Journal Essay

Operation "Retribution": Putin's Military Campaign in Syria, 2015-16

Brian Glyn Williams and Robert Souza

Winter 2016, Volume XXIII, Number 4

Dr. Williams is Professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and the author of Counter-Jihad. The American Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria (University of Pennsylvania Press, November 2016). He previously worked for the CIA's CTC in Afghanistan and in Kabul for the Army's Information Operations. Mr. Souza is an assistant managing editor at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy in Washington, D.C., and a research analyst for the Center for the Study of Targeted Killings.

September 30, 2016, marked the first anniversary of Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to involve his nation militarily in the Syrian conflict on the side of Moscow's longtime ally, the Assad regime. According to initial Russian Defense Ministry statements and Putin himself, the mission had the primary objective of joining the U.S.-led coalition in fighting ISIS. Russia's chief of staff of the Presidential Executive Office at that time, Sergei Ivanov, using an alternative name for ISIS, laid out his country's official objectives on September 30, 2015: "The military goal of the operation is strictly to provide air support for the [Syrian] government forces in their fight against Islamic State."1 The Mufti of Kazan (the head of Russia's Tatar community) and members of the Russian parliament lined up to support Putin's campaign in Syria, described as a "prophylactic against terrorist organizations" that was necessary to "destroy ISIS at its root."2

It soon became widely apparent, however, that the Russians had conflated ISIS with CIA-backed rebels and various other anti-Assad Sunni rebel forces with no known connection to ISIS, creating the false narrative of a united terrorist monolith that needed to be eradicated in order to preserve stability in Syria. In the process, Putin was able to successfully "shift the sands" of the conflict and bolster the endangered Assad regime while simultaneously cultivating his image domestically as a strong leader: able to stand up to the West, project power abroad, and support an embattled ally against international jihadists. The operation has been consistently portrayed in Russia as an unmitigated success in "inflicting heavy losses on Syrian terrorist groups."3 There seems to be little doubt among observers that Putin's venture into the Mideast has reshaped the war in Syria, but has it been a success in the larger strategic sense?

What follows is an effort to evaluate the first year of this still-unfolding military campaign, with the aim of assessing the validity of the Russian claims of success.

BACKGROUND

Russia has long been a key supporter of the Syrian Baathist Socialist regime. Hafez al-Assad, father and predecessor of current President Bashar al-Assad, spent years in the Soviet Union learning to fly MIG-15s and MIG-17s as an officer in the Syrian armed forces. The elder Assad subsequently seized control of Syria in a coup in 1970 and brought to power his ethno-religious group, the Alawites (15 percent of Syria's population, they adhere to a syncretic offshoot of Shiite Islam). Having designated himself president, Assad followed the model of a Soviet single-party state, with an all-pervasive network of intelligence agencies that kept the restless Sunni majority in check.4

In 1971, the Assad regime provided the USSR with a naval facility in Tartus, on Syria's Mediterranean coast. It remains there today, Russia's sole military facility outside the former Soviet Union. Moscow's basic docking facility, however, is not big enough to be designated a "base"; instead it is described as a "Material Technical Support Point." The Russian facility consists of two floating piers and an Amur-class floating workshop. It is not capable of supporting any of Russia's major warships — frigates, destroyers or its one comparatively small aircraft carrier. This Material Technical Support Point can in no way be compared to massive U.S. naval and aerial facilities in the Persian Gulf, which host 20 aircraft carriers, for example.

Still, as the threat to Assad mounted in 2015 amid the bloody civil war — posed by a new alliance of non-ISIS Sunni rebel groups in northwest Syria known as Jaish al Fatah (the Army of Conquest) — concern grew in Moscow over possible threats to this asset. In addition to his interest in defending this facility, Putin feared the chaos stemming from the overthrow of strongmen in the region, having noted the turmoil that swept over Libya and Iraq following U.S. intervention. He also felt the need to show the world, and his own audience at home, that Russia stood by its allies. When the Arab Spring demonstrations shook the region in 2011, Putin claimed the United States had abandoned its ally, President Hosni Mubarak, in Egypt. But Putin decided to stand by his ally, Assad, when civil war broke out between the ruling Alawites and dozens of Sunni rebel groups.

Putin feared the threat to Assad from an alliance of Sunni rebel groups, the aforementioned Army of Conquest, advancing on the Alawite coastal homeland. The Sunni alliance, which threatened both the Russian naval facility and Assad, had conquered Idlib Province in northwestern Syria soon after its formation in March 2015. Putin was alarmed when these Sunni rebels began to encroach on the Alawite coastal stronghold in southern Latakia (for three years the Sunni rebels had held northern Latakia).

At this time, the Iranians, unwavering allies of the Assad regime since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, warned Putin that Assad was going to fall and that they did not have the means to save him. In July 2015, the commander of the Quds Force, an elite extraterritorial special-forces arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Major General Qassem Soleimani, visited Moscow to make his case for Russian involvement in Syria. He explained that the Sunni rebel advances were endangering not only their joint ally Assad, but Russia's military assets at Tartus. A senior Assad official recalled, "Soleimani put the map of Syria on the table. The Russians were very alarmed, and felt matters were in steep decline and that there were real dangers to the regime."5 Soleimani was able to convince his Russian hosts that their involvement was essential.

Putin agreed that Assad needed to be bolstered as a bulwark against "terrorists," lumping all Sunni rebel groups into this category alongside ISIS.6 Tellingly, Putin directly blamed the United States for "creating the conditions in which the [ISIS] terrorist state was born": "Tens of thousands of militants are fighting under the banners of [ISIS]. Its ranks include former Iraqi servicemen who were thrown out on to the street after the [U.S.] invasion of Iraq in 2003."7

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