Russia's Problems in Syria

15.12.2016

The fall of Palmyra is not an event of strategic consequence, as the city can yet again be retaken, but a symptom of Russia's continued problems with its Syrian and Iranian allies. The taking Aleppo meant leaving other fronts exposed, such as Palmyra, and the Islamic State simply seized an opportunity. There is a shortage of forces for Syria, Iran and Russia to fight on all fronts. More importantly, taking Aleppo means a prolonged clearing operation and defending it against counter attack. This inevitable will leave parts of the regime territory exposed as it tries to consolidate gains in the north, and ultimately result in having to fight for the same terrain again and again.  

However, Palmyra also highlights the enduring problems Russia has faced in working with Syria and Iran. Their operational objectives have differed, and Russian forces have been frustrated by the poor performance of the Syrian Army. It became clear several months into the intervention that Moscow arrived too late, the Syrian Army had largely disintegrated into militias who struggled to advance against the enemy, and were largely unable to hold captured ground.  Their quest to retake Aleppo would prove a costly one, and result in losses elsewhere.  Russia no doubt realized this back in March, which is why the 'withdrawal' was announced to officially end the Syrian campaign and attempt to present Palmyra at home as its chief military victory.  Moscow was doubtful the Syrians could take Aleppo on any sensible timeframe.  

The lesson from its recent recapture by the Islamic State is that the organization remains resilient, and despite suffering notable defeats in Northern Iraq it is still capable of offensives elsewhere.  Still, we should not overplay the loss of Palmyra as some sort of IS resurgence.  It is doomed to defeat if not in 2017 then 2018 as both U.S. and Russian led coalitions will steadily eat away at its territory, and the capacity to finance its combat operations.  IS is also bleeding manpower, which means that it will be ground away as Mosul and eventually Raqqa falls, with Kurdish and Turkish forces also contributing to the fight.

Perhaps the principal lesson of recent events is that Russia should not have held that concert in Palmyra for domestic PR purposes, understanding that fortunes change in war, and such publicized gains can become embarrassments within the same year's time. Even if the Islamic State is defeated, the enduring question is how to address the conditions which led to its rapid spread across Syria and Northern Iraq.  This organization is simply yet another manifestation, or perhaps iteration, of al-Qaeda in Iraq and jihadist groups that are able to seize on public disaffection.  What happens after IS is defeated?  We should recall that this battle has been won before, but the sectarian policies of Iraq's Shia leadership, together with the chaos unleashed by Syria's civil war, enabled this plague to quickly return. 

The issue of defeating IS does not rest on the number of forces contributed by either the U.S., Russia, or others engaged in this conflict.  Rather it is a matter of sustained attention to the region, not seeking quick exit strategies or political deleveraging to pursue interests elsewhere, and structuring the post-IS order in such a way that  a successor does not quickly emerge.  We must come to terms with IS being not the problem, but a symptom of a perennial problem which will arise time and time again in different parts of the region.  Both the U.S. and Russia should recognize that defeating IS, i.e. this iteration of the problem, in no way cures it, and must instead focus political energies on what the post-IS world looks like in the region in order to prevent an equally brutal successor from reappearing once all the concerts and victory parades are done with.

Michael Kofman is Fellow at the Kennan Institute, Wilson Center; Research Scientist, CNA Corporation. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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