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We Asked a Military Expert What the Hell Putin Is Up to in Syria

Sure, we'd all like to see Putin take on the Islamic State in a steel cage – but we asked an expert what he wants, realistically.

by Mike Pearl
01 October 2015, 10:15am

Illustration by Sam Taylor

This article originally appeared on VICE US

Vladimir Putin has been making some big moves in Syria this week. On Wednesday, the Russian president ordered the first round of military airstrikes on Syrian targets—an aggressive escalation of the five-year-long conflict that has raised questions about who exactly Putin is targeting, and what he hopes to gain from the deployment.

The airstrikes come just two days after Putin's speech to the United Nations General Assembly, in which he told the world he wanted to the international community to team up against ISIS in a group "similar to the anti-Hitler coalition."On Sunday, US officials were surprised to learn that Putin had orchestrated an agreement with Iraq, Iran, and Syria to share military intelligence vis a vis the Islamic State

Publicly, Putin is taking a hard-line posture against the Islamic State, declaring that the Russian intervention is about defeating evil "criminals" who have "tasted blood." But Putin is also a big fan of Syrian president and probable war criminal Bashar al-Assad. And according to US Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the Russian warplanes that flew into Syrian airspace today dropped bombs in "areas where there were probably not [Islamic State] forces."

Needless to say, all this is making people very nervous. We're talking about a guy who gets compared to Machiavelli ten times before breakfast. In other words, Putin is a schemer, but what's his scheme here? To find out, we talked to Sim Tack, a military analyst and director of analytical support at the global intelligence firm Stratfor. He walked us through what Putin hopes to achieve by monkeying around in Syria—as well as what he might actually pull off.

Related: Russia's Ghost Army in the Ukraine

VICE: What the hell is Putin doing?
Sim Tack: Russia's installing a fairly limited military capability in Syria. That's probably what they're going to stick with. They might increase it, but I doubt that it will become a massive ground force that is going to become a separate army in this civil war. They're not going to suddenly push [the Islamic State] back to the Iraqi border, or even beyond. They're not going to take back the rebel territories. They're not going to reinstall their Syrian regime as the ruler over Syria; they simply don't have the military capacity on the ground capable of doing that.

That's what he's not doing. What is he doing?
Russia is trying to prepare for negotiations. Russia needs to maintain its seat at the table, and it has sort of been pushed out of the Middle East over time as the US strategy has kind of moved in, and kind of taken ownership over relationships with the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] and Iraq. Russia was holding onto Syria and Iran, but with Iran opening up to the West, it's been kind of on the downtrend for a long time. They want to secure their interests in the Middle East, and in doing so, the only thing they have left to work with there is Assad. So they want to make sure that Assad doesn't go under right now, that he actually is physically protected—and by Assad I mean the regime or the leadership of the Alawites.

And if they don't...
If they were to give up on Assad or whichever Alawite regime there is, the inevitable end to the Syrian question would be that there's no longer a regime there that's supported by Russia or that's favorable to Russia.

What would an all-out war between Russia and the Islamic State look like?
Altogether, let's estimate the number high here, let's say there are even 3,000 Russians in Syria right now. We would be talking about an operation that goes into the tens of thousands in terms of directionally having notable impact in terms of we conquering Syria.

Doesn't Putin have troops back home?
He has troops back home and he needs troops back home. He's got other fires to put out—Ukraine being one of the main ones. But then there's also the issue of having to support these troops. You need to be able to actually bring in all the supplies that they require: ammunition, petroleum oil and lubricants, water, food. It's no small effort.

Couldn't they scale that down and devote a bigger chunk of Russian military resources to Syria?
If they wanted to go to that level, virtually everything else that Russia has been trying to protect would be out there for the taking by others.

Does Russia have something up their sleeve that gives them a military advantage in Syria, or against the Islamic State?
In terms of weapons technology, they don't necessarily have something up their sleeves. But what they have to their advantage over countries like the US is that they are much more flexible when it comes to world engagement.

It's [an advantage] that they've also been exploiting in their relationship with Iraq, by the way. When Baghdad starts asking for [certain types of weapons], the US sort of goes like, "ummm...we're not sure we want to let you guys play with that because we don't know how that's going to end." But, then Russia—for example, when it comes to the multiple rocket launch systems with thermobaric missiles, which flatten city blocks at a time—Russia is fairly comfortable with handing that over to Baghdad.

Is that something we're likely to see happen?
Right now, the US might be fairly constrained in striking [the Islamic State] because they don't want to run the risk of causing collateral damage or civilian casualties. In a city like Raqqa [in Syria] for example, there might be a lot of targets there that Russia is [more] willing to hit.

And are we going to see Russia hit those targets now?
It is a matter of priority and capacity. The Syrian air forces, for example, have faced tremendous separation throughout this conflict. There's certain types of planes between airports that they don't have anymore because most of them have been shut down or poorly maintained. So that's where, when the Russians come in, they will suddenly bring in a massive increase of capacity to conduct such attacks.

Is this going to save Assad's regime?
By any account, Assad's days are numbered. The reality is that the best anyone can hope for, in relation to Syria right now, is that at some point there is a political resolution to the conflict. Assad, personally, might have a nice retirement plan in Moscow or in some tropical destination, but he is probably not going to be the leader of Syria through the end of this crisis.

Is this going to be a big boost for Russia?
On the Russian side, though, I would say that for Russia, it doesn't necessarily look bad because the one thing that they're able do by being a part of this negotiation—again, they would regain their seat at the negotiation table on the future of the Middle East. I don't want to use the word "hegemon" because there's a lot of connotations [to that]—but [Russia] could be an influencer in the Middle East again.

So what's the number one most important thing Russia wants to achieve in the short term?
The most important objective for Russia is actually to force negotiations, however contradictory that might sound.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

Illustration by Sam Taylor. Follow him on Twitter @sptsam or visit his website at samtaylorillustrator.com.

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