Russia's Superpower Play: Putin Bets Big on Aggressive Syria Policy
The US and Europe have long opted to stay largely on the sidelines in Syria. But now Russia has begun carrying out airstrikes in the country in support of autocrat Bashar Assad. The move is likely to have far-reaching consequences. By SPIEGEL Staff
Last Wednesday, Vladimir Putin once again slipped into a role he seems to relish. Wearing a red-and-blue uniform with a white helmet, he joined prominent athletes, politicians and business leaders for an exhibition ice hockey game -- and fortuitously managed to put the puck in the net fully seven times. It was his 63rd birthday, and Putin spent it in Sochi, the city on the Black Sea coast that hosted last year's Winter Olympics. The city, though, is also the starting point for warships heading for Syria. Day after day, vessels head out to sea -- loaded with weapons and munitions bound for the Russian military, which has joined the Syrian civil war on the side of President Bashar Assad.
The images of the Russian head of state playing a peaceful game of ice hockey supplied a welcome contrast. Putin's message to the Russian public was clear: I've got everything under control. The world has been turned upside down by Russia's military involvement in the Syrian theater of war -- but Putin straps on his skates as though everything in the Middle East is going according to plan.
His fighter jets are flying, his ships are firing off salvo after salvo and there is speculation that Moscow may even send in ground troops, though Putin denied such plans in an interview with a Russian state-funded broadcaster over the weekend. The world, meanwhile, is left to marvel at this peripatetic world leader who is seemingly leaving the West behind with his annexation of the Crimea and his calls for the secession of eastern Ukraine. Now, he has become actively involved in Syria, a country where many took to the streets during the Arabellion to call for democracy and freedom. A country where US President Barack Obama once said that the use of chemical weapons would not be tolerated -- only to do nothing when Assad deployed poison gas. A country where Islamic State is taking over entire cities. A country from which hundreds of thousands of refugees are streaming to Europe.
In short, it is Syria which stands on the top of the West's agenda. But who is waging war there? Who is taking measures to impose order? Putin. Seldom has the West been so embarrassed. Rarely has the US been so humiliated.
Memories of the Soviet Union
The news last week sounded as though it came straight out of the Cold War. A Russian jet and an American jet flew extremely close to each other. The airspace of NATO member Turkey was violated more than once. NATO intends to increase troop strengths. Then, on Thursday evening, came the terrifying story that four Russian cruise missiles, fired toward Syria from the Caspian Sea, had fallen to the ground in Iran a day earlier, well short of their target. The incident was widely reported, but never confirmed.
Such stories reawaken memories of the Soviet Union, but it is modern-day Russia that is behind them -- a country that only recently seemed to have receded into insignificance. Now it is back -- primarily thanks to its determined, hard-nosed leader.
The risks inherent in Putin's Syrian military adventure are not small. There is a chance of an armed confrontation with the West, and an even greater chance that his offensive will plunge Syria into even greater chaos and eliminate any chance at all of stability. But he doesn't seem to care. For the moment, the ice hockey player is the world's bully. And Barack Obama looks rather weak in comparison. The situation may not remain that way for long, but for the moment, the world has been turned on its head.
And things could get even worse for the Americans. In Moscow, rumors are mounting that Putin could also launch airstrikes in Iraq at the request of Baghdad. That would likely be the greatest of all humiliations for the US, which fought in vain in Iraq for eight long years, losing the lives of 4,000 soldiers and an estimated $2 trillion in the process.
The more Russian bombs and missiles fell on Syria last week, the greater became the West's helplessness. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande spoke of their "deep concern" over the airstrikes. Hollande also mentioned the threat of a "total war" in the Middle East. Russia's actions, said Obama, were a "recipe for disaster."
But Syria has long since become a disaster, and Obama has undertaken little to prevent it.
What, though, is Russia hoping to achieve with its military adventure in the Middle East? What are the dangers for Russia and the world? And how might this operation, which sees the US and Russia meeting each other in a theater of war for the first time in six decades, change the world?
In the beginning, as is so often the case when large powers go to war, there were reports of initial successes. "Nineteen terrorist command facilities, 12 ammunition dumps and 71 armored vehicles belonging to the terrorists" had already been destroyed by airstrikes, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed. They were flying up to 30 missions a day, the ministry said, against just five or six flown by the Americans.
There were triumphant reports of "growing panic" among the extremists, with 600 mercenaries having left their positions and deserted. In just a few days, wrote military expert Viktor Baranez in the paper Komsomolskaya Pravda, "Russian warplanes have inflicted much more damage on the IS than have America and its allies in the last year and a half."
