4 days ago

Putin's Real Syria Agenda

Originally published in Institute for the Study of War
Key Takeaway:

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s primary objective in Syria is to constrain U.S. freedom of action – not fight ISIS and al Qaeda. Russia’s military deployments at current levels will not enable the Iranian-penetrated Assad regime to secure Syria. Moscow’s deepening footprint in Syria threatens America’s ability to defend its interests across the Middle East and in the Mediterranean Sea. The next U.S. step in Syria must help regain leverage over Russia rather than further encourage Putin’s expansionism.

Russia's intervention in Syria in September 2015 fundamentally altered the balance of the Syrian Civil War.[1] Russia re-established momentum behind Syrian President Bashar al Assad and his Iranian allies at a moment when major victories by ISIS and Syrian rebels threatened to force the regime to contract into Syria’s central corridor.[2] The capabilities Russia deployed were not limited to the airframes, artillery, and personnel needed to conduct a counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency mission, however. Russia deployed advanced air defense and ballistic missile systems, naval units, air superiority aircraft, and other capabilities in a display of major Russian force projection in the region. Russian President Vladimir Putin is altering the balance of power in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean through sustained Russian military operations and additional deployments of high-end capabilities.

Russian Force Projection

Russia ultimately seeks to expand its permanent naval and air bases on the Syrian coast in order to further project force into the Mediterranean and Middle East. Russia’s establishment of an anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) exclusion zone from its bases at Latakia and Tartous allows Russia to create de-facto no fly zones in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as over most of Syria. These A2/AD zones constrain U.S. freedom of movement and ultimately raise the cost of U.S. involvement in Syria.[3] Russia deployed the naval version of the S-300 to protect the airspace over Latakia airbase in Syria in November 2015.[4]  Russia also deployed the S-400 in late November 2015 shortly after the Turkish downing of a Russian jet.[5] Russia has since deployed an additional seven S-300 systems in an effort to build in redundancies, advance the integration of its air defenses, and provide more comprehensive coverage.[6] The S-300 and S-400 systems are road mobile and interoperable, increasing the difficulty of neutralizing the systems. [See Appendix I]

Putin wants to challenge the U.S. and its allies by increasing Russian military and political influence in the Middle East. Russia has rotated a wide range of naval vessels to participate in the conflict in order to demonstrate the capabilities of these units and Russia’s willingness to deploy them in the Mediterranean. Russia has deployed some of its most advanced non-nuclear naval capabilities to the Eastern Mediterranean.[7] Russian subsurface and surface vessels successfully engaged ground targets in Syria after launching Kalibr cruise missiles from the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas.[8] Russia has shown it can undertake precision strikes with the nuclear-capable Kalibr cruise missile at significant distance. Russia also maintains anti-ship capabilities in the Mediterranean, including the Bastion-P coastal defense system. Russia demonstrated the land attack capabilities of the Bastion in November 2016.[9] Russia has also deployed battle cruisers that bring advanced anti-ship and air defense capabilities off the Syrian coast. Russia’s deployment of its much-ridiculed aircraft carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov nevertheless showcased its force projection capabilities and intent to exhibit its naval presence in the Mediterranean.[10] [See Appendix II]

Putin has deployed air defense and anti-ship systems to Syria in order to threaten the United States. Russia does not need these systems to support the counter-terrorism campaign it claims it is waging against anti-Assad opposition groups in Syria. Those groups do not operate aircraft or naval vessels. Russia also deployed the nuclear-capable SS-26 ‘Iskander’ ballistic missiles to Syria and used the systems to attack opposition-held terrain.[11] The Iskander missiles provide no meaningful additional advantage against the opposition. The only conceivable target for these advanced systems is the U.S. and its allies. [See Appendix III]

Constrain U.S. Freedom of Action

Russia has used its deployment to constrain U.S. freedom of action and limit American policy options in Syria. Russia deployed the S-300 and S-400 air defense systems to deter the U.S. from direct military action against the Assad regime through the unilateral establishment of a no-fly zone. Russia has also forward deployed assets beyond its air and naval bases on the coast in order to further complicate the prospect of direct U.S. strikes against the Syrian regime for fear of inadvertently hitting Russian troops. Sources estimated that Russia maintains between 1,500 and 4,000 military personnel in Syria.[12] These personnel are primarily concentrated in Latakia, Aleppo, and Tartous Provinces, but are also active in Hama, Homs, Damascus, and Hasakah and include a wide range of units including air assault, tank, medical, naval infantry, and special operations forces. [See Appendix IV]

