Winter 2016
Number 30

Russia's Risky Syria Strategy

By
Ilan Berman

In September 2015, Russia formally waded into the civil war in Syria. Over the course of two weeks, the Kremlin commenced a major military intervention into the brutal four-and-a-half-year-old conflict, deploying thousands of troops, breaking ground on a new air base in Latakia, and dispatching an array of heavy war materiel (including tanks and fighter aircraft) to the Syrian theater. As of this writing, the Russian military contingent in Syria is estimated to number 4,000 soldiers.(1) But it could grow bigger still, because Russian president Vladimir Putin has pledged to send as many as 150,000 additional troops to the country.(2) In the meantime, Russia’s military has already launched hundreds of airstrikes aimed at assorted anti-regime forces. The message is unmistakable: Russia is in Syria to stay.

On the surface, the rationale behind Russia’s intervention is clear: to strengthen longtime ally Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power. The months preceding Russia’s entry into the conflict saw the Assad regime progressively lose ground against its domestic opponents. An August 2015 assessment by IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review noted that the Syrian regime’s hold on territory has shrunk by 18 percent over the prior eight months, leaving it in control of just a sixth of its country.(3) Regime setbacks, moreover, had taken place despite the heavy, sustained presence of both Iranian forces and Hezbollah irregulars fighting in support of the Syrian government. Against this backdrop, Moscow’s assistance is sorely needed.

The Kremlin’s campaign is also patently opportunistic. As more than a few columnists and commentators noted, American strategy in Syria to date has been largely nonexistent—leaving a vacuum that the Russian government is all too eager to fill as a way of expanding its global influence.(4)

But Russian actions have been driven by other calculations as well. Closer to home, Moscow suffered an unexpected setback in recent months, as resistance from Ukraine’s military succeeded in halting the advance of Russian-supported separatists in that country. Meanwhile, Western sanctions levied on Russia over Ukraine have had a sustained, negative impact on the country’s economic fortunes.(5) As a result, many in Moscow now view the Middle East as a geopolitical arena where their government can regain badly needed strategic momentum.

The Kremlin likewise sees continued access to Syria, a longtime ally, as intrinsic to its global standing. In particular, the port city of Tartus, situated on Syria’s western coastline, represents an indispensable strategic prize for Russia, having served as the home of its Mediterranean Flotilla since the early- to mid-1970s. The declining political fortunes of the Assad regime have raised the unwelcome prospect that Russia might lose basing rights there in the not-too-distant future—and, with them, the ability to project power into the Mediterranean. Such a development is anathema to the Kremlin’s conception of itself as a global power, which is why reinforcing the security of its naval contingent in Syria has become a top priority.

Far and away the most urgent reason underlying Russia’s intervention, however, has to do with radical Islam. For weeks prior to the launch of its military operations in Syria, the Russian government agitated for an international “united front” through which to confront the Islamic State terrorist group, to little avail.(6) As a result, it has styled its subsequent involvement as a necessary product of Western fecklessness.(7) But underlying this bravado is a very real fear, because Russia faces its own Islamist threat—one that, despite the best efforts of the Kremlin over the past decade, is expanding significantly.

A changing threat

In November of 2015, Yevgeny Sysoyev, the deputy director of the FSB, Russia’s powerful internal security service, gave a speech in the Black Sea city of Sochi to a gathering of international jurists and law enforcement officials. Sysoyev used the occasion to paint a rosy picture of the country’s counterterrorism record to date. “[O]ver the past five years,” he noted, “terrorist activity, primarily in the North Caucasus, has fallen by more than ten times.”(8)

This statistic reflects the official—and triumphalist—narrative of the Russian government. More than two decades after the start of the first Chechen War (1994-1996), and some six years after then-prime minister Vladimir Putin officially proclaimed the North Caucasus pacified,(9) Russia is eager to project the image that it has succeeded in turning a corner in its own “war on terror.”