But none of it is true. "We ran away. We just wanted to get away," reports Samir Salloum, a journalist in the town of Kafr Nabl in the Idlib Province. "At around 11 a.m., two Russian Sukhoi-34s appeared, firing off two rockets, which detonated with gigantic explosions. We have never experienced such weapons before," Salloum says. As they were running, the jets flew over their heads and dropped another bomb, which separated into many smaller ones. "Nobody in town was hit," Salloum says. "But a farmer and his three children died on the tractor they were using to plow their fields. The farmer had taken his children with him because it is normally safer in the fields than in town."
In the city of Talbisa, not far from Homs -- where the first Russia bombs had fallen a week earlier -- Firas al-Said was knocked down by a shock wave, though he was standing 200 meters away from where the bomb fell. "The impact was enormous. Three-story buildings collapsed. The planes were also different, white and much bigger than those of the regime. I think Sukhoi 34."
Bastion of Resistance
The first 16 bombs hit the local administration's bakery agency, a street and a residential building. A dozen people were killed in the city center, with others losing their lives outside of town. "But they were all people who dealt with flour and the bakeries, families and a man from the civilian protection authority. They weren't fighters. We have been under siege since 2013 and (the fighters) are all almost always on the front lines," Said says. After the Russian strikes, regime helicopters arrived and dropped barrel bombs, he says, with two more Russian jets showing up shortly before midnight. A week ago Sunday, Said says, there were further Russian attacks on Talbisa and surrounding villages.
The people in Idlib Province have nothing to do with Islamic State. The city of Kafr Nabl became famous in 2011 for being one of the bastions of resistance against Assad. The Friday demonstrations in the city are legendary for their sharp mockery of both Assad and IS jihadists.
People here hate IS, with satirists frequently portraying them as extraterrestrial invaders. It's no accident that Islamic State fighters despise the residents of Kafr Nabl. Long after the jihadists briefly occupied the town before withdrawing in early 2014, IS fighters are thought to have sent a killer commando to murder the men belonging to a local group of satirists.
The people of Idlib are opposed to the Assad regime and are seen as rebels by the West, not as terrorists. But Putin isn't interested in such distinctions. He simply parrots Assad, who sees all armed groups in the country as "terrorists" -- at least those who aren't on his side.
Indeed, the first few days of the Russian military operation in Syria were quick to show that Putin isn't primarily interested in destroying Islamic State. Rather, he wants to keep Assad in power, an aim which he confirmed in his interview with Russian television this weekend. "Our task is to stabilize the legitimate government and to create conditions for a political compromise ... by military means, of course," Putin said.
That explains why the Russian air force is primarily targeting rebel groups that pose a significant threat to Assad and his regime. As such, the Russians are fighting against one of the few, if not only, alternatives to the bloody, repressive dictator in Damascus. And they are fighting against the West's allies in Syria.
Two days before Russian airstrikes began, Putin spoke to the United Nations General Assembly in New York and called for the creation of an anti-Islamist coalition. He also agreed with Obama on consultations between the Russian and US militaries so as to avoid clashes. It sounded like de-escalation, but the deal was obsolete after merely hours. Putin exposed Obama's helplessness -- a president who is not prepared to engage in military adventures that the West, from his perspective, cannot win. "What we have learned over the last 10, 12, 13 years is that unless we can get the parties on the ground to agree to live together in some fashion, then no amount of US military engagement will solve the problem," Obama said at the beginning of October.
The US president has established sober criteria that must be met before he will begin a new war, and he doesn't believe they have been met in Syria -- and Russia's intervention hasn't changed that. In contrast to Obama, Putin is prepared to transgress borders and to risk the lives of both his soldiers and Syrian civilians. He can do so because he isn't interested in ending the war. Rather, he is intervening in the interest of achieving his larger foreign policy aims.
Russia's cynical, unscrupulous realpolitik is pushing Western foreign policy, which is currently focused on avoiding military conflict, to the limits this fall. When Barack Obama entered office in 2009, his first priority was reestablishing America's reputation in the world -- one which had suffered massively as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, waged by his predecessor George W. Bush. Obama pledged to withdraw American troops from those two war zones, and found widespread agreement among a populace that was tired of waging war in far-away, unfamiliar places such as Kandahar and Kerbala.
Since then, US foreign policy has been focused on balance and rapprochement. The strengths of this approach can be seen in the nuclear deal with Iran and the reconciliation with Cuba. But in Syria, there is no balance and there is no solution, at least not a simple, painless one. The costs of intervention are high.