Russia has intentionally removed potential U.S. partners within the armed opposition from the battlefield in Syria. Russian airstrikes from October 2015 to March 2017 have primarily targeted the mainstream Syrian opposition – not ISIS – in order to ensure the opposition’s defeat through its submission, destruction, or transformation. The Russian air campaign has driven what remains of the mainstream opposition closer to Salafi-jihadi groups, which are stronger and better able to defend against intensified pro-regime military operations. Russia is also exacerbating radicalization through its deliberate, illegal targeting of civilians. Russia has consistently targeted hospitals, schools, and other critical civilian infrastructure throughout the sixteen months of its air campaign.

Russian Testing Grounds

Russia has also used sustained use of transport aircraft in Syria to exercise the Russian military’s overall combat readiness and force projection capabilities. Expeditionary logistics and force projection is difficult for militaries to exercise, in general. Russia is exercising expeditionary logistics by air and sea in Syria.[13] Russia is refining its ability to deploy its military personnel and equipment rapidly at a large scale in order to message its ability to threaten the U.S. and its NATO and European allies.  Russia announced its intent to prioritize the development of naval equipment for troop transport on March 8 in order to increase the Russian Navy’s ability to provide logistical support in Syria and in other coastal zones.[14] Russia also re-supplies and provides combat support for forces in Syria through frequent deliveries from Russian Il-76 and An-124 transport aircraft. As of October 2016, these transport aircraft were making multiple trips to Syria each month and it is likely that these aircraft continue to make regular trips to Syria. [See Appendix V]

Limitations of Russian Capabilities

Putin faces a number of economic and military constraints that limit the resources Russia can bring to bear in Syria. Russia’s economic crisis has forced Russia to balance limited resources across key theaters like Ukraine, the Baltics, the Middle East, and domestically in Russia. Putin has opted to pursue multiple, mutually reinforcing lines of effort using a diverse set of naval, air, missile, and ground capabilities in Syria. The overlap allows Russia to extract significant benefits with minimal cost. The Russian military has demonstrated its many shortcomings during its deployment to Syria, including frequent friendly fire incidents, losses of Russian aircraft, a poor performance by Russia’s aging aircraft carrier the Admiral Kuznetsov, and reports of mechanical failure of Russian equipment.[15]

The Russian deployment, at current levels, will be insufficient to grant Assad victory over the opposition, al Qaeda, or ISIS. Russia, Iran, and the regime have been unable to sustain significant simultaneous operations against ISIS and the Syrian opposition, despite Russia’s considerable airframe deployments. Russian airframes were unable to prevent ISIS’s recapture of Palmyra in December 2016 alongside a final pro-regime push to defeat the opposition in Aleppo, for example.[16] Russia has instead used ‘cessation of hostilities’ agreements to drawdown its airstrikes against the opposition and surge its air campaign against ISIS for limited periods of time.[17] Salafi-Jihadi groups have meanwhile begun to consolidate the opposition under more effective command-and-control structures, increasing rebels’ capabilities and resiliency.[18] This dynamic will not only lead to a protracted and bloody civil war for the foreseeable future, but it ultimately raises the requirements for the U.S. to deal with the conflict. 


Russia is both an unacceptable and ineffective partner against jihadists in Syria. The Russian deployment is inconsistent with Putin’s narrative that Russia intervened in Syria in order to combat terrorists. Many of its capabilities have no utility in the anti-ISIS fight. Putin instead seeks to use Russia's deployment to subordinate U.S. military action and policies to Russian objectives in Syria. Russia’s aggressive deployment to Syria intends to deter the U.S. from intervening for fear of incurring significant costs. Russia has largely pursued its objectives in Syria with impunity. It has deprived the U.S. of freedom of maneuver, disrupted U.S. partnerships with key allies in the region, and facilitated Russia’s emergence as a geopolitical force in the region. Any potential partnership with Russia in Syria will further strengthen jihadists and force the U.S. to capitulate to a Russian vision for the broader Middle East that endangers America’s security interests.

See full report for an appendix of charts outlining the high-end capabilities Russia has deployed to Syria since the start of the Russian intervention in September 2015.