That characterization is deeply misleading, however, because Islamism and attendant religiously motivated violence remains widespread in Russia’s restive regions of Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia—and, increasingly, in the Eurasian “heartland” of the Volga region as well. It is also inaccurate, because it obscures the fact that Islamism in Russia is changing in a number of consequential ways.

The most significant has to do with Russia’s shifting demographics. Since the mid-1960s, the Soviet Union (and subsequently Russia) suffered from population decline caused by a range of adverse drivers, from low life expectancy to high mortality rates to widespread alcoholism and disease. Today, the situation is a bit better; in the past several years live births have outnumbered deaths (albeit only barely), while other key indicators have improved marginally as well.(10) Yet, as a 2015 study by the prestigious Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration noted, long-term population trends in the country remain profoundly negative. In a worst-case scenario, the study outlines, Russia’s population (currently some 142 million) could shrink to as little as 100 million people by the early 2040s.(11)

Russia’s population woes are not uniform, however. In contrast with the rest of the country, Russian Muslims boast comparatively robust birth rates, putting them on track to make up a fifth of the overall population by the end of the current decade—and significantly more farther in the future.(12) Moscow, meanwhile, is ill-equipped to deal with this trend. In recent years, the Kremlin has done precious little of substance to address the needs of the country’s growing Muslim minority. To the contrary, the ultranationalist identity erected by the government of Vladimir Putin over the past decade has systematically shut Russia’s Muslims out of contemporary politics and society, leaving them vulnerable to the lure of alternative ideologies—Islamism chief among them.(13)

Russian Islamism, meanwhile, is changing. Since late last decade, Russia’s Islamist scene has been dominated by the Caucasus Emirate (Imirat Kavkaz). Established in 2007 as an outgrowth of the resilient radicalism that fueled the first and second Chechen Wars, the group quickly distinguished itself as the Russian Federation’s most formidable jihadi force. It has been responsible for scores of high-profile attacks on Russian targets in the North Caucasus in recent years, including the March 2010 attack on the Moscow subway, the December 2013 bombing of the train station in Volgograd, near the site of the 2014 Olympic Games, and—most recently—a coordinated assault on historic landmarks in Chechnya’s capital of Grozny that left at least 20 dead.(14)

For much of this time, the Emirate has been part of the global jihadist movement, having formally pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, back in April 2009. But this is no longer the case. Earlier this year, elements of the group broke ranks and formally pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, which thereafter officially established a “governate” in Russia’s restive majority-Muslim regions of Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia.(15) The months since have seen a marked uptick in IS activity within the Russian Federation, with the group leveraging local discontent over privation and corruption to add new members to its ranks.(16)

The confluence of the preceding two factors has led inexorably to a third: mobilization. Over the past two years, Russia has emerged as a major source of the foreign fighter phenomenon that has fed Syria’s transformation from local conflict into global jihad. In the Fall of 2014, Russian security officials were estimating that some 800 militants from the North Caucasus had traveled to Syria to take up arms against the Assad regime.(17) Today, that figure is much, much bigger; in September 2015, Russian Deputy Director of Federal Security Sergei Smirnov calculated the number of Russian nationals fighting with the Islamic State in the Middle East at 2,400, a threefold increase in less than a year.(18)

Significant as it is, that figure represents only part of a larger whole. According to Russian government estimates, the countries of the former Soviet Union have cumulatively supplied 7,000—or nearly 25 percent—of the estimated 30,000 jihadists that have joined the ranks of the Islamic State and other assorted groups fighting in Syria to date.(19) The contingent is now so large, experts say, that Russian is the third most frequently spoken language among Islamic State fighters, following Arabic and English.(20)

The Kremlin has not had much success in preventing the outflow of these Islamic radicals—nor does it appear to be trying. To the contrary, compelling evidence suggests that the Russian government and its constituent organs, eager to see these undesirables depart, have actually helped oversee and direct the flow of Russian fighters into Syria.(21) By doing so, however, the Kremlin has only gotten a temporary reprieve; the growing contingent of militants now fighting in the Middle East has set the stage for a new wave of instability for Russia and its neighbors when those radicals inevitably return home.