A Trio of Hardliners
They are much too high for a politician like Obama, who has taken a political path that necessarily limits his options -- and, by extension, his influence. Putin, by contrast, is intent on stopping Russia's decline and returning the country to great-power status. He sees the collapse of the Soviet Union less as liberation from communism and more as a humiliating defeat. For him, many means are justified in the service of that goal.
Three men, all hardliners, are thought to have been commissioned by Putin to plan the military operation in Syria: Sergei Ivanov, chief of staff of the Presidential Executive Office; Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Security Council of Russia and former head of the FSB domestic intelligence agency; and Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu.
The trio of Putin, Ivanov and Patrushev stand for distancing Russia from the global community and establishing a new sphere of Russian influence. The military intervention in Syria is just one step in pushing forward Moscow's geo-strategic interests. As early as the 2007 Munich Security Conference, Putin denounced the US for being a global hegemon. "Russia is a country with a history that spans more than a thousand years and has practically always used the privilege to carry out an independent foreign policy. We are not going to change this tradition today," he said in his speech. Obama's reference to Russia as a "regional power" at the apex of the Ukraine conflict likely did little to limit Putin's ambitions.
Putin clearly showed his favored tactic during the taking of the Crimean Peninsula and, later, during the war in eastern Ukraine. Both operations were prepared rapidly and clandestinely, accompanied by shameless lies and disinformation. The West had nothing to offer in response -- and was unable even to prove direct military aggression.
"In some ways, Moscow's greatest weapon is not the Su-24 bombers currently flying over Syria, nor the Spetznaz special forces commandos who took Crimea, not even the nuclear submarines cruising beneath the polar ice floes," American Russia expert Mark Galeotti wrote in the Moscow Times last week. "Rather, it is its ability to irritate, provoke and to surprise."
The Syria operation represents the first time since the end of the Soviet Union that a leader in Moscow is deploying his forces far away from his own borders and area of influence. And the intervention is following the propaganda recipe familiar from Ukraine: Report after report claiming success.
Difficult to Win
But reality looks different. In Syria, Russia has joined a conflict that will be difficult to win despite its military superiority.
When Assad's army last Wednesday began a ground offensive against northern rebel positions, it quickly became clear that it was coordinated with Moscow -- and militarily supported by the Russians. Suddenly, Russian ships stationed 1,500 kilometers away in the Caspian Sea began firing ballistic missiles over Iran and Iraq toward Syria. They landed exactly where Assad's troops intended to attack.
Half a dozen eyewitnesses located in different places along the front gave SPIEGEL similar accounts of what happened, ones that were then confirmed by videos released on Wednesday evening. The rebels, the witnesses said, were at a clear advantage on open territory across distances of up to three kilometers, with the tanks and other vehicles belonging to the Syrian regime at a disadvantage. Using the TOW anti-tank missiles supplied to some rebel groups by the Americans, they destroyed between 22 and 26 regime tanks. Videos of the battle show crew members jumping out of tanks that had been hit for fear that the munitions carried by the tanks might explode as a result.
The fact that there aren't just two large groups waging war against each other in Syria often proves to be too challenging for foreign observers. People often oversimplify the conflict, viewing it as Assad's regime and its Iranian helpers on the one side pitted against the Islamic State on the other. But there's a third, important party in this war: the diverse rebel groups. They continue to fight -- against Assad, but also against the IS. By summer, they had even succeeded in capturing several cities in northern and southern Syria.
The fact that these rebel groups are complex, largely unknown and often Islamist in nature is convenient for Vladimir Putin. It's exactly the kind of conflict situation he loves: the perfect setting for the kind of deliberate confusion he served up in Ukraine. The strategy is simple: just peddle enough lies to the world until people can no longer distinguish between fact and fiction. In the end, people have the feeling that there is no absolute truth and that Putin is somehow partly right. You could argue that the Russian president has copied the strategy of Internet trolls and elevated it to a key tool in his interactions with the international community. It's a strategy that has proven highly successful.
West Asks Wrong Questions
The question most asked in the Western world is which groups are "moderate," which are "Islamist" and which are "radical." But this is the wrong question in Syria, where people tend to orient themselves based on experience and tactical considerations rather than ideology. What's the best way to get ahold of money and weapons? Which alliances need to be created in order to ensure survival? Who is truly fighting and not corrupt?
For the most part, one can break the rebels down into three camps. They include all the groups of the former Free Syrian Army, like Nur ad-Din Zengi, Suqour al-Sham, Fursan al-Haq, Division 101, Division 13 in the north -- as well as the Southern Front. Their strength and significance has diminished because they have little money and few weapons left.
