problem, which is the Syrian “regime,” not simply Assad. The fact is that the current government in Damascus is perceived both abroad and in Syria as Alawite-controlled. While the reality is no doubt more complicated (there are many Arab Sunnis serving the Syrian state in one capacity or another, including in the military), what matters is the perception that the government and its coercive organs serve the interests of an ethno-religious minority that is aligned with Shia Iran and Hezbollah.

Obviously Sunni jihadi groups in Syria are not going to agree to having an Alawite-controlled, Shia-aligned government reestablish sovereignty over territory they fought and died to control. That is true – albeit perhaps with less intensity – for more secular opposition forces as well. The Syrian military and its allies have been responsible for the great bulk of the killing in Syria, and it is not Assad himself who has done that killing. Combatants who manage to seize control of territory at great cost don’t put down their arms and allow erstwhile enemies back in.

Moreover, Washington is not going to want to repeat the problem it has had in Iraq, particularly during the Maliki era when it found itself supporting a sectarian Shia-controlled government that discriminated against Sunnis. That would be even more politically costly in Syria, where Arab-speaking Sunnis make up some three-quarters of the population, and Alawites and other Shia only about an eighth.

Accordingly, Russia and the United States are not going to agree on what force or forces should occupy territory liberated from ISIS or other jihadi groups.

Washington’s problem, starkly stated, is that is has no good answer to this problem. In principle, it could accept a political solution that entailed some kind of semi-democratic power sharing arrangement that included representation for the Shia/Alawite community, Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and other minorities, but I think engineering a political solution along these lines is very unlikely now or indeed ever.

  1. External actors are not going to be able to engineer a political solution anytime soon

As I argued in an earlier post, there has been a huge amount of bloodletting in Syria, with at least 250,000 killed and some 13 million displaced persons. The many autonomous fighting groups that control over territory are not going to put down the arms and cede control to some other party at the behest of external actors. The most effective way for external actors to limit the bloodshed is to agree to reduce the flow of arms to the numerous combatants, but there is no sign that can happen in the foreseeable future given the stakes for outside actors. A political solution is going to have to wait until there is a battlefield outcome that enables it, and that too is not going to happen soon. Finally, it is important for Western decision-makers, and publics, to remember that ISIS is only part of the problem – it could disappear tomorrow and Syria would still be an unholy mess.

How the US is likely to respond to the Russian intervention

Logically, Washington can do one of three things in responding to Russia’s move: it can (1) cooperate militarily with Moscow against ISIS and perhaps al-Nusra or other jihadi groups; (2) try to turn Syria into a quagmire for Moscow by making its intervention more costly; or (3) neither oppose nor cooperate militarily (aside from de-confliction measures) but carry on with its current military campaign against ISIS and its diplomatic efforts to negotiate a political settlement.

With respect to the first option, I’ve already explained why I think the US won’t actively cooperate with Russia militarily. There is another consideration as well, however. It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the Obama administration to defend such cooperation domestically, especially in an election year. The general line in the media and in policy circles is that Assad bears most of the responsibility for the Syrian disaster, while Russia is viewed as a hostile adversary. There are some influential voices calling for cooperation with Russia in Syria, but nonetheless Obama, or indeed his successor, would pay a big political price if he were to openly assist Russia in propping up a brutal client state in the Middle East.

War zone IUCA Dec 15As for the second option – making Russia’s intervention more costly – the way to accomplish that would be to increase US military assistance to “moderate” forces fighting the regime in the key regions of Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, Damascus, and Quneitra. To some extent that has happened already – there has been a surge in the delivery of US-made BGM-71 TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles) to various “moderate” rebel groups since early October. Unlike the campaign against ISIS, this latter operation is more-or-less covert.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the Russian intervention, and San Bernadino, the Obama administration has made clear that it will intensify its campaign against ISIS in Syria’s east and northeast, the principle objective being to liberate Raqqa from ISIS control (see below). But what is not made clear is whether it has changed its strategy with respect to the anti-Assad resistance. In my view, this has been and remains the most difficult strategic decision facing Washington in Syria – how much military assistance to provide to the rebels resistance, and which rebel groups should receive that assistance. What is different now is that there is an additional reason to assist those particular rebels, which is to increase pressure on Russia.

There are, however, major risks associated with increasing support to rebel groups in the conflict. The US-made BGM-71 is a very lethal weapon, and it (along with other, non-US supplied ATGMs) has been making a significant difference on the battlefield, as evidenced by testimony from the rebel groups themselves.

russian-airstrikes-on-isis-in-syria-1024x730But controlling their end use is very difficult. The CIA has been tasked with running the nominally covert supply operation, and apparently the US TOWs come from Saudi Arabian stockpiles. Under US law, however, the Saudis would have to have permission from Washington to pass them on to a third party, which presumably they have. The CIA has tried to manage the end use problem by insisting that used missile casings be returned before new ones are provided; by requiring that launches be videoed (which helps explain why there are so many videos on social media of successful BGM-71s strikes); and by limiting the number of weapons provided to a single group at one time.