Against this backdrop, Russia’s Syria strategy represents nothing so much as a defensive maneuver. Simply put, the Kremlin prefers to wage war in Syria in order to combat its Islamists there, rather than face them at home a few years hence.

Grave consequences

In the West, Russia’s incursion into Syria has been greeted with both chagrin and applause. Policymakers in Washington have fretted about the Kremlin’s scorched-earth strategy on the Syrian battlefield, and remain leery of long-term Russian objectives. In an October speech to the Association of the United States Army, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said as much when he argued that Russia’s recent offensive will “inflame and prolong” the long-running civil war in Syria, and ruled out cooperation with Moscow while it pursues its “misguided strategy.”(22) By contrast, many of their counterparts in Europe have embraced Russia’s entry into the conflict—at least in part because it has reduced the need for their own respective governments to act decisively.(23)

But is the Kremlin’s approach sustainable? There are clear signs that, whatever the political optics surrounding Russia’s intervention, it carries serious downsides that are likely to come back to haunt Moscow in the not-too-distant future.

First, Russia’s ability to increase its military investments in the Syrian theater is not unlimited. So far, Russian military operations have centered on an extensive bombing campaign—with notable tactical effects on the ground.(24) But a lasting rollback of the Islamic State (and other threats to the Assad regime) requires a far more extensive military presence, and will likely necessitate Russian “boots on the ground.”

Russia’s military, however, is already heavily committed elsewhere. The Russian armed forces currently number some 770,000 active duty personnel, with more than double that number available in reserve. But extensive deployments in the Russian Far East (opposite China) tie up a good number of those troops, while more than 50,000 soldiers are estimated to currently be massed on Russia’s common border with Ukraine.(25) As a practical matter, therefore, the Kremlin is limited in the number of troops it can deploy to the Syrian front, unless it is prepared to give up on serious strategic equities closer to home.

Second, Russia’s Syria strategy could wreak havoc on its energy plans—and its long-term economic fortunes. The country’s already-rickety economy was dealt a serious blow in the summer of 2014 when, in response to Russian aggression against Ukraine, European nations opted to suspend the “South Stream” natural gas pipeline, an important new energy conduit that Moscow had hoped would increase its market share in Europe.(26) The decision set off a mad scramble by the Russian government to find alternative energy routes, with the Kremlin finally settling upon an outlet via Turkey, dubbed “Turkish Stream.”

The Syrian war has upended those plans. In September, irate over Russia’s support for the Assad regime, the Turkish government broke off talks with the Kremlin over the project.(27) And while some had hoped the divergence would only be temporary, Turkish-Russian ties have deteriorated considerably since. On November 24th, Turkey’s government shot down a Russian jet it claimed had strayed into Turkish airspace during a bombing run over Syria. While the details of the incident remain hotly debated between Ankara and Moscow, the fallout is already becoming apparent; in the aftermath of the incident, Russia has moved to cut off economic ties with Turkey and impose economic sanctions on it.(28) Yet, given Russia’s weakened economic state after more than a year of Western sanctions over Ukraine, the loss of Turkey as a trading and energy partner—perhaps for good—is bound to exacerbate the country’s deepening economic woes.

Most significant, however, is the terrorism blowback Russia has begun to suffer as a result of its Syria policy. Internationally, Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad regime has made it a target of Sunni anger, with potentially dangerous side effects. In October, dozens of Saudi clerics issued a public letter urging Sunni militants to travel to Syria to join the fight against the “Crusader/Shi’ite alliance” of Russia and Iran.(29) The echoes of the Soviet Union’s ruinous campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the USSR’s incursion sparked a mass mobilization in the Muslim world, are unmistakable, and suggest that Russian forces deployed to the Syrian front will soon face a growing cadre of extremists on the battlefields of what has become the new global jihad.