[1] “Russian Deployment in Syria: Putin’s Middle East Game Changer,” Institute for the Study of War, September 17, 2015, http://understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-deployment-syria-putin’s-middle-east-game-changer;

“Russia’s First Reported Air Strikes in Syria Assist Regime with Targeting Broader Opposition,” Institute for the Study of War, September 30, 2015, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2015/09/russias-first-reported-air-strikes-in.html

[2]  Christopher Kozak, “Forecasting the Syrian Civil War,” Institute for the Study of War, September 17, 2015, http://understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Forecasting%20the%20Syrian%20Civil%20War.pdf ; Jennifer Cafarella and Christopher Kozak, “Likely Courses of Action in the Syrian Civil War June-December 2015,” Institute for the Study of War, June 12, 2015, http://understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/SYR%20COAs%20Backgrounder.pdf ; Anne Barnard and Hwaida Saad, “ISIS Fighters Seize Control of Syrian City of Palmyra, and Ancient Ruins,” New York Times, May 20, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/21/world/middleeast/syria-isis-fighters-enter-ancient-city-of-palmyra.html?_r=0 ; Jennifer Cafarella, “Assad Regime Loses Idlib to Jabhat al-Nusra and Rebel Offensive,” Institute for the Study of War, March 30, 2015,  http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2015/03/assad-regime-loses-idlib-to-jabhat-al.html

[3]   General Joseph L. Votel, “The Posture of U.S. Central Command,” statement before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, March 9, 2017, http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Votel_03-09-17.pdf

[4]   IBTimes, “Russia deploys S-300 anti-aircraft missile system in Syria after Sinai plane crash,” IBTimes, November 5, 2015, http://www.ibtimes.co.in/russia-deploys-s-300-anti-aircraft-missile-system-syria-after-sinai-plane-crash-653450 ; RT, “Sneak peek: A look at Russian air shield in Syria, included guided S-300 missile cruiser and S-400.” 18 December 2015. http://www.rt.com/news/326381-cruiser-moskva-s-400-syria/

[5]   “S-400 Missile Radius Map,” Institute for the Study of War, December 21, 2015, http://understandingwar.org/map/s-400-missile-radius-map ; Jonathan Marcus, “Russia S-400 Syria missile deployment sends robust signal,” BBC, December 1, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34976537 

[6]   Chris Harmer and Kathleen Weinberger, “Russia Advances its IADS in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, October 16, 2016, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2016/10/russia-advances-its-iads-in-syria.html

[7] Russia has deployed its advanced Kilo class, diesel-electric powered submarines to the Black Sea Fleet, which have taken part in offensives in Syria from the Mediterranean. Kilo-class submarines are equipped with nuclear-capable Kalibr cruise missiles. Russia launched strikes against targets in Syria using Kalibr missiles equipped with a conventional payload from the Rostov-na-Don Kilo-class submarine in December 2015 and from the Admiral Grigorovich frigate in November 2016. Surface vessels in Russia’s Caspian fleet had previously carried out similar strikes in November 2015.

[8] “Russian submarine with cruise missiles off Syria coast - reports - RT.com”. RT, 18 December 2015, https://www.rt.com/news/325060-russian-kilo-submarine-syria/. “Russian Admiral Grigorovich Frigate Targets Terrorists in Syria.” Sputnik, 15 November 2016. https://sputniknews.com/military/201611151047453617-frigate-syria-missiles/. Genevieve Casagrande and Jodi Brignola, “Russian Strikes in Syria: November 6-17, 2015,” Institute for the Study of War, November 18, 2015, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2015/11/russian-airstrikes-in-syria-november-6.html

[9]  Nicholas de Larrinaga, Sean O’Connor, and Neil Gibson, “Russia Reveals Bastion-P deployment, land attack role in Syria,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly , November 16, 2016, http://www.janes.com/article/65517/russia-reveals-bastion-p-deployment-land-attack-role-in-syria

[10]   Chris Kozak, Kathleen Weinberger, Genevieve Casagrande and Jonathan Mautner,

Warning Update: Russia Escalates Its Air Campaign in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, November 17, 2016,  http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2016/11/warning-update-russia-begins-major.html ; Jonathan Mautner, Genevieve Casagrande, and Christopher Kozak with Omar Kebbe, Kathleen Weinberger, Franklin Holcomb, and Benjamin Knudsen, “Warning Update: Russia Prepares to Escalate Military Intervention in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, November 4, 2016, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2016/11/warning-update-russia-prepares-to.html

[11] Lucas Tomlinson, “Russia sends Syria its largest missile delivery to date, US officials say,” Fox News, February 8, 2017, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/02/08/russia-sends-syria-its-largest-missile-delivery-to-date-us-officials-say.html ; Jonathan Mautner, “Russian Airstrikes in Syria: January 12 – February 7, 2017,” Institute for the Study of War, February 10, 2017, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2017/02/russian-airstrikes-in-syria-january-12.html .

