In Moscow’s Shadows

Russian Intervention in Syria can only Slow Down Assad’s Defeat

25 November 2015

NYU professor and author of the blog In Moscow’s Shadows, Mark Galeotti, talks Russian foreign policy at the Warsaw Security Forum

by Santiago de la Presilla

Santiago de la Presilla: If flight A321 was indeed taken down by ISIS in Egypt, what does it entail for Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East?

Mark Galeotti: This bomb would’ve almost certainly been put on in Egypt, it’s an open secret that security at Sharm el-Sheikh is terribly poor. All of this simply says that this is quite an unfortunate reality of modern terrorism. These days Russian airports are fairly well secured, not the best, but certainly far better than they were a few years back. But this doesn’t matter, when you have a flight that goes through an airport known to be very lax with its security, you’re just stuck.

I don’t want to read too much into this, but let’s assume this was a bomb attack, since we don’t know for certain. It does sort of bear out what has been this increasing risk of ISIS now targeting Russia much more assiduously, it’s not just what’s happening in the North Caucasus, but now you have the ISIS spokesman calling for all Muslim youth to strike against the Russians. Now they have all this whole new variety of security threats that, quite frankly, I don’t think they considered when they started their Syrian adventure.

This is one of the problems that actually brings a much more wider issue, which is how much Putin actually knows about this. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if no one actually brought up the terrorism issue with him, because no one wants to bring bad news to the Tsar’s table.

So you think that the Kremlin didn’t consider the security risks that come from Middle East intervention? Even if the Muslim population in Russia might see this as Muslims in Europe view the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya?

The overwhelming majority of Russian Muslims don’t have a problem, they’re not jihadists or anything like that. We always have to start with that.

I think they considered the domestic issue, they considered precisely what might happen in the North Caucasus or what might happen particularly with their large Central Asian migrant population, but the thought that you might have some guy in Egypt potentially smuggling a bomb into a plane or some guy in Paris deciding to shoot an embassy, or whatever the next incident may be, I’m not sure they considered the wider picture.

After all this wasn’t really about ISIS, it didn’t really have that much to do with Assad either.

Are you saying the Russians bombing Syria isn’t a clear effort to try and prop up Assad? Or is it just a sideshow as some other pundits are calling it?

It was in part to prop up Assad, he was in a particularly dangerous point. They certainly don’t mind blowing up ISIS, because they’re worried about their own nationals going back. But first and foremost, this was about relations with the West, this is about creating a bargaining chip and saying: “Look, you can try and isolate us, but you won’t succeed. Because we can inject ourselves into areas of chaos and of relevance to you, and then we give you a choice: we can make things better for you if you’re willing to deal with us, or we can make things more problematic.” This is a classic Putin thing, stir up trouble and then offer help to clear up the trouble, but only if he gets what he wants.

That reminds of what Ukraine’s foreign minister said today on Putin trading instability like you would commodities in the stock market, you buy a little here, you sell a little bit there. Is that the case in Syria?

Absolutely, that’s a nice way of looking at it. Clearly what’s happening here it’s that the Russians got bogged down in Ukraine, they have sanctions which are not as serious as the oil crisis, but nonetheless, it doesn’t help. They have diplomatic isolation, and they’d like to get out of that particular mire, it’s costing them money and political capital, so given that the West isn’t willing to cooperate, they intervened in Syria and more or less said: “Look, we are willing to play nice in Syria as long as you basically allow us to rectify ourselves from the Donbas,” which is really what they’re after.

Do you think that therefore Russia has won the propaganda war? At least when it comes to selling the Syrian intervention to Western audiences, RT and Sputnik are everywhere.

Yes, but these still compare poorly with for example, the BBC. There is one propaganda war, yes, but there are lots of wars being fought. There is a propaganda war being fought at home, where on the whole, Putin’s regime has been quite successful persuading its own people on how he views the outside world. Then elsewhere, what happens is that places like RT and other propaganda outlets work where people are sick of the conventional coverage.

For example in the UK, it’s fascinating that RT watching is huge in Scotland. During the Scottish referendum RT was very much pushing that. The point is, also because RT provided a different voice from the mainstream, London-focused channel. A lot of Scots gravitated to it. Again, it’s one of our weaknesses. There’s been some studies on this: the kind of people who watch RT, are the same kind of people who think 9/11 conspiracies are true, the people that think that they’re already being lied to.

What do you make of Assad’s snap visit that he made to Putin in Moscow? That blew up even in Western media.

It was two things: reminding Assad who’s boss, because one of the few bargaining chips that Russians have got is that they’re probably the only people who can persuade Assad to step down. They can provide him with some nice statue outside Moscow and join all the other ex-dictators living outside of Moscow, as well as elevating some other figure, if it was in their interests.

The other thing is emphasizing that Russia can do things that the West cannot do. This is one of their basic pictures: “You need to talk to us because we’ve got capabilities and capacities that we could use for mischief or make useful for you, you choose which one’s gonna be.”

What do you make of the “war-porn” that Russian media keeps showing? Does it really have any effect on how people view the war in Syria?

They’re trying to build an image of Russia being a powerful force. The worst thing in Putin’s point of view is to be considered irrelevant, whether you consider him a friend or foe, the last thing he wants to be is ignored. One of the purposes of this war-porn, which is not that different from what we saw during Desert Storm, is to build an image. If Desert Storm were happening tomorrow, we’d see the same.

Firstly, it gets viewers. There is a market for war-porn, how many people have seen the YouTube clips of drones firing at terrorist positions? Secondly, it hammers home this image of Russia’s military power. There is a considerable degree in which Russia’s military power is overhyped, some units have been brought up to fairly good levels, but a lot of reform still needs to be done. But by concentrating on the successes or the apparent successes and so forth, they make the West much more alarmed. Hence events like these… When people worry about Russia, it gives Putin leverage.

Lavrov said the air campaign in Syria would last for about 4 months and that there won’t be any ground troops involved. They’ve denied sending ground troops many times, isn’t this how long wars always start?

This is it. We know something’s going to go wrong, it always does. If I was one of these terrorist I’d be asking myself how to take down one of the supply ships coming from Turkey filled with ammunition, it’s not only going to affect their capacity to continue the airstrikes but it’s going to be a big splashy thing that a lot of phones are going to capture, as well as being all over the news. Otherwise it’ll be a Russian plane taken down or crashing for technical reasons and we’ll see a pilot being beheaded on YouTube, whatever it is, something will happen.

Then, the hardest thing to do for political leadership, is to do nothing. They can say: “Yes, this is a shame, but we have a strategy and we’ll continue it,” I think it’s possible Putin could do that, but I think he’d feel the need to respond either by pulling out, which considering his macho persona it’s hard to believe, or he’ll escalate. This is my concern, the Russians think they’re in control of this operation, they think they can control the time, but in practice they’ve got engaged into a machine they can only partially control. This won’t be Afghanistan, the Russians just don’t have the capacity to deploy ground troops. They can deploy more airpower.

Assad’s losing, the ground offensive they launched has bogged down, they’ve had a few minor gains but nothing else. All this current intervention can do is slow down the rate at which Assad losses, that’s the best they can really offer.

Mark Galeotti is a Professor of Global Affairs at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University and an expert and prolific author on transnational crime and Russian security affairs. Previously, he was the Academic Chair of the Center for Global Affairs. He is a columnist for both the Moscow Times and Business New Europe. Author of the blog In Moscow’s Shadows.

Santiago de la Presilla is a Warsaw-based journalist, contributor for the Warsaw Business Journal and the defense blog War is Boring. He writes mostly about European politics, the Ukraine crisis and foreign policy.