Or, perhaps, even closer to home. The Russian government’s intervention into the Syrian civil war has made the country itself the target of various extremist groups. Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, has called for terrorist attacks within Russia as a retaliatory measure.(30) So, too, has the Islamic State; in November, the group released a video through its various social media feeds that warned “[w]e will take through battle the lands of yours we wish,” and predicted that “[the] Kremlin will be ours.”(31)

The results have not been long in coming. Islamic radicalism within Russia’s borders is already on the rise. In late October, at an official press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly announced that the country’s security forces had succeeded in foiling 20 major terrorist attacks so far in 2015. Hidden among Putin’s rosy summary, however, was an unsettling detail; two of those attempts had been carried out in just the weeks preceding—that is, since Russia’s intervention in Syria.(32)

High stakes

All this makes Russia’s Syria strategy an exceedingly risky wager. If successful, the benefits of Moscow’s approach could be enormous—including, not least, a rehabilitation of the Kremlin in the eyes of the West for its actions in Ukraine, as well as a freer hand in other parts of the “post-Soviet space” that the Russian government covets.

Just as easily, however, the intervention could prove ruinous for Moscow. By wading into the Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad regime, Russia’s government has made itself the focal point of Islamic radicalism abroad, and exacerbated the mobilization of its own Muslims. The outcome could be precisely what Putin and his coterie sought to avoid through their entry into Syria: a surge of Islamism within, and against, the Russian Federation.

Ilan Berman is Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC, and Editor of The Journal of International Security Affairs.


1.    Jonathan Landay, Phil Stewart and Mark Hosenball, “Russia’s Syria Force Grows to 4,000, U.S. Officials Say,” Reuters, November 4, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/11/05/us-mideast-crisis-russia-syria....

2.    Scott Campbell, “End of ISIS? Putin ‘Sending 150,000 Soldiers to Syria to WIPE OUT Evil Islamic State,’” Express (London), November 17, 2015, http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/609757/Putin-ISIS-Islamic-State-Syri...

3.    Columb Stack, “Syrian Government No Longer Controls 83% of the Country,” IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review, August 23, 2015, http://www.janes.com/article/53771/syrian-government-no-longer-controls-...

4.    See, for example, Ralph Peters, “Putin Wants to Humiliate Obama With Airstrikes in Syria,” New York Post, September 30, 2015, http://nypost.com/2015/09/30/putin-wants-to-humiliate-obama-with-airstri...

5.    See, for example, “Economic Consequences of the Ukraine Conflict,” Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies, October 14, 2015, http://wiiw.ac.at/economic-consequences-of-the-ukraine-conflict-n-60.html

6.    “Putin’s Initiative to Create ‘United Front’ to Fight ISIS Intrigues US, Allies—Lavrov,” RT, August 9, 2015, https://www.rt.com/news/312006-lavrov-isis-syria-us/

7.    “International Coalition Only Simulating Anti-Terrorist Efforts in Middle East—Russian FM,” FOCUS, September 19, 2015, http://www.focus-fen.net/news/2015/09/19/383687/international-coalition-...

8.    Daria Garmonenko, “FSB Sbila v Rossii Terroristichiskoyu Activnost (The FSB has Diminished Terrorist Activity in Russia),” Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Moscow), November 11, 2015, http://www.ng.ru/politics/2015-11-11/100_fsbter.html

9.    Tony Halpin, “Chechen Rebellion Has Been Crushed, Says Kremlin,” Sunday Times (London), April 17, 2009, http://www.times-online.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6108444.ece

10.  See, for example, Ivan Nechepurenko, “Russia Reverses Birth Decline—But for How Long?” Moscow Times, June 22, 2014, http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/russia-reverses-birth-decline...

11.  Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, CRITICAL 10 YEARS: Demographic Policies of the Russian Federation: Successes and Challenges, 2015, http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/10%20Critical%20years%20...

12.  See, for example, “Analyst Predicts Muslim Majority in Russia Within 30 Years,” Voice of America, October 31, 2009, http://www.voanews.com/content/a-13-2006-02-28-voa77/399222.html

13.  David M. Herszenhorn, “Russia Sees a Threat in Its Converts to Islam,” New York Times, July 1, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/02/world/russia-sees-a-threat-in-its-conv...

