Copyright: Defense in Depth, Council on Foreign Relations, October 5, 2015.
Into one of the most complex conflicts in modern history, Russia has leapt seemingly overnight. Russian President Vladimir Putin has waded in like the Donald Trump of geopolitics: brash, disruptive, and unbowed by international criticism. This combination, fresh fuel for the Syrian tinderbox, will drastically raise the risk of military miscalculation.
By rough count, there are now at least eleven armed actors or coalitions across Iraq and Syria, each with vastly different agendas. These include the United States and the six NATO nations and one major non-NATO ally (Australia, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, France, and Turkey) who have conducted air strikes in Iraq; it also includes the five Arab states that have joined the anti-ISIS effort in Syria (Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates). Even within these coalitions, some nations, notably Turkey, hold widely divergent objectives.
This total figure also includes the government of Iraq; the Kurdistan Regional Government of northern Iraq; the (very different) Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) of northern Syria; the occasionally U.S.-supported Free Syrian Army, Army of Conquest, and other such Syrian militias (“moderate Syrian rebels” in name only).
Finally, this includes the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; the Quds Force of Iran and Popular Mobilization Forces of Iraq as well as the Lebanese Hezbollah; the al-Nusra Front of Al-Qaeda; and, of course, the self-declared Islamic State.
The campaign against the Islamic State, never straightforward, has now morphed into an extraordinarily dangerous balancing act. Moving forward, the actual work of fighting—painstaking target identification and destruction, more than 8,000 air strikes at last count—may be the easy part. U.S. defense planners must now think through a barrage of new questions and contingencies. They will need to answer them in a hurry. A few to consider:
- What should be the response if Russia regularly targets U.S.-backed militias? If Assad—with Russian support—does so? U.S. officials had previously cited Article II of the Constitution to permit retaliation in the event that U.S.-trained forces were attacked by the Assad regime. The Kurdish YPG (staffed by some American volunteers) has been supported by U.S. air strikes and supplied by Iraqi Kurds, themselves the recipient of significant U.S. weapon stocks. Some of the first Russian targets were CIA-trained members of the Free Syrian Army. There must be either “deconfliction” or an appropriate policy response. It should be noted that any “deconfliction” will likely appear, to those Syrians fighting against the regime, that the United States tacitly endorses their targeting. This will surely complicate any future attempts at cooperation against the regime.
- How might Assad’s behavior change with overt Russian support? The Syrian president is hardly a passive participant in the civil war that he began. This year, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, his regime has massacred eight times more civilians than the Islamic State. Assad is politically savvy and has successfully clung to power through four brutal years. Beyond the shootdown of a stray U.S. drone, however, Assad has let the U.S.-led air campaign against the Islamic State proceed unmolested. He may now be less concerned about generating friction with the United States.
- How might Russian bombing influence Syrian public perception of the broader anti-ISIS campaign? U.S. air operations against Islamic State targets have been deliberate and surgical: so much so that their restraint, not collateral damage, have been the main focus of criticism within the United States. U.S. defense planners have appreciated that, in a war fought largely with information and ideas, each civilian casualty will be endlessly exploited by Islamic State propagandists. However, Russia does not have an equivalent intelligence and surveillance infrastructure in place—nor has it evidenced a strong human rights record in its operations abroad. For Syrian civilians, falling victim to bombs from planes that they often cannot see, how can they possibly know which nation has flown which mission? And how will the Islamic State turn this confusion to its advantage?
- How should Russian aircraft and advanced anti-air systems be considered in the possible imposition of a U.S. no-fly zone over Assad’s airspace? Nearly all major 2016 presidential contenders (if they have said anything) have staked significantly stronger anti-Assad positions than President Obama’s requirement of a managed political transition. Would it be possible to distinguish and exclude Russian equipment in the event that the no-fly zone option was executed? Or, in reality, has the commencement of Russian bombing swept this option from the table?
- How might Russian force posture in Syria change based on the frozen Russian campaign in Ukraine? Although the tempo of the Ukraine crisis has nowslowed significantly, it is hardly over. Russian-backed separatists will keep their gains; Russia will construct two major military bases on the Ukrainian border. In the event of a reignition of conflict and a Russian push toward the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol (just miles from the ceasefire line), NATO and the European Union would likely consider even stronger measures to halt Russian aggression. For Russian strategists, a perceived slight in one front might easily lead to their considering retaliation in another. In this way, the world’s most severe international crises—the Russian occupation of Ukraine and the Syrian Civil War—are now connected.
- What happens if a Russian service member gets captured? Despite Putin’s swagger, the Russian military remains significantly less capable than the United States, lacking much of the support and force protection that characterize the U.S. system. Moreover, Russian troops have been rapidly deployed to the field, guarding three bases and (if unconfirmed reports are true) fighting in limited ground skirmishes. This places Russian troops at risk. The capture of one or more Russian soldiers by the Islamic State would mark a major propaganda victory and—as the world has learned—would be horrifically exploitedby the terrorist group. Following the video execution of James Foley last August, the American public’s attitude toward intervention shifted almost overnight. How might Putin—a leader who has cultivated his reputation as a man of action—manage this potential political groundswell? There are plenty of Chechen fighters in the Islamic State who would happily force his hand.
For each of the answers above, a companion question must also be asked: if the United States adopts a particular policy toward Russian in military-to-military cooperation, what is to say that all U.S. coalition partners will necessarily follow suit?
Ultimately, Russian entry into Syria will force a change in trajectory for the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State. Beneath the biggest concern—that of the status and future of the Assad regime—lays a minefield of questions about risk, escalation, and potential confrontation. U.S. military planners and policymakers will face a very difficult job in the next few weeks.