BEIRUT – Eleven weeks after Moscow launched its first airstrikes in Syria, the scream of Russian warplanes have become so familiar in rebel-held areas that even children recognize them. But the military map of the conflict has changed little, and the Kremlin’s forces have become another set of players in a civil war that seems to defy solution.
While the air campaign, begun in a burst of enthusiasm on Sept. 30, has blunted rebel advances, it has had minimal effect on the jihadis of the
Islamic State, the declared target, and it has made an already dire humanitarian crisis even worse.
Instead, the campaign’s greatest effects may have been on the political fortunes of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, who has leveraged Russia’s intervention to make himself a necessary interlocutor in efforts to end the Syrian civil war.
Yet his gambit in Syria is proving to be a double-edged sword. It has come at great expense: in Russian lives, resources, a dangerous clash with Turkey and other costs that could grow significantly in the months ahead. Russia, like the United States, has found that airpower alone has done relatively little to shift the status quo on the ground, leaving it dependent on the distant hope that a political process can find a way out.
With this military escalation, the Russians have put themselves back at the center of the Syrian equation and at the forefront of the diplomatic stage,” said Noah Bonsey, a Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group, “But on the ground, returns on their military investment have proven limited and are unlikely to improve.”
Frederic C. Hof, a former State Department official for Syria in the Obama administration and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said “what matters is ground power, and that is where we have not seen anything terribly significant in the regime-Russian combination so far.”
On Monday, the EU delayed a decision on whether to renew its sanctions against Russia, as cracks appear in the once-unified support for punitive measures against Putin. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Moscow on Tuesday, as well, seeking to narrow the gaps with Putin so that new peace talks on Syria can be scheduled for early next year.
But Putin has paid a price for this improvement in his diplomatic standing, and is likely to soon feel just as pressured as President Barack Obama and European leaders to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict.
As it struggles economically because of low oil prices and international sanctions, the last thing Russia needs is a quagmire requiring continued investment while possibly souring the mood at home and fraying relations with other countries.
Already, Russia has seen hundreds of citizens killed in the terrorist bombing of an airliner as it left the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, and relations with Turkey were ruptured after Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian warplane. In addition to the loss of life, the disasters cut the Russian public off from their two favorite and most affordable vacation spots, just as they are beginning to feel the pinch of inflation.
And there remains the possibility of blowback by Russian-speaking jihadis, thousands of whom have joined the ranks of the Islamic State and could seek to return home to carry out attacks.
So while it remains true that the United States and Europe need Putin to deal with troubles around the world, in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, it is becoming increasingly clear that Putin might need their help, too.
Kerry met for nearly four hours Tuesday evening with Putin in the Kremlin, in talks intended to smooth differences over a planned round of Syria negotiations set to take place in New York on Friday.
Among the issues to be decided in the runup to the proposed talks is which of the dozens of militias fighting in Syria should speak for the Syrian opposition, and which should be designated terrorist organizations.
The United States, Kerry said, was not seeking Assad’s ouster per se, but rather considers it unlikely he can preside over a successful settlement.
Moscow said at the start that it was going after the Islamic State, which controls territory in eastern Syria and in Iraq. But instead it has mostly bombed rebel forces in the country’s northwest, near the threatened stronghold of Assad and his Alawite sect, leading many to conclude that its primary goal is to sustain his rule.
In some areas, like near the government-held coastal enclave of Latakia, Russian air support has helped stop rebel advances. And south of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, government forces have gained territory, although most of it is sparsely populated.
Perhaps the government’s greatest achievement since the Russian airstrikes began was to break the siege by Islamic State fighters of the Kweiras military air base near Aleppo. But even that is unlikely to greatly affect the course of the wider war
In rebel-held territory, the Russian campaign has added a new level of terror, creating a fresh wave of civilian refugees and damaging critical infrastructure, according to opposition activists and international monitors.
“The Russian bombing is worse than that by the regime,” said Shadi al-Owaini, an anti-government activist in northwestern Syria whose office was recently destroyed by what he thinks was a Russian bomb.
Residents of opposition areas had grown accustomed to attacks by the Syrian government, but the Russian airstrikes have proved to be more accurate and destructive, al-Owaini said.
So many have fled that some villages are now nearly empty, and those who stay avoid unnecessary movements. “In the past, I used to drive my car around,” he said. “Nowadays, no way, we will be bombed immediately.”
Russian jets have also targeted supply lines that connect rebel areas with Turkey and infrastructure like water treatment plants, international monitors say. A strike believed to have been carried out by a Russian warplane took place at a fuel market in Idlib province on Tuesday, destroying tanker trucks, setting huge fires and killing 16 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict from Britain through contacts in Syria.
Yet for all that, analysts say, the strikes have yet to lead to major shifts in the front lines that divide the country.
Aron Lund, the editor of the Syria in Crisis blog published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Russian strikes could eventually have a cumulative effect by exhausting rebels and damaging their bases and infrastructure.
So far, he said, their concrete effects have been few. “Given the level of investment this represents for the Russians and the fact that you can only cross this boundary once, the regime and the Russians must have hoped for more radical change.”
Like the United States in its entanglement with the Islamic State, Russia is relearning the old lesson that no matter how damaging, airstrikes can accomplish little in the absence of reliable ground forces to take and hold territory.
After nearly five years of conflict, Assad’s forces are exhausted and lacking the manpower to gain significant ground.
For now, at least, the United States is pressing for Russian cooperation on peace talks. While Russia has agreed in principle to push for talks, it dismisses most of the Syrian opposition as terrorists and it remains unclear if it will agree to talks with a new opposition body formed in Saudi Arabia this month. Also unclear is if Russia will agree to the departure of Assad in some transitional process – a condition the opposition insists on.
But if there is little change on the battlefield, Putin’s resistance may begin to dwindle.