Home » Documents » Document: Report to Congress on How Russian Military Deployments to Syria Could Complicate U.S. Policy

Document: Report to Congress on How Russian Military Deployments to Syria Could Complicate U.S. Policy

The following is a Sept. 18, 2015 Congressional Research Service “CRS Insight” brief to Congress on how Russian troop moves to Syria complicate U.S. policy. 

Russian Deployments in Syria Complicate U.S. Policy

In recent weeks, Russia has moved military equipment and personnel to Syria, which could potentially be used to resupply the Asad regime or lead to a direct Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war. Russian officials have acknowledged that they are increasing their military presence in Syria and claim that their aim is to pursue counterterrorism objectives that the United States and coalition members share. Expanded Russian security cooperation and military operations in Syria present challenges for U.S. diplomatic and military strategy there.

Russian Military Deployments and U.S. Responses

U.S. defense officials stated that Russian activities “suggest it intends to establish some sort of forward air operating base” at Basil al Asad International Airport in Lattakia province, a regime stronghold. A press report citing an unnamed U.S. official said that recent Russian shipments include tanks and artillery to protect the expanded Russian facilities, as well as armored personnel carriers, hundreds of naval infantry personnel, modular housing units to house about 1,500 people, and air traffic control equipment. On September 18, a press report said some Russian tactical fighter jets and attack helicopters had arrived. Some reports state that Russia also intends to upgrade its naval infrastructure at the Syrian port of Tartus.

Secretary of State Kerry has spoken with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov to express concern over increased Russian military activity in Syria. On September 18, Secretary Kerry stated that the United States was prepared to hold military-

to-military talks with Russia regarding Syria. Pentagon officials stated that Defense Secretary Carter and his Russian counterpart had spoken by phone and had “agreed to further discuss mechanisms for deconfliction in Syria.”

On September 11, President Obama said that Russia’s strategy of “doubling down on Asad” is “a big mistake,” but left open the possibility that “if they are willing to work with us and the 60-nation coalition that we’ve put together, then there’s the possibility of a political settlement in which Asad would be transitioned out and a new coalition of moderate, secular and inclusive forces could come together and restore order in the country.” On September 14, President Putin said, “We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression. We have provided and will provide necessary military and technical support and call on other nations to join us.” President Asad has repeated calls for support against “terrorists,” while Israeli leaders have sought consultations with Russia over its plans.

Russia’s Motives in Syria

Since coming to power in 2000, Russia’s Vladimir Putin has been committed to restoring Russia as a great power, shaping his policies to position Russia as a counterweight to the United States. Following the outbreak of unrest in Syria in 2011, Russia has sought to influence events there through both diplomatic initiatives and military assistance designed to bolster the Syrian government’s ability to counter rebel groups. With the situation in eastern Ukraine at a stalemate it appears that Putin seeks to show Russian strength and influence with a policy shift in Syria. Analysts

disagree on how, or if, Russia’s Ukraine policy relates to its increased role in Syria, debating whether Putin views the Ukraine intervention as a success to be repeated, or a failure for which Syria could provide a distraction at home and a bargaining chip in negotiations abroad. Russia’s recent activity in Syria also may be motivated by an assessment that the Syrian military forces are becoming less capable and that Iranian support may be inadequate to preserve the Asad regime. Moscow’s primary intentions may include safeguarding the Asad regime, preserving Russian naval access to Syria, and challenging U.S. policy toward Syria. Putin’s recent call for an all-out effort against the Islamic State also may stem from the sizable number of jihadist fighters from the North Caucasus fighting in Syria, who may pose a serious problem for Moscow should they return to Russia.