The second camp is comprised of the Islamist mainstream and includes the biggest, most disciplined group, Ahrar al-Sham. The group's political views are oriented on the Muslim Brotherhood, and their new leadership has been conciliatory. Within the umbrella organization of rebel groups in the north, the Army of Conquest, Ahrar al-Sham sets the tone.
The third, and most prominent, group, the Nusra Front, has a very clear Islamist-jihadist bent. Its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, swore allegiance in April 2013 to al-Qaida. The international terrorist group has become a catchment basin for many radicals, but it has no central leadership. However, the Nusra Front is unpopular with the other groups -- which has more to do with its attempts to subjugate other groups and to enforce its own ideas than its ideology.
A Common Enemy
In principle, though, those groups that fight against Assad and leave other rebel groups alone are accepted. Their common enemy is the Islamic State because it cooperates with the Assad regime rather than fighting against it. Besides, its dreams of a caliphate and desire for omnipotence are in opposition to all the other groups. It may have taken until January 2014, but almost all the other groups have since joined forces to fight Assad and the IS.
There is general support for the fact that the coalition led by the US is bombing the IS. But when, as has happened time and again, the Nusra Front or Ahrar al-Sham are attacked, people generally tend to sympathize with the Islamists first. If the Russians were to actually attack the IS, the rebels would have nothing against it. But that's not what Putin is doing. Instead he's using the war on terror as a pretext to rescue Assad's regime.
That's why, last Monday, 41 different groups signed a joint appeal calling on Syria's neighbors to help create a coalition against the "Russian-Iranian occupation alliance." Nusra Front isn't participating, and the Islamic State is viewed as the enemy anyway.
There are, in short, already ground troops fighting the IS -- in the form of the rebels. And they are fighting against Islamic State with virtually no support from the West. North of Aleppo, a few hundred fighters with the three most important FSA rebel groups have averted 23 suicide bombings with explosives-laden trucks and several mustard-gas attacks.
With only meager aid from the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, it's astonishing that the rebels still even exist. There are two reasons for this. First, there are demographic considerations: Sunnis comprise three-quarters of the Syrian population. As the uprising takes on the characteristics of a sectarian war, a growing number of Sunnis are joining the rebels. The second is that many Syrians are simply fighting out of self-defense as their towns arbitrarily come under attack.
These rebel groups are being met with increasing indifference by the Western public, regardless of the military situation. That, though, is a product of a series of mistakes and, likely, of simple ignorance. The situation is further muddled by a failed plan approved by the US last year to train and equip Syrian rebels.
A Failed US Initiative
Alarmed by the advance of IS, the Americans launched a $500 million program to provide training to as many as 5,000 Syrians a year. But they were supposed to fight exclusively against the IS and not Assad's troops. Very few were chosen for the program, fewer yet were given training and only a few dozen fighters were ultimately sent back to Syria. Of those, General Lloyd Austin recently testified in a Senate hearing, only four or five are still actively fighting. The others have either been kidnapped or murdered by the Nusra Front.
At the moment, the Pentagon is hastily preparing a new offensive, which entails sending around 20,000 members of the Kurdish Peshmerga, in addition to fighters with the Kurdish YPG militia, south towards Raqqa, where IS headquarters are located. Officially, the offensive is targeted at the Islamic State, but it is, of course, also a reaction to Putin and the fact that the US doesn't want to cede the initiative to him.
Putin's advance into Syria has thus far granted him something he has wanted for months: a return to the global political stage -- from which the West had kept him at arm's length since the annexation of Crimea. "Putin intervenes from a position of strength," says Julie Smith, former security advisor to US Vice President Joe Biden. "By inserting himself into Syria, he now has more influence over us simply because we have to deal with him."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is also now convinced that it will only be possible to find a peaceful solution in Syria if it involves Putin and Assad. Before that happens, however, the war is expected to grow.
A week ago Saturday, the Russian landing ship Caesar Kunikov sailed through the Bosporus in the eastern Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the Vasily Tatishchev reconnaissance ship set sail from Baltiysk, a town in the Kaliningrad Oblast. And Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov, the chairman of the Defense Committee in Russian parliament said last Monday that a "volunteer brigade" could be sent including fighters who gained experience during the war in eastern Ukraine. The exact number of Russian troops that have already been dispatched to Syria cannot be verified, but sources in Moscow put the figure at 2,000, whereas Western sources say it is closer to 4,000.
