Reliable Allies, Brutal Violence Behind Russian Success in Syria

By Nils Hagerdal

Russia’s military intervention in the Syrian civil war qualifies as a stunning foreign policy success for President Vladimir Putin. At its heart, the Russian intervention has consisted of using air power and special forces to help local allied ground troops defeat rebels and reassert the central government’s control. Interestingly, this is the exact same strategy that the United States deployed in Afghanistan to wrest control of provinces from the Taliban. Why was the Russian intervention in Syria so successful when the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is gradually being wound down after almost 20 years without achieving its objectives? Four factors stand out: compared to the United States in Afghanistan, the Russian intervention in Syria had a reliable local ally, a clear mission, relatively high-quality allied ground forces, and a willingness to use remarkably brutal levels of violence to secure its desired outcome.

When regular Russian forces first intervened in 2015, their military commanders estimated that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime had effective control over no more than 10 percent of Syrian territory. Yet, Russia has now fulfilled almost all of its objectives in Syria. The Syrian regime has regained control over almost all national soil, except for pockets in the northwest controlled by Turkish-backed Islamist militias and in the northeast controlled by regular Turkish forces. The rebel groups were defeated on the battlefield over several years by a combination of Syrian elite military forces, local militias loyal to the regime, Lebanese fighters from the Shia movement Hezbollah, Iranian and Iranian-sponsored Shia militia groups, and Russian air power, artillery units, and special forces. As a result, Russia enjoys privileged access to naval and air bases on Syrian soil—including the port facilities at Tartous that date back to the Cold War as well as expanded airfield access elsewhere—which allows it to project power across the Mediterranean region, including most prominently in Libya. This outcome cost Russia only modest financial expenditures and very few casualties, making the intervention an unqualified success.

The first major difference between the Russian intervention in Syria and the U.S. mission in Afghanistan concerns the presence of a reliable local ally. In Syria, Russia backs an incumbent regime that has ruled since Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, took power in 1971. The alliance between the two countries is even older than that, dating to 1956. Crucially, there is no real strategic divergence between Russian and Syrian regime interests; defeating the rebels and ensuring regime stability is the dominant objective of both parties. In contrast, the two key U.S. allies in Afghanistan—President Hamid Karzai and the Pakistani military—had somewhat divergent interests. Karzai often deviated from U.S. desires in order to secure his own domestic position, while Pakistani leaders had no genuine interest in defeating Islamist groups that served a valuable role in their regional rivalry with India.

Unreliable allies helped create a second difficulty. While the Russian objective in Syria was clear and unambiguous, the U.S. goal in Afghanistan gradually shifted from denying Al-Qaeda sanctuary space to an open-ended nation-building project. Unclear objectives and perpetual mission creep made it difficult to design, implement, and execute military and political strategies. No such ambiguities bother Russian commanders, who are instructed simply to destroy rebel forces at any cost.

            The third difference concerns the quality of local allied ground forces. In Afghanistan, the United States had to recruit and train a new national military force from scratch using mostly unskilled, untrained, and unmotivated recruits. In Syria, the regime knew not to trust rank-and-file Sunni soldiers who might defect to the rebel side if commanded into combat. It still retained, however, the loyalties of elite units—many of which had commanders from Assad’s own Alawi community—such as the Republican Guard, Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, and the 4th Armored Division. In addition, Lebanese Hezbollah contributed many fighters with experience from its ongoing conflict with Israel. Furthermore, Russian and Iranian officers eventually embedded with, and outright directed, Syrian ground forces to increase their fighting capabilities.

The fourth difference concerns the level of destruction the two militaries were willing to inflict. The U.S. mission in Afghanistan supposedly sought to win hearts and minds among the local population and create a stable democracy. As a result, these forces refrained from many heinous-but-effective counterinsurgency tactics, such as extensive population transfers. In contrast, Russian forces and their local allies operated without meaningful constraints on their firepower and exposed civilian communities hosting rebel fighters to brutal tactics such as indiscriminate artillery bombardment, extended periods of siege warfare, and starvation.

In sum, Russian leaders designed and executed a very successful intervention in Syria that allowed them to rescue the Assad regime and turn it into a highly dependent local ally. One danger of this outcome would be if Russia’s leaders were to view this strategic success as a template for action elsewhere in the region. Western and regional policymakers should be wary of a potentially increased Russian willingness not only to deploy military forces, but also to use extreme levels of violence, including against civilian targets.

Nils Hägerdal is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies.

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