Moscow is reportedly stunned that its mission to do…um…well, whatever it’s doing in Syria, which…well, anyway, Bloomberg is saying that, whatever Russia’s mission in Syria is, its leaders were expecting to be done with it by now:
U.S. President Barack Obama, facing criticism at home over his Islamic State strategy, is turning out to be right with his prediction that Vladimir Putin’s own campaign in Syria will descend into a quagmire.
Many senior officials in Moscow underestimated how long the operation in support of Bashar al-Assad would take when Putin entered Syria’s civil war on Sept. 30 and no longer talk in terms of just a few months, with one saying the hope now is that it won’t last several years.
With the mission in its third month, Putin is pouring materiel and manpower into Syria at a pace unanticipated by lawmakers already struggling to meet his spending goals. The plunging price of oil is sapping revenue and prolonging Russia’s first recession in six years, prompting the Defense Ministry this week to postpone some new weapons programs.
“This operation will last a year at a minimum,” said Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of the Defense Committee in the upper house of parliament. “I was expecting more from Syria’s army.”
I kid, but the ambiguity of Russia’s move into Syria kind of makes me doubt the premise of this Bloomberg piece. Initially, as we all know, Russia claimed to be undertaking a fairly limited mission (targeting ISIS only), but it was clear from the very first Russian airstrikes that they were there to shore up Bashar al-Assad’s position against all his enemies, ISIS and otherwise. Surely nobody in Russia’s military establishment thought that mission would only take a few weeks. Syria’s civil war has been going on for more than four years; you’d have to be a major league putz to think a couple of months of bombing (against a countryside that’s already been pretty thoroughly bombed out) would wrap things up. As skeptical as I am of Vladimir Putin’s evil genius, even I don’t give him this little credit.
On the other hand…
Russia initially earmarked just $1.2 billion for the war for all of 2016, an official familiar with the matter said. Outlays were running at about $4 million a day before Putin’s mid-November surge in troops and hardware, which doubled the cost to $8 million, or almost $3 billion on an annualized basis, according to the Royal United Services Institute, or RUSI, a military research group based in London.
OK, so clearly they weren’t thinking about continuing this level of intervention through 2016 (and maybe they can’t; there are signs that the Russian economy is faltering again). But I think the explanation is that Putin believed his intervention would force the other external contributors to Syria’s misery to realize that Assad’s survival had become a fait accompli, which would let Russia draw down its operations even as the anti-ISIS campaign was still ongoing. That’s still unreasonably optimistic on Putin’s part, but it’s not as stupid as assuming that he could end almost half a decade of Syrian fighting in less time than it takes HBO to run a full season of Game of Thrones.
Of course, despite Russia’s best efforts, there’s no sign that any of the rebels or their Arab and Turkish backers are prepared to accept Assad remaining in power even through a transitional process. Plus, Putin’s decision to intervene has now cost the lives of hundreds of Russian vacationers and airline employees, plus a couple of Russian troops, and embroiled him in a spat with fellow Big Man on Campus Tayyip Erdoğan. He can’t disengage anytime soon, lest it seem like Erdoğan got the better of him, and he needs to keep up a pretty heavy bombardment to make it look like he’s punishing ISIS for blowing up that Russian plane over the Sinai. On the other hand, if Russians are targeted in another terror attack, or more Russian troops are killed in Syria, the tide of public opinion in Russia may start to flow against Putin for the first time in quite a while. The Kogalymavia bombing actually galvanized what had been fairly lukewarm Russian support for going into Syria, but there’s no way to know how the Russian public might react to further attacks.
But if I may address the Russians directly: if it really is just dawning on you folks that, hey, this whole Syria business is actually pretty complicated, then let me be the first to welcome you to reality. It’s kind of a mess around here most days, but you’ll fit right in.
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