There are, however, no guarantees. One obvious possibility is that a rebel group receiving the weapons would use them against other rebels rather than the regime or its allies (e.g., FSA units could use them against Kurdish YPG units, or vice versa). Another is that they could be sold to, or captured by, jihadi organizations, including al-Qaeda’s very potent Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), or ISIS. The nightmare scenario, however, would be if a BGM-71were used to destroy a commercial airliner. The BGM-71 is entirely capable of destroying an aircraft on the ground or right after takeoff – indeed a BGM-71 was used to destroy a Russian helicopter during the Russian effort to rescue its surviving Su-24 aviator. That would likewise be the case if the US complied with pressure from rebel lobbyists and agreed to provide MANPADs to the rebels (as it did with Stinger missiles during Afghanistan’s mujahedeen war against the Soviets).

Finally, the Obama administration is doubtless aware that the principal effect of increasing the lethality of forces fighting the regime might well be to prolong the war, thereby increasing civilian suffering, the number of internally displaced persons, and the volume of refugees flowing into Turkey, Jordan, the EU, and elsewhere._86095804_syrian_refugees_all_13102015

The final option, then, is to continue on with the military campaign against ISIS in the east and northeast but allow the flow of battle in non-ISIS controlled areas to take its course. The US has increased the intensity of its air strikes against ISIS, and it has committed a small number of special operations troops to the Raqqa campaign. Beyond that, this administration, or perhaps its successor, may decide at some point to declare a no-fly-zone or zones, perhaps in the far south near the Golan Heights and/or along the Turkish-Syrian border to the east of the Euphrates.

Nonetheless, the key problem for Washington would remain, which is the absence of reliable local forces to occupy territory liberated from ISIS or any of other combatants Washington is hostile to, including the regime. I should note that this is a particular problem now in the Raqqa campaign, as it clearly is a non-starter to have Kurdish forces occupy a Sunni Arab majority city.

Strategically, however, the response would have certain advantages. It would avoid getting the US involved in another bloody, costly, and prolonged ground war with no obvious political endgame. It would also leave Moscow saddled with a long and difficult campaign in Syria, and an increasing share of the blame from Sunni Arabs for propping up an Alawite-controlled client state allied with Shia Iran and Hezbollah.


Without doubt, the Obama administration faces some extremely difficult choices in Syria. Most of the debate in this country has focused on how to defeat ISIS. Driving ISIS out of most or all of the territory it currently controls is hardly a sufficient condition for ending the Syrian war, however. Nor is it sufficient for realizing the US’s broader objectives of stabilizing the Middle East and North Africa politically, and managing the threat from an ever-evolving international jihadi movement.

Beyond these daunting problems, Washington is going to have to decide what, if anything, to do about Russia’s growing military involvement in Syria, and perhaps in Iran and Iraq as well. In particular, it has to decide whether it wants to raise the costs of Russia’s Syria intervention by increasing military assistance to so-called “moderates” in the conflict. And although this is beyond the scope of this post, it also has to decide whether it should respond “asymmetrically” to Russia’s move by, for example, accelerating its reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank or increasing military assistance to Ukraine.

As for Syria itself, my guess is that at some point we are going to end up with a de facto, if not de jure, partition of the country. Moreover, I think the borders of those partitions are going to be determined primarily by military facts on the ground, not by negotiations among foreign actors. It is very likely that one element of this outcome will be a rump Alawite-controlled Syrian state, perhaps confined to Latakia and Tartus governates, but more likely in areas currently controlled by the regime and perhaps beyond.

When that happens, Russia is going to be saddled with the political, economic, and military costs of protecting that rump state, just as it has been saddled with the costs of dealing with the entirely dysfunctional and destitute separatist zone in eastern Ukraine. One of those costs is going to be elevating Russia on the “enemies list” of jihadi organizations, which is going to mean an increased risk of terrorism at home. Regardless, being the patron of an Alawite-dominated rump regime is not going to be cheap or easy, particularly when one considers the security interests of Turkey and Israel, both very powerful regional military actors.

That, then, is what I expect the final outcome of Russia’s gambit to be. Moscow will have a military outpost in an unstable and dangerous part of the world, and that outpost will produce far more headaches for Moscow than benefits. That has been true in Ukraine, and I suspect it will be true in Syria as well.

[This is an expanded and updated version of a talk I gave at UC Berkeley on November 30, 2015]

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