The airstrikes launched this week by Russian President Vladimir Putin against Syria’s rebels have already been called Russia’s boldest military intervention outside the former Soviet Union since Afghanistan in the 1980s. Like that decade-long entanglement, Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict — in which Putin appears to be taking aim at ISIL’s rival rebel factions more than ISIL itself, in order to bolster the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — carries significant strategic risks. As Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, put it: “Russia has gotten itself into the tar pit."
Every action has a reaction
The most likely consequence of Russian intervention is dramatic escalation of a proxy war in Syria, pitting Russia and Iran — the regime’s benefactors — against regional rivals in the rebel camp, namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United States. Moscow may be betting that by going to the wall to prevent the Assad regime from falling, it will erode the resolve of Assad’s antagonists and hasten a political solution that keeps him in power.
That calculation may prove correct for the U.S. and Europe. Both fear that a power vacuum in Damascus would only allow ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) — as well as its chief rival, the hardline Jaysh al-Fatah coalition led by Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front — to expand even further, dismantling what's left of the Syrian state and exacerbating the European refugee crisis.
The calculations for Turkey and the Gulf States are different. They have invested major financial and military resources in Syria's rebels in order to face down Iran, which has deployed its elite Revolutionary Guard forces along with Lebanese Hezbollah militias to defend the regime. “Every action has a reaction in the Middle East,” said William Pomeranz, a Russia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. “And so I don’t think just because Russia has dropped some bombs in Syria that the opposition simply melts away. Indeed my anticipation is that they will find a way to challenge the Russians. So there’s every reason to think things will escalate.”
The worst-case scenario for Putin is direct conflict with the U.S.-led campaign against ISIL. Hawkish American lawmakers are already riled by President Barack Obama's dual failures to respond to the Russian show of strength in Ukraine, and to adequately pressure Assad from the beginning. They may be provoked further by reports that Russia has already struck CIA-trained rebel factions, which could be considered an assault on American assets. If Russian jets collide with the American ones that are striking ISIL positions daily — an inherent risk when two military powers carry out parallel air raids — Obama will face mounting domestic pressure for a more forceful response.
Just a few days into Russia’s aerial campaign, there is already talk that Syria could become Putin’s Iraq — a military intervention in the Middle East, launched under the premise of counter-terrorism, that quickly spirals out of control. President Barack Obama, who withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 only to send more "advisers" back in to combat ISIL three years later, made that point on Friday: "An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won't work," Obama said.
Mission creep could occur in one of two ways. The first possibility is that Moscow will not get the results it wants from airstrikes alone and could resort to sending in ground troops, a move that would be highly unpopular at home and which Russian officials have insisted is not an option under consideration. The other possibility is that Russia could be drawn into neighboring Iraq, too. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov initially dismissed that possibility, saying on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly: “We are polite people. We don’t come if not invited.” But Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has already extended the invitation, saying in an interview broadcast Thursday that he would "welcome" help from Moscow.
The strategic risks of Russia’s military intervention do not stop at Syria’s borders. An opinion poll last week by Moscow-based Levada Center said that just over two-thirds of Russians would oppose Russia sending in combat troops to support the Assad government. The U.S says that Russian troops are on the ground already, though the Kremlin says they are only advisers. "There’s not, as far as opinion polls show, strong support for rallying around Bashar Al-Assad amongst Russians,” Pomeranz said. “Syria is not Ukraine, where Russians have family, speak the same language and have been to visit."
But the more important context for Putin’s military actions in Syria, after more than a year’s involvement in Ukraine’s civil war, is the economic recession. The oil-dependent Russian economy has been severely hit by the global decline in the price of oil, as well as economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. and the European Union in 2013 after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
In theory, Putin’s military adventures serve to deflect domestic weariness over the bleak economy. But as Ian Bremmer, president of political risk research firm Eurasia Group, wrote on Friday, “To delay his day of judgment at home a little longer, Putin needs victories — particularly those that burnish Russia's image as a world power."
The spectacle of Russian bombs falling on those fighting the Assad regime is likely to increase the symbolic value of Russian targets to groups such as ISIL and Al-Qaeda. An analysis by the Soufan Group, a political risk consultancy, cited figures by the Russian internal security service suggesting that some 2,400 Russians are currently serving in ISIL ranks, along with some 3,000 individuals from Central Asian former Soviet republics.
While ISIL could benefit in the short term if Russian strikes damage their mutual enemies in other rebel factions, the group's recruiting efforts are also capitalizing on the rhetoric used by the Russian Orthodox church, which has called Russia’s military involvement in Syria a “holy battle” to defeat terrorism. In the wake of Russia's opening salvo of strikes, ISIL’s online supporters circulated a digitally altered image of Moscow's iconic St. Basil's Cathedral in flames, with the tagline: "Death to Putin: We are coming #soon."