Five high-profile experts discuss the implications of the Kremlin’s Syria gamble, including the potential impact on the U.S.-Russia relationship and the potential for a new peace deal for Syria.

A Russian pilot near a Su-34 aircraft at the Khmeimim airbase in Syria's Latakia. Photo: RIA Novosti

Russia’s military involvement in Syria and its airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) have met with mixed reactions in both the Western and Russian expert community.

On the one hand, Russia’s campaign against ISIS is seen as a calculated risk, a responsible move, and Russia’s sincere effort to normalize its relations with the West and play a greater role in solving global international challenges.

On the other hand, some skeptics interpret this stance either as an attempt to divert the world from the Ukraine crisis or as a move to back up Syrian President Bashar Assad and undermine the forces of opposition rebels supported by the West. Moreover, some experts and respected media sources draw negative parallels between Russia’s Syria 2015 and Afghanistan 1979 campaigns.

However, both sides seem to agree that the Kremlin’s direct participation will bring about more chaos and instability in the Middle East, already a turbulent region. And the recent case of the Turkish F-16 fighter jets, which intercepted a Russian warplane as it violated Turkey’s air space, is a not a good sign for the situation in the region.

This incident indicates that the gloomy warnings of Russian jets colliding with Western ones might come true. This, in turn, might aggravate the unhealthy situation in U.S.-Russia relations that resulted from their ongoing differences over Ukraine, a relationship that some experts now describe as a new Cold War.

Also read: "Efforts in Syria against ISIS won’t bring US, Russia closer together"

Russia Direct interviewed Russian and foreign experts to figure out what the real implications for Russia are as it attempts to create its own anti-ISIS coalition. In addition, they discussed the impact of Russia’s participation in the Syria military campaign on Russia and its relations with the United States. Finally, they share their thoughts on the reasons why the Kremlin decided to step up its military involvement in the region.

Robert Legvold, professor emeritus, Department of Political Science and the Harriman Institute, Columbia University:

Syria is a four-dimensional civil war that we all are losing, except for ISIS. One dimension is government versus anti-government. A second is Sunni versus Shia. A third is primarily within the Sunni community, radicals versus moderates. And the fourth is tribal, generating dozens and dozens of crosscutting tensions and conflicts.

The reason for U.S. policy failures to this point and Russian foreign policy failures to come is that each is focused on only one dimension—the government versus anti-government dimension, to which they then add the war against ISIS, creating a two-dimensional response to a multi-dimensional problem.

Not just the United States, but an effective coalition of the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and, for some purposes, Turkey, are failing because they are in no position to ensure the success of moderate or secular opposition forces fighting the Assad government. These are, in fact, losing their position and influence to the more radical elements in or close to the Nusra Front. 

Also read: "The US and Russia are fighting a new type of hybrid war in Syria"

Russia now enters this ugly fray with its military power and a coalition of Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria. The first-order objective is to ensure the Assad government is not militarily destroyed and, if possible, that its position is strengthened in any (unlikely) effort to negotiate a political settlement.

Russia has very real reasons to fear the success of ISIS, not least because more than 2,000 Russians, Azerbaijanis, and Central Asians have joined ISIS, and will at some point come home on a mission. But striking ISIS comes second for the Russian military to salvaging the Assad regime’s military position, and, given the immediate threat to that, this means attacking the opposition forces, including those supported by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the others. 

Unless the United States and Russia can find a way to make their positions on a political settlement of the Syrian civil war more compatible, there is little chance that they can really cooperate in addressing what is the genuine common interest they have in defeating ISIS.

Russian Sukhoi Su-24 tactical bombers at an airfield near Latakia, Syria. Photo: RIA Novosti

Perhaps there is some hope they can move in this direction, because the Obama Administration has dropped the precondition that Assad must go before anything else, and now proposes a “managed transition” that would leave the government in place during negotiations among all parties.

And Russia has made plain that it does not insist that Assad remain in power, if alternative arrangements could be worked out by all parties. But it seems far-fetched that the warring parties can be brought to the negotiating table. And the Russian proposal for all to join in a “grand coalition” to fight ISIS — that is, to join Russia’s coalition with Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria — has about as much chance succeeding as if the United States proposed a “grand coalition” where Russia is invited to join forces with it, France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Syrian opposition.