14.  Andrew E. Kramer and Neil McFarquhar, “Fierce Attack by Islamist Militants in Chechen Capital Kills at Least 20,” International New York Times, December 4, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/05/world/europe/grozny-chechnya-attack.ht...

15.  “Islamic State Declares Foothold in Russia’s North Caucasus,” Moscow Times, June 24, 2015, http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/islamic-state-declares-footho...

16.  Arsen Mollayev and Vladimir Isachenkov, “Islamic State on Recruitment Spree in Russia,” Associated Press, October 28, 2015, http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/2015/10/28/islamic-state-rec...

17.  “Russia Calls for Joint Effort With U.S. to Fight Islamic State,” Moscow Times, September 29, 2014, http://www.themoscowtimes.com/article.php?id=507990

18.  “Moscow Says About 2,400 Russians Fighting With Islamic State: RIA,” Reuters, September 18, 2015, http://news.yahoo.com/moscow-says-2-400-russians-fighting-islamic-state-...

19.  Daria Garmonenko, “FSB Sbila v Rossii Terroristichiskoyu Activnost (The FSB has Diminished Terrorist Activity in Russia),” Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Moscow), November 11, 2015, http://www.ng.ru/politics/2015-11-11/100_fsbter.html

20.  Interview with Evgenia Albats, Ekho Moskvy, November 17, 2015, http://echo.msk.ru/programs/personalno/1659708-echo/

21.  Michael Weiss, “Russia is Sending Jihadis to Join ISIS,” Daily Beast, August 23, 2015, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/08/23/russia-s-playing-a-doub...

22.  Leigh Munsil, “Carter: U.S. Will Take ‘All Necessary Steps’ to Counter Russia,” Politico, October 14, 2015, http://www.politico.com/story/2015/10/ash-carter-warning-russia-airstrik...

23.  Geoff Dyer, “Russia Exposes European Divisions on Syria,” Financial Times, September 30, 2015, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/b7884824-6723-11e5-a57f-21b88f7d973f.html...

24.  “Russian Airstrikes Destroy 472 Terrorist Targets in Syria in 48 Hours, 1,000 Oil Tankers in 5 Days,” RT, November 23, 2015, https://www.rt.com/news/323065-syria-airstrikes-terrorists-russia/

25.  “General Staff: Russia Concentrates 50,000 Troops on Border with Ukraine,” UNIAN, August 18, 2015, http://www.unian.info/war/1112764-general-staff-russia-concentrates-5000...

26.  “Bulgaria Suspends South Stream Gas Pipeline Project,” BBC, August 19, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/business-28854089

27.  Merve Erdil, “Turkey, Russia ‘Freeze Turkish Stream Talks,’” Hurriyet Daily News, September 11, 2015, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-russia-freeze-turkish-stream-tal...

28.  Suzan Fraser and Vladimir Isachenkov, “Turkey-Russia Spat Over Downed Plane Deepens With Moscow Moving to Cut Economic Ties,” Associated Press, November 26, 2015, http://www.startribune.com/turkey-releases-recording-of-warnings-to-russ... James Ellingworth and Nataliya Vasilyeva, “Russia Strikes Back at Turkey with Economic Sanctions,” Associated Press, November 26, 2015, http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/russia-holding-turkish-goo...

29.  “Saudi Clerics Call for Jihad Against Iran and Russia in Syria,” Reuters and VICE News, October 5, 2015, https://news.vice.com/article/saudi-clerics-call-for-jihad-against-iran-...

30.  Martin Chulov, “Syrian War’s Al-Qaida Affiliate Calls for Terror Attacks in Russia,” Guardian (London), October 13, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/13/syria-al-qaida-group-jabhat...

31.  Malia Zimmerman, “ISIS Coming for the Kremlin, New Video Warns,” Fox News, November 12, 2015, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/11/12/new-isis-video-says-jihadis-coming-for-kremlin/

32.  “20 Terrorist Plots Foiled in Russia This Year, Putin Says,” Associated Press, October 20, 2015, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/rest-of-world/20-terrorist-plot...