Massenbach-Letter. News | Lowdown: Making Sense of Russia’s Syria Strategy * Brookings: Russia’s military is proving Western punditry wrong*
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Lowdown: Making Sense of Russia’s Syria Strategy
A view from Moscow on Russia’s strategy behind its Syrian move. By Andrey Sushentsov
Russians are once again proving to be cold-blooded strategists. The Kremlin’s recent move in Syria has caught off guard not only ISIS, but also most Western intelligence services and analysts. Russia’s ability to alter the strategic situation on the ground with minimum efforts and maximum maskirovka deserves appreciation. However, Moscow fights ISIS not out of noble consideration. It is a practical issue of Russian national security.
Russian security connection with Syria
Russia was weighing its involvement at least since 2013 when it first proposed to replace outgoing Austrian peacekeepers with Russians  at the Golan Heights. Since 2013, Moscow took a major role in disarming Syria of chemical weapons – and the first serious contacts with Damascus on battling Islamists started then. Parallel to this Russia engaged in a strategic military dialogue with Iraq, reaching a 4,2 billion USD weapon deal with Baghdad  in 2012 and supplying much needed Su-25 fighters  in 2014. In July 2015 Russia reach agreement with Iran  to joint efforts in securing victory for Syria in the battle against ISIS. From that time question of assaulting ISIS was not “if”, but “when” and “how.” The Ukraine crisis did not change the calculus, but postponed the move.
Security interests at stake motivated Russian agitation. Allowing ISIS to consolidate its control in Syria and Iraq would mean that in 5 years a new spurt of well-prepared terrorists would return to the North Caucasus and Central Asia. By Russian estimates , out of 70,000 ISIS fighters up to 5000 are Russian and CIS natives. Thinking strategically, the effort of battling them in the Middle East will deliver bigger long-term gains at a relatively low-cost then facing them off at home.
Limited involvement strategy
Russian strategy in Syria has two scenarios. The first one is limited in scope and posture. Its advantage is that by applying minimum resources and keeping the bar low, Moscow still gets a lot.
First, Russia can disrupt the terrorist infrastructure and prevent it from holding ground without the necessity of defeating it completely. North Caucasian terrorists are eliminated at home, but in Syria’s “no man’s land” they can rebuild training facilities and launch the export of terror to Russia – as they did in Afghanistan under Taliban.
Second, Moscow seeks to sustain a friendly regime in Syria. Russia can invest in its first major military naval facility in Mediterranean and secure primacy in gas extraction projects on the Syrian, Cyprus and Israel shelf.
Third, Russia is asserting itself as a leading Middle East power capable of effective expeditionary military operations. Before that, no one else besides the U.S. could have projected power so far from its borders. In Syria Russia has displayed its renewed ability to affect events in far-away regions and thus significantly changed calculus in the Middle Eastern capitals. By hitting ISIS in Syria with cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea, Russia also cemented its presence in that region.
Lastly, Syrian operation is an exhibition of Russian armament, satellite communication and geolocation system GLONASS – its deadly effectiveness, high-preciousness and reliability. This show is staged primarily for the customers of the biggest and growing weapon market in the world – Middle Eastern countries. However, it also certifies that Russia maintains full sovereignty in matters of the 21-st century war.
Shifting attention from Ukraine to Syria was not among the Moscow’s top aims, but since it is happening as a consequence of recent events, we can also consider this as Russia’s gain.
Extensive involvement possibility
The above-mentioned goals are the minimum achievements Russia can accomplish, provided its bombing campaign go smoothly. The high bar of the second strategy is bigger – and riskier – than this. And it promises less.
With assistance from Syria, Iraq and Iran, Russia can aspire to defeat and eliminate ISIS in the region including its CIS fighters. If attained, this monumental achievement would pave the way for a restoration of the traditional borders of Syria and Iraq and secure their allegiance to Russia for the future. Bringing stability to Syria and Iraq will mean fostering conditions to normalize life there. This will relieve the refugee Syrian crisis in the region and the European Union.
However, these challenges can be realistically tackled only by applying much more formidable resources and in coordination with a broader coalition, which should include Western powers and Arab states of the Persian Gulf. In the absence of the latter, the second scenario benchmarks are bigger than Moscow’s current plan.
Resource management for the war with ISIS
Does Russia have sufficient resources to go its way in Syria?
Moscow secured full support of Syria, Iraq and Iran and can now act independently from the West. Russian allies are vitally interested in battling ISIS and were doing so prior to Moscow’s engagement. It seems that by numbers Russia is the least involved partner in this coalition, yet its participation is decisive.
Russia’s military resources are sufficient to maintain an effective long-term commitment in Syria. Critics forget, that Russia has been deeply involved in conflict management in Georgia, Moldova, and Tajikistan in the 1990s when Russian economy was particularly weak.