Russia will almost surely succeed in the short run in shoring up the military position of the Assad government. But then what? Is it prepared to maintain Assad’s forces (and the 20 percent of the country they control, with 80 percent of the country against them) for as long as this interminable civil war—now four years old—continues?

Or, worse, are the Russians willing to allow themselves to be drawn deeper in this civil war, attempting somehow to ensure victory for the forces they favor? If so, the somber, agonizing results of the Afghanistan wars, the Iraq war, and Libya war await them.

Michael E. O’Hanlon, senior fellow and director of research, Foreign Policy Department, Brookings Institution:

Russia’s intervention in Syria is not as surprising to me as to some people. Moscow clearly wishes to support a traditional ally, Assad, and retain influence and port access in the future Syria. 

Its interest in defeating ISIS is, to my mind, not the first motivation (based on Russia’s own actions and choices of targets so far). But I am sure President Putin would like to weaken ISIS too. He also senses that Western policy is in disarray in Syria and U.S. commitment there is limited in strength and scope.

I am worried, however. First, we have to work hard to de-conflict our respective roles, most of all airstrikes. Second, we should not be attacking the moderate opposition forces. Third, we all need a framework/vision for the future Syria towards which we can work cooperatively. Right now, that is lacking. I would suggest a “Bosnia model,” with autonomous zones and a weak post-Assad central government. 

This confederation would include Kurdish, Alawite, Druse, and Sunni sectors and a central multi-sectarian sector of the country as well (where Damascus would be located). An international peacekeeping force would be needed to uphold such a deal and both Russia and the United States would be needed in such a force—and would need to collaborate.

Also read: "Why Russia faces an uphill battle in forming an anti-ISIS coalition"

Russia, for example, might focus on the Alawite sector, the Mediterranean coastal region, and parts of the central/intermixed sector, once we get to the point where a deal is possible.

All of us would work to weaken and defeat ISIS.  That is my vision—and I believe it could work to reconcile Russian and American interests.

Andrei Tsygankov, professor of Department of Political Science and International Relations at San Francisco State University:

Russia’s involvement in a military conflict in Syria is a major decision that carries both serious potential and risks. Ideally, Putin’s decision will contribute to stabilization of Syria and the Middle East, improve relations with the West, and prevent radicalization of Muslims at home and in Central Asia.

However, the practical risks include Russia’s inability to widen the so far largely Shia-based coalition in the region, alienation of major powers outside the region, and decline of support at home. Russians remain skeptical of the military intervention in Syria with only 14 percent supportive of it. Although Putin promised no boots on the ground, the trauma of the Soviet war in Afghanistan remains unhealed and will play against the involvement in the Middle East.

In the meantime, war has its own logic. Russians may experience casualties, or inadvertently hit civilian targets, or feel additional needs to reinforce Assad’s army. These developments may push the intervention in a very unfortunate direction by turning it from a limited and effective operation into a prolonged war.

Steven Pifer, a senior fellow with the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution:

The Kremlin presumably has a logic for its military intervention in Syria, but it is difficult to discern. It is not clear what military capabilities Russia can bring to bear—particularly if it limits itself to air strikes, not ground troops—that would dramatically change the situation on the ground.

The U.S. and other militaries have for some time tried to use air power to degrade ISIS, with limited effect. And if the Russian intervention does not succeed, will Moscow escalate? What happens if ISIS or some other Syrian opposition group mounts an attack on a Russian base that produces a serious number of Russian casualties? The Kremlin may launched its air operations last week expecting to limit its role, but it could find itself pulled in deeper and deeper.

U.S. and Russian military forces presumably will find a way to deconflict their respective military operations in and over Syria. This weekend’s incident, where Turkish F-16s intercepted a Russian aircraft that strayed into Turkish airspace, illustrates the potential problem. Both sides should wish to avoid that.

Broader cooperation between the United States and Russia regarding Syria, however, is likely to be limited. There are two main obstacles to such cooperation. First, The United States, as well as Europe, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states, believe that Assad needs to go, given what he has done to his own people. The Russian intervention, on the other hand, appears designed to bolster Assad.

Second, U.S. military operations are targeted on ISIS. While a few Russian air strikes appear to have been targeted at ISIS, the bulk of the Russian air operations are aimed at other groups, far away from ISIS-controlled territory, including some groups that the West regards as moderate and potential participants in any political transition process in Syria. This difference in targets poses a second major obstacle to cooperation.

