Putin's Quagmire in Syria Proves Obama Prescient

  • Officials in Moscow no longer talking about war lasting months
  • Russia's mid-November surge doubled cost of military campaign

U.S. President Barack Obama, facing criticism at home over his Islamic State strategy, is turning out to be right with his prediction that Vladimir Putin’s own campaign in Syria will descend into a quagmire.

Many senior officials in Moscow underestimated how long the operation in support of Bashar al-Assad would take when Putin entered Syria’s civil war on Sept. 30 and no longer talk in terms of just a few months, with one saying the hope now is that it won’t last several years.

Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad
Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad
Photographer: Alexey Druzhinin/AFP via Getty Images

With the mission in its third month, Putin is pouring materiel and manpower into Syria at a pace unanticipated by lawmakers already struggling to meet his spending goals. The plunging price of oil is sapping revenue and prolonging Russia’s first recession in six years, prompting the Defense Ministry this week to postpone some new weapons programs. 

“This operation will last a year at a minimum,” said Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of the Defense Committee in the upper house of parliament. “I was expecting more from Syria’s army.”

‘Mission Creep’

Russia initially earmarked just $1.2 billion for the war for all of 2016, an official familiar with the matter said. Outlays were running at about $4 million a day before Putin’s mid-November surge in troops and hardware, which doubled the cost to $8 million, or almost $3 billion on an annualized basis, according to the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, a military research group based in London.

But there’s no backing down for Putin, who vowed to destroy Islamic State for the Oct. 31 bombing of a passenger jet over Sinai that killed 224 Russians. 

The Russian leader is also locked in an increasingly personal confrontation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom he accused of supporting Islamic State through illicit oil sales, which Erdogan denies. Putin called Turkey’s downing of a Russian bomber two weeks ago “a stab in the back” that Erdogan will regret “again and again.”

“Putin will be forced to pull in more and more ground troops, further exposing them to attacks and further increasing the likelihood of mission creep,” said Joerg Forbrig, senior program director at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. in Berlin. “One year is in no way near realistic.”

Soviet Decline 

Putin is keenly aware of the risk of getting bogged down in an intractable conflict like the Soviet Union did after its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, when Russians last fought in a Muslim land to suppress a revolt backed by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The Afghan War, which caused the deaths of 15,000 Soviet soldiers, drained the economy at a time of low oil prices and sounded the death knell for global communism.

But avoiding another quagmire will depend on forging an international front against Islamic State, which Putin and his French counterpart Francois Hollande both favor. Obama has refused to join forces with Russia, though he has tempered his demands for Assad to step down, now saying the Syrian leader must eventually depart while leaving his military and institutions intact.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that Russia has been “helpful” in the efforts to forge a transition in Syria, though his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov accused the U.S. and its allies of encouraging the spread of Islamic State through their calls for Assad’s ouster.

Obama has been under fire from Republicans who say he hasn’t been aggressive enough against the terrorist group, which controls swaths of Syria and Iraq. The U.S.-led coalition targeting Islamic State dropped 3,271 bombs in November, the most in its 16-month campaign, Air Force data show.

‘Bogged Down’

“I think Mr. Putin understands that with Afghanistan fresh in the memory, for him to simply get bogged down in an inconclusive and paralyzing civil conflict is not the outcome that he’s looking for,” Obama said in Paris last week. “It is possible, over the next several months, that we’ll see a shift in calculations by the Russians.”

Maybe, but right now what those Russians are calculating is how best to maximize the combined capabilities of Syrian and Russian forces on land, in the air and at sea, according to Leonid Reshetnikov, a retired Foreign Intelligence Service general who now heads a Kremlin advisory group.

Assad’s fate isn’t an “insurmountable obstacle” but this isn’t an issue that can be resolved now, Reshetnikov said. “At the moment we need to concentrate on the fight against Islamic State.”

Shifting Strategy 

While Syrian forces backed by Russian firepower have had some successes, such as breaking Islamic State’s two-year siege of a strategic air base near Aleppo, Putin is only now starting to realize that he can’t defeat the group through air power alone, said Anton Lavrov, a Russian military analyst.

While the U.S. and its allies have complained Putin’s focus has been on protecting Assad rather than stopping Islamic State, that strategy may have shifted. Russia is increasingly targeting the group’s oil operations and, for the first time in the campaign, launched missiles this week from a submarine at Raqqa, the heart of the self-declared caliphate.

Putin last month more than doubled the fleet of warplanes involved in bombing missions to about 70 and increased the number of ships in the operation to 10. Six of those are in the Mediterranean, including one carrying Russia’s most advanced air-defense system, the S400, which can cover all of Syria.

Troop Surge

Russia now has as many as 5,000 servicemen on the ground, more than double the original estimate of 2,000, according to RUSI researcher Igor Sutyagin. While Putin continues to rule out a land offensive, hundreds of advisers are already embedded with the Syrian army, he said.

Nobody in the Russian leadership is underestimating the difficulty of the challenge any more, according to Andrei Klimov, deputy head of the International Affairs Committee in the upper house of parliament.

“The threat we’re confronting is 45,000 to 50,000 fighters with military experience, fighters from Chechnya and Afghanistan, Syrian army officers that we trained ourselves.” Klimov said. “This is a very serious opponent.”

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