Why Putin’s Syria move is such a dilemma for Obama

Editor’s Note: Justin Bronk is a research analyst in military sciences at London-based think tank RUSI. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

While Russia's forces are unlikely to be beat back ISIS in Syria, says Justin Bronk, they will ensure President al-Assad remains in power

Bronk: Russia's entrance in the war ensures Putin is at the forefront of global diplomacy -- and makes Obama look unsure of himself

CNN  — 

Once again Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have stolen a march on U.S. President Barack Obama and his European and Gulf state allies by presenting them with a fait accompli in the shape of an established air, ground and naval forces presence in Syria at Latakia and Tartous.

The rapid Russian military build-up of forces and commencement of military operations in Syria has upset the established Western narratives on the Syrian civil war, operations against ISIS (also known as Islamic State), and Russia’s confrontation with NATO in Eastern Europe.

Justin Bronk

Putin is clearly reasserting Russian influence in the Middle East and attempting to preserve his barbaric ally Bashar al-Assad. But his stated objective of combating terrorists including ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria align strongly with the U.S.-led strikes against ISIS that have been only marginally successful since their commencement in August 2014.

Where no strong ground forces exist to support them, coalition airstrikes have failed to push ISIS back in Syria and Iraq.

Therefore, unlike the seizure of Crimea and the barely concealed military interventions in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine in support of pro-Russian proxy militias there, Putin’s latest move is a much more difficult one for the West to counter because if taken at face value it is helpful in the immediate struggle against ISIS.

However, the capabilities Russia has based in Syria over the past few weeks suggest that the West should not fall into the trap of accepting Putin’s “help” against ISIS without first being quite clear about his true intentions.

It is a seductive idea for many European nations, especially those bearing the brunt of the mass-influx of desperate refugees fleeing the Syrian conflict, to look for another way.

The U.S. strategy to defeat ISIS and promote the Free Syrian Army has spectacularly failed to bring about its stated aims in Syria. Putin will be looking to convince those states to accept Russian help in stabilizing Syria in exchange for acceptance of his seizure of Crimea and meddling in Eastern Ukraine.

Russia certainly has a reputation for brutally effective campaigns against armed insurgent groups when it commits to conflicts, especially after the destruction of Grozny during the Chechen wars in 1999-2000. However, the operations that began on Wednesday in Syria by the Russian forces in Latakia were airstrikes utilizing small numbers of tactical strike aircraft such as the outdated Su-24, and helicopter gunships.

If this sort of airpower could materially affect the outcome of the Syrian civil war then U.S. strikes that are highly precise and number in the high thousands in Syria would have long since demolished Islamic State’s ability to fight effectively. They have not.

Russia is certainly not looking to commit large numbers of ground forces to taking back territory in Syria from the Islamist groups; the Syrian Army and militias loyal to al-Assad are no longer capable of taking back huge swathes of territory even with air support. Therefore, the idea of Russian involvement in its current form offering a solution to the current conflict in Syria through military force is a false hope, though that will not stop Putin from trading on its appeal.

What Russia can and is accomplishing already with this action is twofold. Firstly, to ensure that al- Assad remains in power in regime-controlled areas of Syria, at least so long as he remains useful to the Russian regime. Russia now has the bases and the military flexibility to check any serious advances that threaten the regime’s survival near Aleppo or Damascus. While Russia’s aircraft and limited troop and heavy equipment deployments cannot make a strategic difference in terms of pushing ISIS out of Syria, they can make a tactically vital difference in specific engagements in the Western part of the country.

Smoke rises after airstrikes by Russian jets in Talbiseh, western Syria, on September 30, 2015.

The second, and much more important (for the West) accomplishment of this Russian deployment and action is that Putin is once again at the forefront of international diplomacy – participating in meetings with Obama and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to name but a few. This was supposed to be the sort of platform that Putin had lost as a result of his blatant and destabilizing military actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Now, however, the West has no choice but to talk to him.

The fact that Russian Su-30 multi-role fighters and Su-34 strike fighters – both of which have very potent air superiority capabilities – have also been deployed to Latakia, alongside ground attack jets and helicopters is also significant. These aircraft can hold at bay any Western military aircraft operating over Syria with the exception of the stealthy U.S. F-22 Raptors. This means that not only does the U.S.-led coalition have to include the Russian side in discussions at the operational level to ensure safety in the airspace over Syria; but also that Russian air superiority aircraft must now be factored into the risk assessments for coalition air operations.

The presence of these Russian fighters as well as surface-to-air missiles systems in Latakia also rules out any thoughts of a no-fly zone being imposed on the Syrian Air Force to stop the regime’s barrel bombing campaign. With relatively minimal force contributions and political risk, Putin has made Obama look unsure of himself, coalition military strategies much less flexible, and made sure Russia must now be considered a major player in the international quagmire that is the Syrian civil war.