Most importantly, at home, the Russian Sunni community (approx. 14 million people) leaders support Kremlin’s move and defy ISIS ideology . In September, Russia opened the biggest European Sunni Mosque in Moscow, strengthening support from Muslim clergy. Attending the opening ceremony Vladimir Putin expressed confidence  that the mosque would help disseminate the “humanistic ideas and true values of Islam” in Russia and accused “so-called Islamic State” of “compromising a great world religion of Islam”.
The risks of the involvement
The gains from the Syrian move seem to be solid for Russia. So are the risks. The path into Syria was marvelous, but the way out can be more difficult.
First, Russia risks deteriorating ties with an important regional partner – Turkey. Ankara is interested in having Assad go, and using the fight against ISIS to suppress Kurds militia on the Syrian part of the border. Despite claims that politics does not interfere with economic relations  between the countries, that start of an ambitious “Turkish stream” gas pipeline was rescheduled for 2017. This is not the first time Russia and Turkey have differences on regional issues, but they managed to avoid confrontation in the past.
Second, Russia can get stuck in Syria, as did the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. That is why Moscow acting after careful considerations, with viable local allies and a clear exit strategy. Having had both the Afghanistan and Chechnya experience, Russia is well prepared for a low-intensity war dynamic.
Most important risk, though, is that Russia can be dragged into a regional Sunni-Shia conflict on the Shia side. Having a Sunni majority inside Russia, Moscow should be particularly careful. Critics say  that fighting in ISIS Russia is bound to confront all Sunnis in the region. This would essentially mean that all Sunnis support ISIS – and that is not true.
This issue is taking us to the point that is currently lacking in Russia’s Syrian strategy – viable Sunni opposition to ISIS. Well-aware of its Chechen conflict experience, Russia would search for a resolution to the Syrian civil war by allying with a potent local Sunni leaders who would join the battle against terrorists. If such a Sunni potentate emerges triumphant, he would eventually fill the power vacuum left by ISIS much as did Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya.
Applying the Chechen scenario in Syria is very tricky, but it the only way to reach a deep and comprehensive settlement in that war-torn country. That is the reason why Russia thinks that a French proposal – uniting Syrian government efforts with a “healthy opposition” in the Free Syrian Army – is an “interesting idea that is worth a try ”.
Andrey Sushentsov – associate professor at Moscow State Institute of International Affairs, director of programs at the Valdai club.
The US-trained Syrian opposition fighters were not targeted by Russian airstrikes, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said.
WASHINGTON (Sputnik) — The forces of moderate Syrian opposition that went through US train-and-equip program have not been attacked by Russia during its air operations in the country, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in a testimony on Tuesday. “Our title 10 forces…they have not come under attack by either Assad’s forces or Russia’s forces, Syrian Arab coalition and the Kurdish YPG [People’s Defense Units],” Carter said at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.-
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed future participants in multilateral talks aimed at resolving the Syrian crisis, State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Monday. France is hosting a multilateral discussion on Syria on Tuesday, which reportedly excludes Russian participation. Kirby said on Monday that Secretary Kerry would not participate in the meeting either. "It was a short conversation [between Kerry and Lavrov], and it was largely focused on the issue of political transition in Syria and about the potential for future multilateral meetings," Kirby said. He added that "multilateral settings" were raised in the talk, including "about potential members, potential participants" in future discussions. http://sputniknews.com/politics/20151026/1029143728/kerry-lavrov-syrian-crisis-france-meeting.html
Former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Monday discussed the prospects for a Russian-US dialogue on key global concerns with the US ambassador to Russia, the US embassy said in a statement. The US diplomatic mission added that Gorbachev and Ambassador John Tefft emphasized the necessity to continue bilateral discussions of international problems that affect both countries. "The talks focused on the current state of Russian-US relations and outlooks for bilateral cooperation," the statement read. http://sputniknews.com/politics/20151026/1029143590/gorbachev-tefft-russia-us-relations.html
© Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation
The Russian and US top diplomats discussed possible steps aimed to establish an intra-Syrian political process with the participation of all major countries in the Middle East. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry held a phone conversation on the Syrian crisis Monday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.
"Possible steps to assist in the efforts to establish an intra-Syrian political process with the inclusion of all major countries in the region were discussed," the ministry said in a statement. http://sputniknews.com/politics/20151026/1029135394/lavrov-kerry-syria-political-process.html
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed new ideas to end the Syrian civil war during talks in Vienna together with their Saudi and Turkish counterparts, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on Friday.“[Kerry] said they produced ideas… [that] had the possibility to change the dynamic [of the negotiations on Syria],” Toner stated during a press briefing. “The ministers are all agreed to consult with all parties and to meet again soon.”Toner explained that Kerry, Lavrov, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirliogu ended their talks on a hopeful note. http://sputniknews.com/politics/20151023/1029030294/Kerry-Lavrov-Explore-Ideas-on-Syria.html
Over 500 ISIL militants have been transported from Syria to Yemen aboard planes arriving from Turkey to fight against Houthi rebels, a Syrian general said Tuesday.