The challenge for Washington and Moscow may not be how to cooperate on Syria, but how to avoid that country becoming an even bigger problem on the bilateral agenda.

Jeffrey Mankoff,deputy director and fellow, Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) Russia and Eurasia Program:

The risks for U.S.-Russia relations from [Russia’s direct involvement into Syria] exist, but can be overstated, because relations are already pretty bad. There are real concerns, which deal with several things.

One, of course, is the potential for some kind of accident where U.S. and Russian planes might interact with each other. An accidental exchange of fire between U.S. and Russian forces might also happen and it is very dangerous. Military leadership of both sides are trying to minimize the risks.

The second issue has to deal with the fate of Syria itself, the future of Assad and his potential role. This issue is going to come up again when one starts thinking about the longer-term vision of Syria’s future, and here pretty substantial differences of opinion between the U.S. and Russia exist.

Are U.S. and Russian political objectives in Syria compatible? Maybe, in a limited way, but not fully. For instance, if Russian airstrike are actually targeting ISIS in coordination with the U.S.-led coalition partners, that is one thing. If they are being conducted against other rebels that are important for the U.S. as partners, that is a different thing.

A child inspects a site hit by what activists said was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar el-Asaad at Arbin town in Damascus countryside. Photo: Reuters

Third is if Russia starts suffering casualties because of military engagements with the rebels, ISIS or otherwise, does Russia, or do some Russian people start blaming the United States for those [casualties]? Does that contribute to increased difficulties [in U.S.-Russia relations]?

There may be the fourth point that deals with the regional issue. Russia seems to be trying to prevent arms that are going Syria from getting into hands of, let’s say, Hezbollah. There is a possibility that this might happen. Should Russian weaponry finds its way to Hezbollah, it might use this weaponry against Israel, which could create a bigger problem, including with the U.S.

So, for all these reasons there is a potential for problems to arise. However, at the same time, U.S.-Russia relations are not in the best shape: in terms of that specific danger [for bilateral relations], I do not think it is the greatest concern that Russia’s intervention creates. 

Gordon Hahn, advisory board member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, adjunct professor at Middlebury Institute for International Studies at Monterey:

There are now two jihadi organizations based in Russia’s North Caucasus at present: Caucasus Emirate, allied with Al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra, and the Caucasus Province of the Islamic State, a direct affiliate and part of ISIS. The latter is expected to continue to make extraordinary efforts to begin a campaign of suicide attacks and other forms of attack in the North Caucasus and Russia in general.

The geopolitical implications are profound potentially. Russia has “returned” to the Middle East in a major way not seen since the Cold War, though it has completely different goals now. Those goals are to protect the Assad regime as much as possible either in staying in power or being eased out, to establish Russia as a power to be reckoned with in the region and to weaken the global jihadi revolutionary movement which threatens Russian national security and that of its neighbors, especially but not only Central Asia and Azerbaijan.

The major risks for Russia include falling into the temptation to expand Russian efforts, including supplying advisors and special forces operations, leading to Russian casualties and further temptation drawing Russia into a quagmire.

In addition, the financial burden on the country could be considerable and combined with continuing low oil process and sanctions and a possible re-starting of the Ukrainian war this could overwhelm the Russian treasury, creating domestic problems for the “Putin elite” and destabilizing the regime.

Also read: "The Kremlin's Syria gamble is risky, but could have a big payoff"

Another issue is what the response of a new U.S. administration will be 16 months from now. The likely Republican president will not be a semi-isolationist like Rand Paul or a maverick like Donald Trump but, rather, an anti-Russian hawk. Another Bush administration is also unlikely to be very tolerant of Putin’s proactive foreign policy. So, we can expect even worse U.S.-Russian and Western-Russian relations in about a year and a half, with unforeseeable and potentially far-reaching consequences.

I do not see the Russian air campaign being effective unless it is willing to undertake a major effort to train, equip, inform with intelligence, and organize a ground war coalition combining the Syrian and Iraqi militaries, Iranian forces, and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The latter is ripe for stealing away from its Western allies, who are so beholden to Turkey, which has actually been assisting ISIS and other jihadi groups.

Putin’s effort could also expose the inadvertent Western and intentional Arab assistance from Qatar and Saudi Arabia going to ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadi groups in Syria. Could Russia win over members of the Western coalition? Possibly.