Putin's Propaganda Campaign
Of course, those who join a war rarely know how they will get out of it again -- and no one can predict the outcome of Putin's military foray into Syria. As a precaution, Putin has undertaken a major propaganda initiative back home, in part because only 14 percent of Russians support sending troops to Syria. That is considerably less public support than during the intervention in eastern Ukraine.
The Russian airstrikes on Syria had only barely begun and TV stations were already interviewing the heads of all political parties, leaders of religious communities and, of course, all the governors of Russian provinces with Muslim populations, asking their opinions. All spoke of the military operation as though it had been unavoidable.
Then all TV channels began broadcasting expanded coverage from the Syrian Front. The stations had all moved their most experienced war reporters from the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine to the Middle East. They are now reporting extensively on the advance of the Syrian army, the advantages of Russian weapons and about the Russian pilots at the airbase near Latakia.
The Kremlin-aligned media are all broadcasting three key talking points in what feels like an endless loop: The superiority of Russian deployment forces in Syria; the impotence of both America and of a Europe that has been overrun by refugees from the Middle East; and the alleged growing international enthusiasm for Putin's coup.
It seems that no headline is too absurd, particularly for the tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda. Last Monday, the paper ran the headline, "Europe Is Being Occupied by the Islamists -- Russian Tanks Will Liberate It."
Indeed, Russia's participation in the fighting in Syria has led to an almost infantile war fever. "The war is seen as a great fortune, the fulfillment of a longtime dream that still had to be kept quiet in Ukraine," Russian opposition politician Leonid Gosman wrote bitterly in the Moscow daily Vedomosti. Nobody is talking about the inevitable victims, he continued. "We are returning to our former greatness -- we don't need a coalition, we are able to take them on ourselves. We are bombing what and where we want and there is finally clarity."
Fears of Terrorist Acts in Russia
Still, there is skepticism among Russian politicians and experts about where this new military adventure will lead. Critics argue it can't be ruled out that the Islamic State will react to the Russian intervention with an "asymmetrical response" -- with terrorist acts carried out on Russian soil, for example. It wouldn't be difficult either, given the number of willing helpers IS could likely find in the Russian Caucasus and in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.
The Islamic State is "currently undefeatable," says the Carnagie Moscow Center's Alexey Malashenko, who had previously worked on behalf of the Soviet Union in the Middle East. He argues that you won't be able to wipe out IS with bombs. "I don't believe the reports about miraculous Russian pilots suddenly triggering panic among the enemy," he says.
Malashenko says it is perfectly logical that Moscow is defending Assad, because if it allowed him to suddenly fall, it would not only be seen as a sign of Russian weakness by the West, but also by the Middle East. And Moscow wants to maintain its position in the region. At some point, though, the dictator will have to go, and that's clear to Putin as well. Before that happens, though, a political compromise will have to be found in Syria -- together with the Americans, Malashenko says.
Until then, Putin's course will follow the one pursued so far by the Syrian regime: He will bomb Assad's enemies under the label of fighting the Islamic State, but he will largely leave IS unscathed. There are also practical reasons for such an approach. Islamic State is a very useful enemy -- and as long as it continues to exist, there will still be a need for Putin in Syria. By backing the Syrian dictator, Putin is also helping to keep IS alive.
Has Putin Miscalculated?
By strengthening the Assad regime, Moscow is also risking a rift with a few Sunni-dominated countries in the Middle East, led by Saudi Arabia. Aware of this problem, Putin conducted a round of shuttle diplomacy in the region in recent weeks, meeting with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and the Jordanian king and telephoning with Saudi Arabia's King Salman twice in September. The king had previously said he planned to visit Moscow in the fall, but there's a good chance that meeting won't happen now. The Saudi Arabians are angered by Moscow's military intervention.
Some experts believe that Putin has miscalculated and that he is leading his country on a foreign policy adventure. They are comparing the intervention in Syria with the last one conducted by Russians outside the borders of the former Soviet Union: Afghanistan. After 10 years of deployment and the deaths of 15,000 soldiers, the Russians pulled out of the country in defeat.
Yet if Putin were to be successful militarily, it would mark a huge blow to the Americans, further eroding its position as a world power and possibly molding events in the entire Middle East for years to come.
Putin's got his work cut out for him, though, and the odds are stacked against the Russian leader. So far, efforts to intervene in the Middle East have produced more black eyes for foreign powers than success stories.
By Veit Medick, Christian Neef, Christoph Reuter, Matthias Schepp and Holger Stark
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2015
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