[12] The exact number of Russian military personnel in Syria is unknown. Open source reports estimate between 1,500 and 4,000 Russian troops remain in Syria. [See Appendix III]

[13]   Jack Stubbs and Maria Tsvetkova, “Russia builds up forces in Syria, Reuters data analysis shows,” Reuters, October 7, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-exclusive-idUSKCN1271YO

[14] Andrews Osborn, “Russia expands military transport fleet to move troops along distances,” Reuters, March 7, 2017,  http://www.reuters.com/article/russia-navy-expansion-idUSL5N1GK470;

“Russian Defense Minister General of the Army Sergei Shoigu held another conference call,” Russian Ministry of Defense, March 7, 2017, http://function.mil(.)ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12114155@egNews

[15]   Gaith Ali, [“Russian airstrike targets the Jabla city for unknown reasons”], All4Syria, January 15, 2017, http://www.all4syria.info/Archive/379639 ; Hwaida Saad and Eric Schmitt, “Syria Blames U.S. in Base Bombing, but Americans Blame Russia,” New York Times, December 7, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/08/world/middleeast/syria-airstrikes.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&_r=0 ; NOW Lebanon, “Errant Russia airstrike kills Hezbollah fighters: report,” NOW Lebanon, October 30, 2015, https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/NewsReports/566146-errant-russia-airstrike-kills-hezbollah-fighters-report ; Orient News, [“Friendly fire… Russian airstrikes on Hezbollah positions in Aleppo”], Orient News, December 14, 2016, http://www.orient-news.net/ar/news_show/128792/%D9%86%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%B5%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%82%D8%A9-%D9%82%D8%B5%D9%81-%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B3%D9%8A-%D9%84%D9%85%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%82%D8%B9-%D8%AD%D8%B2%D8%A8-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%84%D9%87-%D8%A8%D8%AD%D9%84%D8%A8-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%AE%D9%84%D9%81%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D8%AA%D9%81%D8%A7%D9%82-%D8%AD%D9%84%D8%A8 ; David Filipov and Andrew Roth, “Russian jets keep crashing, and it may be an aircraft carrier’s fault,” Washington Post, December 5, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/russia-just-lost-its-second-warplane-in-a-month-of-syria/2016/12/05/f8353be8-bad8-11e6-817f-e3b588251d1e_story.html?utm_term=.a24b417ff5d6 ;  Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Satellite images  highlight potential problems with Russia’s lone aircraft carrier,” Washington Post, November 30, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2016/11/30/satellite-images-highlight-potential-problems-with-russias-lone-aircraft-carrier/?utm_term=.393f55a93e34 ; Robert Beckhusen, “Why Russia’s Only Aircraft Carrier Might be Getting Ready for War in Syria,” The National Interest, July 5, 2016, http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/why-russias-only-aircraft-carrier-might-be-getting-ready-war-16845 ; Enab Baladi, [“Explosion of Russian Military Vehicle Terrorizes Residents of Jabla and Banyas”], Enab Baladi, February 5, 2017, http://www.enabbaladi.net/archives/129269

[16]   Christopher Kozak and Alexandra Gutowski, “ISIS Recaptures Palmyra in Major Blow to Pro-Regime Forces,” Institute for the Study of War, December 13, 2016, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2016/12/isis-recaptures-palmyra-in-major-blow.html

[17] Genevieve Casagrande, “Russian Airstrikes in Syria: Pre-and Post Cessation of Hostilities,” Institute for the Study of War, September 21, 2016, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2016/09/russian-airstrikes-in-syria-pre-and.html

[18]   John Davison, “Syria Islamist factions, including former al Qaeda branch, join forces: statement,” Reuters, January 28, 2017,  http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-rebels-idUSKBN15C0MV ; Mariya Petkova, “Syrian opposition factions join Ahrar al-Sham,” Al Jazeera, January 26, 2017, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/01/syrian-opposition-factions-join-ahrar-al-sham-170126133928474.html

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