Moscow’s Bargain Basement Syria Strategy

Faisal Al Yafai

In the days before the coalition strike on targets in Syria, Donald Trump engaged in what a Kremlin spokesman dismissively called “Twitter diplomacy,” warning that a military response by the US was imminent. Russia’s reply, though expressed in drier language, was still fearsome, considering the military capabilities of both sides.


Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of the Russian army, said that if there were to be “a threat to the lives of our servicemen” Russia would respond “against both the rockets and the platforms from which they’re fired.” That was a serious threat, because attacking a US warship would drag both sides into a spiral. It would be unthinkable that Trump would not respond to such an attack – and certainly not after he sent this taunting tweet: “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming.”


Some analysts called it the most dangerous moment between the two sides since the Cuban missile crisis. But after the missiles slammed into their targets, the smoke cleared and the war continued as usual, it turned out to be mere political smoke and mirrors, on both sides. The strikes achieved nothing and Russia did not respond.


And yet for Vladimir Putin, the speculation was itself a victory. Acutely aware of Russia’s lost decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the main themes of his multiple presidencies has been to restore its power and prestige in the world. For media reports across the West to speculate on whether Russia would sink a US naval ship – not if it could – was a victory.


The great success of Russia’s involvement in Syria has been its return to the top table of global politics. Putin is not about to risk that by getting involved in a real global war.


In one sense, the lack of a response was precisely what Moscow had promised: since there was no threat to the lives of Russia troops, there was nothing to retaliate against. The two sides, after all, had been in constant communication throughout the strikes, with the US side even informing Russia of its targets. But in a broader sense, the lack of a response exposed how little Russia is really interested in getting involved in a new cold war.


Syria has provided a stage for the Russian president to strut, for the Russian military to demonstrate its new weapons and for Russian political power to shape events beyond its backyard. To jeopardize that by fighting a war against another state, one that could bring significant Russian casualties or even the humiliation of a defeat, is unthinkable for a tactician like Putin. It is, in essence, a bargain basement strategy: the trappings of a global power, with none of the associated costs.


Not that Russia hasn’t used the Syrian war to advertise its prowess. It famously used new Kalibr cruise missiles in October to strike ISIS positions, genuinely concerning the US and European defense establishments. That meant that when Putin announced a new nuclear-powered missile in March this year, it was taken more seriously. But the idea that those missiles might be used against a state military is more far-fetched.


We’ve been here before, after all. Last year, after Trump ordered a strike on a largely empty Syrian air base in response to another use of chemical weapons by the regime, there were suggestions that Moscow would retaliate. But Russia did not.


Two months later, the US shot down a Syrian fighter jet, for the first time. That time the Russian did react, threatening to target coalition planes, but only cutting off the 24-hour “deconfliction line” the two sides use to communicate. But in time, it was reinstated.


The most serious issues have not occurred in the air, but in the far eastern Deir Ezzor province, right on the border with Iraq. In September last year, Russian jets struck a base of Kurdish fighters that also contained American personnel. More seriously, at the start of February this year, US troops killed a couple of hundred Russian mercenaries in a firefight. The numbers are unknown because the details weren’t fully released: with Russia claiming it doesn’t have troops there and any mercenaries are nothing to do with it, it suited both sides to deal with the incident behind the scenes.


Each incident points to how reluctant both sides are to get involved in a real conflict. Russia particularly is very heavily involved in Syria, but wants to remain out of any real conflict with state militaries.


It has tended to allow Turkey to have its way along the border and allow Israel to occasionally conduct air strikes – even its response when the Turkish military shot down a Russian jet was economic, not military.


All of which means, looking forward, that Russia is unlikely to ever engage militarily with a state in Syria, unless its direct interests are threatened. It suits Russia to treat as subordinates Nato members like Turkey and Western allies like Israel. If now and again threats need to be ramped up, or a brief confrontation needs to take place, Moscow appears to be comfortable with that. But to willingly enter into a conflict with a state actor is not part of Putin’s calculations. The best way for Moscow to win a new cold war is never to fight one.


Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.