Syrian Armed Forces spokesman Brig. Gen. Ali Maihub claimed that more than 500 ISIL militants had been transported from Syria to Yemen aboard 4 planes that had arrived from Turkey on October 26. According to him, two of the planes belong to Turkish airlines, one is a Qatari aircraft and one is a UEA plane.
"According to the intelligence data, 4 planes arrived from Turkey at the airport of Aden [in Yemen] on October 26. Two of them [planes] belonged to Turkish airlines, one — to Qatar airlines and another aircraft was owned by an UAE airline. More than 500 militants of ISIL terrorist group were on board, they were transported from Syria to save them from Russian airstrikes," Maihub said, according to RIA Novosti. AP Photo/ Tsafrir Abayov
He further claimed Saudi-led coalition officers met ISIL militants at the airport in Yemen. The Syrian general said that the jihadists were supposed to take part in a ground operation against Houthi rebels. "[ISIL] militants were met by officers from the Saudi-led coalition, who took them out of the [Yemeni] airport in three groups. The first group was taken to the town of al-Bab in the Mandeb province, the second — to Maariv, the third — to Saudi provinces Jazan and Asir," he said. "The militants are expected to take part in the ongoing ground operation where ground coalition forces have recently suffered serious losses in clashes with Houthi fighters," the general said, adding that, based on intelligence data, similar transfers of ISIL militants from Syria would continue."According to available information, operations aimed to transport ISIL terrorists from Syria will continue in a short time," he added. http://sputniknews.com/middleeast/20151027/1029190132/isil-militants-yemen-syria.html
Assad and Omani FM discuss solutions for Syrian crisis
DEBKAfile October 26, 2015, 4:36 PM (IDT)
Omani Foreign Minister Yussef bin Alawi was the first Arab foreign minister Assad met since the beginning of the Syrian war. They were officially said to have discussed “the ideas proposed at the regional and international levels to help resolve the crisis in Syria.” Assad replied: “The Syrian people … welcome the sultanate’s sincere efforts to help Syrians realize their aspirations in a way that preserves the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity." DEBKAfile: Oman was a leading broker between Tehran and Washington in the back-channel talks that culminated in negotiations for a nuclear accord. Since Assad’s Moscow visit six days ago, Putin has spoken of possible collaboration with rebel forces to fight ISIS. Assad said he would accept fresh elections, after the Russian president was quoted as advising Washington that the Syrian ruler would agree not to stand for re-election, if members of his family were allowed to run for president.
*BBC-News: Syria conflict: Iran to attend talks in Vienna*
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will attend multilateral talks on finding a political solution to the conflict in Syria in Vienna this week, a government spokeswoman has said.
It will be the first time Iran – an ally of President Bashar al-Assad – has attended such a summit with the US. Representatives of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will also attend the talks. Earlier, the US said an invitation had been extended to Iran – a move Syria’s Western-backed opposition questioned. The main round of talks is expected to take place on Friday, but diplomats say some preparatory meetings could happen on Thursday evening.
"We have reviewed the invitation, and it was decided that the foreign minister would attend the talks," Iranian foreign ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham said. Egypt and Iraq also confirmed they had accepted invitations to the meeting. BBC diplomatic correspondent James Robbins says that while the US is certainly not welcoming Iran to the Syria talks, it will now tolerate Tehran’s involvement.
Image copyright Reuters Image caption The war in Syria has killed more than 250,000 people and displaced about 11 million
Iran’s Fars news agency said Mr Zarif had discussed participation in the Vienna talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov by phone on Tuesday. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later told reporters that Russia wanted a "widening of the dialogue" on Syria. Iran is believed to have spent billions of dollars over the past four years propping up President Assad’s government, providing military advisers and subsidising weapons. However, Syria’s political opposition has warned that Iran’s involvement will only complicate the meeting in Vienna. Both Iran and Russia – another ally of President Assad – have recently stepped up their military role in the Syrian conflict.
Image copyright Reuters Image caption Iran is believed to have influenced Hezbollah’s decision to send fighters to Syria
Iran has long acknowledged sending military advisers to Syria, but has denied the presence of any ground forces. Despite that, unconfirmed reports earlier this month said that hundreds of Iranian troops had arrived in Syria. They were reported to be joining government forces and fighters from the Lebanese Shia Islamist movement, Hezbollah, in assaults on rebel positions in northern and central Syria.
Russia began its military intervention in Syria at the end of last month, launching air strikes in support of President Assad. Russia and Iran have insisted that Mr Assad must be part of any transition government and that the Syrian people must be allowed to decide who governs them. The US has indicated it could only tolerate President Assad during a short transition period, after which he should step down.
10-26-15 CSIS_Cordesman_KingLog-America’s Negative Message Overseas.pdf
10-27-15 FES – Alterssicherung.pdf
10-20-15 Iran quietly deepens involvement in Syria’s war – BBC News.pdf
10-27-15 Syria crisis_ Where key countries stand – BBC News.pdf