The Red Line
Episode 86. Russian Operations in Syria
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Numerous analysts failed to correctly predict the outcome of a war between Russia and Ukraine, with many anticipating Russia would conquer Ukraine within a matter of weeks. Some analysts, though, the ones watching Syria closely, could see the fractures in the Russian army beforehand, and these analysts are now watching Syria closely again.
With Russia's position inside the country shifting quickly, will the Kremlin continue to pilot the country's decade-long civil war, or are other players beginning to move into the growing power vacuum? Can the Russian operations here in Syria once again show us the future of Ukraine?
Part 1: Fighting the Previous War (5:19)
Joanne H Cummings begins our conversation with an overview of Russia's military and strategic support for Syria over the past decade, including questioning how important Russia has been in combatting ISIS compared to helping to protect and empower the Assad regime.
We discuss the complex cast of characters on the ground in the Syrian conflict, featuring the Assad regime, ISIS, the Syrian opposition groups, as well as foreign forces including Iranian and Russian assets.
Our conversation turns to the prospect of Russia's future role in Syria, noting the increasing demand for Russian forces in Ukraine and Central Asia.
We discuss the role of oil in Syria and the standoff between the various parties on the ground, attempting to prevent any side from benefitting from these reserves.
Cummings cautions against judging Russia's future in the region on the military situation and instead focuses on what will best serve Russia's geopolitical strategy.
Part 2: A Table for Three (29:09)
Rich Outzen notes Syria's importance to the Soviet Union and how it now serves Putin's geopolitical stratagem, particularly as an alternative to US leadership in the region.
Outzen details how Russian military operations in Syria differs in contrast to US military strategy and tactics in the region, including strikes on population centres and a kind of hybrid war that attempts to cripple opposition to the Assad regime.
We turn to the question of why Russia's success in Syria did not carry over in Ukraine, including the lack of a consensus unifying point for the Syrian opposition, the smaller, more defensible terrain of Syria, and the use of elite Russian units rather than the widescale and deep mobilisation of the Russian army.
We compare Russia's approaches to Syria's neighbours in conducting its military operations, including avoiding escalating tensions with Israel and speculating about the degree to which Russia is communicating, if not coordinating, actions with Turkey.
Part 3: Green Lights and Long Fights (55:49)
Wladimir Van Wilgenburg discusses the People's Defense Units (the YPG) and the role of the Iraqi Kurds in this conflict, including how they are attempting to influence negotiations between Moscow, Damascus and Ankara.
We discuss the military prospects for Kurdish forces to defend against Turkish interventions across the border, particularly if they cannot obtain air support during such offensives.
Van Wilgenburg notes a fear of anti-air weapons falling into adversary hands led to a lack of arms support for the Syrian opposition during the conflict, in stark contrast to aid supplied to Ukraine since the Russian invasion.
We conclude with a discussion about what a perfect end to this conflict would like for Russia, involving a complete withdrawal of US forces and support, and what Turkish President Erdogan wants to see happen leading into this year's elections.
Part 4: The New Normal (1:07:47)
Charles Lister discusses the perception of Russia's military prowess in Syria before Ukraine, despite the struggles faced by Russian operations in the early stages of their presence in Syria.
Lister identifies the Russian approach of brutal military tactical execution combined with nimble diplomacy and engagement with the various actors and civilians in Syria as a successful approach in Syria, something that has been lacking in their approach with Ukraine.
We note that Russian military activities in Syria have remained relatively steady since the invasion of Ukraine, despite the economic and military strains it has faced after international sanctions throughout 2022. We also judge the credibility of claims of future Syrian military support for Russia in Ukraine as fanciful.
We conclude by trying to establish who has the momentum in this conflict heading into 2023, noting the complexity of the situation and the many fronts of the battlefield.
Joanne H Cummings
Distinguished Senior Fellow on National Security at the Middle East Institute
Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Baylor University
Former Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State, including serving in leadership positions in Yemen and as POLAD to the Combined Joint Task Force against ISIS (CJTF-OIR) from 2018 to 2020
Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council in Turkey
Colonel Outzen (Ret.) is a former US Army Foreign Area Officer, including postings working across the Middle East and combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Served in the US Department of State as both a military and civilian advisor, working in the Policy Planning Office and later the Office of the Special Representative for Syria
Wladimir Van Wilgenburg
Freelance journalist that covers primarily Kurdistan and the Syrian conflict, and has appeared in Al-Monitor, Kurdistan 24, Al-Jazeera, and Foreign Policy, amongst others.
Co-author of the recently published book Accidental Allies: The US–Syrian Democratic Forces Partnership Against the Islamic State.
He is currently reporting from Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
Senior Fellow and Director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism Program at the Middle East Institute
Previously he was a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institute in Qatar
Senior Consultant for the Internationally backed Syria Track 2 Dialogue Initiative
The Red Line's Russia in the Middle East Reading List:
We’ve compiled a list of further reading to better understand the geopolitics of Russia's geopolitical presence and relations with the Middle East.
The Battle for Syria
Putin's War in Syria
Putin's Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine
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This episode is dedicated to Patreon members AnnieK, Kenneth Joswiak, Eric Showalter, Patrick, Thomas Ruschival, Joanne Cummings, Ronan Faherty, Maxence Ahlouche, Michael Henson, and Stewert.