Web Video: What does Moscow get from offering Assad military support?

Sep. 11, 2015 AT 11:05 a.m. EDT

What do we know about Russia’s military involvement in Syria? Gwen Ifill speaks to Pavel Baev of the Peace Research Institute Oslo and Steven Simon of Dartmouth College.

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GWEN IFILL: So, what are the Russians up to in Syria, and what’s the impact on the ground?

For some answers, we turn to Pavel Baev, a Russian military scholar and the research director at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, and Steven Simon, a visiting lecturer at Dartmouth College. He served on the National Security Council staff during the Obama and Clinton administrations.

Pavel Baev, what do we know of the extent of the Russian involvement right now in Syria?

PAVEL BAEV, Peace Research Institute Oslo: Very little is actually known for fact, and what is known doesn’t make much sense, because what the Russians are saying is, yes, we are supplying — were supplying small arms, ammunition and personnel carriers and some military advisers and some technical personnel.

This sort of military weapons do not need any technical advisers and personnel. They’re pretty elementary. So the feeling is that the little increase in Russian military deliveries produced a lot of political spin and that was deliberate.

GWEN IFILL: Steven Simon, do we think we’re talking about advisory help or combat help?

STEVEN SIMON, Dartmouth College: Well, we know that the Russians are worried about this — the viability of the Syrian regime right now.

The Syrians have — that is, the regime has absorbed pretty serious losses over the past year. They had a good year in 2014 — 2015, not very good. They lost Idlib. They lost Palmyra. They’re under pressure in the south and now they’re under pressure in the east at Deir el-Zour.

They have got a demographic problem. It’s not clear how long they can actually keep up the fight. For the Russians, the viability of this regime is extremely important for a number of reasons, and I seriously doubt they’re going to let it go down.

I infer from that that the kind of assistance they’re preparing to provide to the Syrians will be military assistance, assistance that will help keep the Syrian regime afloat and on the battlefield at a very precarious moment.

GWEN IFILL: Pavel Baev, if Steven Simon is right in his inference that there is military support, if not there already, on the way, why now? What is it about are we hearing from Vladimir Putin that would suggest this is necessary?

PAVEL BAEV: I think, for Putin, the importance of now is very much related to his forthcoming speech in the U.N. General Assembly.

He wants to make an impression. He wants to deliver a big initiative, and the core of that initiative is that it is time to join our efforts in the coalition against the ISIS and to make President Bashar al-Assad a part of the solution, because, without him, it’s only violent chaos. And so he needs to make Bashar al-Assad stronger, feel, look stronger than he really is.

And he also needs, one, to make an impression that Russia is really preparing something serious. And impressions matter. Even a virtual military intervention could become a real political factor.

GWEN IFILL: Steven Simon, what does Moscow get out of this?

STEVEN SIMON: It gets a number of things out of it.

First of all, Putin’s foreign policy is militarized in many respects. This is just another one. He’s quite inclined to put a stick in President Obama’s eye, and this serves that function. It puts down a trip wire to U.S. military action that might be directed against the regime.

The U.S. can no longer be assured that if they hit regime targets, they won’t kill Russians, and that’s an escalation that I would presume the administration would not favor. The Russians also believe, as one senior Russian official told me not that long ago, that, if Assad goes, the capital of Syria moves from Damascus to Raqqa, which is the Syrian city that ISIS has made its headquarters.

They take that very seriously. And, lastly, Russia is still a maritime power. They want to have a presence in the Eastern Mediterranean presumably. They have got intelligence gathering and naval facilities in Syria. And if they can put themselves in a position to protect those investments and protect those assets, I assume that they would.

GWEN IFILL: There has been some cooperation with what the U.S. is trying to do, and that’s getting Bulgaria and another country to stop overflights, to not allow Russian airplanes, airspace into Syria to deliver whatever it is delivering. Is that something that can work?

PAVEL BAEV: I think it’s mostly symbolic, because for Russia, the main way to deliver is still from the sea. And the planes can go through Iran and Iraq airspace.

So it’s mostly exchange of signals or kind of political gesture as to what is acceptable, what is not, what we like, what we don’t, what we can do, what we cannot do. And I think on the Russian side, the capacity for making really a difference in the battlefield in Syria is very limited because most of their battalions are tied up in Ukraine.

There’s very little they can really deploy there, maybe a symbolic squadron of air force to deliver a few strikes, which, again, will not make much of a difference, because they don’t have real-time intelligence, they don’t have high-precision weapons. It’s again mostly symbolism which is involved there.

But, at the same time, Russians want to be really present big time at the political game in the Middle East to make themselves not just relevant, but central.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk, Steven Simon, about the political game and the military game and the potential for this kind of a standoff to lead to Syria becoming a proxy in a standoff between the U.S. and Russia. How likely is that? How possible is that?

STEVEN SIMON: Well, I think the U.S. will probably want to avoid that.

Look, the Russian deployment, I think, will have a military effect if it’s carried out. More importantly, it will have an effect on the cohesion of the Syrian regime. Those members of the regime who the United States was perhaps hoping to peel away from Assad in pursuit of a transition scenario will now feel that, you know, the regime has a major power in its corner, in addition to the Iranians, who are now perhaps more able to act on behalf of the regime with the nuclear issue off the table.

So I think, you know, this does put the regime, the Syrian regime in a stronger position. This isn’t something that the United States really, I think, has the leverage to deal with effectively, really to counter. The administration has two choices. And maybe this is a bit of an exaggeration. It’s a dichotomy.

But, on the one hand, if you can’t beat them, join them, so find a way to cooperate with the Russians, pull them into an anti-ISIS coalition, coordinate airstrikes and direct the Russian effort in that direction. The alternative, really to try to block this Russian move entirely, is going to be very difficult, in part because, as the other speaker said, the Russians have plenty of other options for getting this military equipment, military assistance into Syria.

It’s not something the U.S. can block by playing a game of Whac-A-Mole with various countries whose airspace the Russians need to rely on.

GWEN IFILL: Pavel Baev, what do you think about those choices?

PAVEL BAEV: I think the choices are in fact very limited, because the situation in Syria is indeed very difficult, and it is very easy to say that we want peace in Syria or we want normalization, and we also want President Assad to go out.

Whether the elimination of this regime, which for a long time has been the main goal, not only of the United States, but also of Turkey, of many Arab states, whether it really leads anywhere is very difficult to say now, particularly with the rise of ISIS. And so Putin is trying to play on this uncertainty, to exploit an opportunity which is there for him.

GWEN IFILL: Opportunities exploited.

Once again, Pavel Baev of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo and Steven Simon at Dartmouth College, thank you both very much.

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