Russia’s War in Syria: Assessing Russian Military Capabilities and Lessons Learned
This edited volume, Russia’s War in Syria: Assessing Russian Military Capabilities and Lessons Learned, published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute, sets out to examine the Russian Federation’s way of war in Syria. It consists of seven chapters, authored by nine subject-matter experts from the United States, Europe, and Russia. The authors closely examine the various roles that Russia and its military forces have played in the Syrian civil war and fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).
In chapter one, Robert Hamilton, Chris Miller, and Aaron Stein, editors of the volume, provide a comprehensive timeline of the Syrian civil war from March 2011 to the present. The chapter provides a detailed account of U.S. and Russian involvement in the war and describes the situation in Syria at the time of this book’s release. On the fifth anniversary of Russia’s intervention, the war in Syria presents a far different picture than it did in September 2015. The Bashar al-Assad regime now controls most of the country. The Syrian armed forces have regained much of their fighting power thanks to Russian assistance, although Turkey’s attacks in Idlib have done real damage. The strategic partnership between Moscow and Damascus has been revitalized, as has Russia’s geopolitical presence in the Levant and eastern Mediterranean. But the war is not over and could escalate again. Conflict among regional powers such as Turkey, Israel, and Iran is still possible. Despite the success of the deconfliction arrangements at preventing conflict between the United States and Russia so far, the potential for mistakes and miscalculations will exist as long as both militaries are operating in Syria and in the skies over it. The August 2020 incident, where four U.S. service members were injured after an altercation with Russian forces in northeast Syria, demonstrates this risk.
In chapter two, Anna Borshchevskaya, a Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute, examines the geopolitical logic behind Russia’s war in Syria and the instruments of statecraft that Moscow used to pursue its objectives. Borshchevskaya’s chapter proceeds from the national strategic level of war and works its way down to the military strategic level. It discusses Moscow’s 2015 Syria intervention in the context of what it says more broadly about the Russian Federation’s way of war, the Kremlin’s threat perception, and its approach to counterterrorism. Russia’s way of war is evolving to adapt to new realities, but the fundamental values that underpin the reasons for the war in the first place remain largely unchanged.
Chapter three, authored by Michael Kofman, Director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA, briefly reviews the road to war and Russia’s political objectives in Syria, then conducts an in-depth evaluation of Russia’s military performance in Syria and the war’s impact on Russian military capabilities. It picks up at the military strategic level and works its way down to the level of military operations, examining how Russia is fighting in Syria and what this might tell us about the Russian way of war.
The next three chapters cover the performance of Russia’s military services in the war and the effect of the war on each. Chapter four is co-authored by Lester Grau, Senior Analyst for the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and Charles Bartles, an analyst and Russian linguist at the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Grau and Bartles assess the Russian Army and conclude that while Russian military support to Syria has proved expensive and difficult to withdraw, Russian Ground Forces have, nevertheless, improved their expertise in many areas. Chapter five is authored by Anton Lavrov, a Russia-based military observer for Izvestia newspaper covering Russian military developments. In his chapter, Lavrov covers the Russian Aerospace Forces and explains the unprecedented experience that the Russian Air Force has gained through its involvement. Chapter six is authored by Igor Delanoe, Deputy-Head of the French-Russian Analytical Center Observo (Moscow, French-Russian Chamber of Commerce). In his chapter, Delanoe covers the role of the Russian naval forces and explains how the crisis has catalyzed Russia’s naval reinvestment in the Mediterranean.
In chapter seven, Robert Hamilton draws general conclusions from the preceding chapters and discusses implications for Western policy and strategy toward Russia. Russia has not won conclusively in Syria, but may not need to in order to achieve its objectives. Russia hopes to make Syria the centerpiece of its regional presence, but seeks to avoid engaging in reconstruction or nation-building there. Moscow is risk-tolerant, unconcerned about reputational damage, and sees all agreements in instrumental terms, violating them as soon as it is convenient. Finally, one of the key lessons that Hamilton draws for the Western observers is that the institutionalization of the lessons of Syria may change the way in which Russia approaches warfare, from seeing each war as an isolated case to forming a doctrinal template for certain types of warfare.