Roots of Russian-Syrian Military Cooperation

Russian military involvement in Syria dates back to the 1950s, when the former Soviet Union embraced Syrian nationalist rulers as a counterbalance to U.S. regional partners. Soviet and Russian Federation naval forces have accessed a facility at the Syrian port of Tartus since the early 1970s, using it as a logistical hub to enable longer Mediterranean operations. Former Syrian president Hafiz al Asad (1971-2000) regularly hosted Soviet military and economic advisors but resisted attempts by Moscow to leverage its military assistance to gain greater access to shore facilities. Syria eventually became the largest Middle East recipient of Russian equipment and training, with Russia supplying the majority of Syria’s tanks, artillery, fixed-wing aircraft, and helicopters. While Russian personnel have since been based in Syria to maintain Russian military equipment and train Syrians, their numbers have fluctuated over time. The number of Soviet and Eastern European military technicians in Syria reached approximately 5,800 in 1983, according to CIA estimates, then gradually declined. By 2006, there were just 2,000 Russian military personnel, according to an academic study. Some reports suggest that Russian personnel numbers further declined to a few hundred, many of whom were withdrawn for security reasons prior to recent redeployments.

Outlook and Challenges for U.S. Policy

On the diplomatic front, U.S. officials continue to insist that President Asad cannot be part of a final solution to stabilize Syria or a counterterrorism partner. They warn that any and all third party support for Asad will only prolong a conflict that has created opportunities for the Islamic State and other extremist groups. At the same time, U.S. officials have stated that Russia could play a constructive role in ending the conflict and undermining the appeal of extremists by backing a transition in which Asad leaves power but the Syrian state apparatus remains intact. If Russian officials continue to reject the premise of Asad’s ouster as a precondition for a transition or counterterrorism cooperation, U.S. officials may confront a more lasting proxy conflict scenario.

  • Uncle Mike

    Wait, we have a Syria policy?

  • John B. Morgen

    The United States does not really have much a foreign policy dealing with Syria, so let the Russians deal with ISIS in Syria, so we can deal with ISIS in Iraq—full time. As for aiding the rebels in Syria, that ship has already sailed into a mine field due to inaction by this White House regime. The Arab Spring in Syria is over, after Russian ground forces begin attacking the rebels.

    • Ctrot

      Yep, the time to aid “moderate” Syrians was 3-4 years ago when doing so stood at least some chance of working.

      • John B. Morgen


  • drjon4u2

    Look at the good side of what is happening: Our five trained anti- Assad fighters now can drop their arms and run in several directions when Russian aircraft and helicopters are overhead, which will keep them in tip top shape. Bozo’s foreign policy is much like himself, a failure.

  • Interesting that this ‘report’ (is this just an excerpt or summary – it seems a bit brief) fails to talk about the long term geopolitical implications beyond the immediate Syria conflict. I suspect that if Islamic State are defeated (a big ‘if’ – the US is failing to do so), and the Assad regime is stabilized in power, against the interests of the broader of international community, by the Russians and the Iranians working together, the Russians will stay in Syria. Note also that they are now expanding into Iraq, with a coordination cell being established between Russia, Iran and Iraq in Baghdad. This may be to coordinate fighting against Islamic State, but once again it lays the foundation for an increased Russian presence in the Middle East and greater cooperation between Iran and Russia (the Iraqi government will do what its told by Tehran and Moscow).

    Turning back to Syria, a long-term Russian military presence would enhance Moscow’s ability not only to project power across the Middle East and North Africa, but also into the Med, and the Balkans. The Ukraine crisis may be stalemated but I suspect it is not resolved – its not going to be another Frozen Conflict. The Russians will resume the offensive there, taking Mariupol and heading on to Odessa, and then meeting up with their forces in TransDenister. So a Russian military presence in Syria gives Moscow greater military reach to counter any NATO move through the Bosporus and Dardanelles, and reinforces their ability to undertake A2AD through the Black Sea.

    I think the key issue here is that Western lack of resolve, lack of US leadership since 2008, and eroded strategic influence as a result of a bungled invasion of Iraq in 2003, has created a major strategic vacuum in the Middle East that Moscow, Iran and others are now filling quite decisively. The US looks on helplessly, and has no clue how to respond. Europe has its handles full with an overwhelming tide of migrants that they have no way to control, once again in part a direct result of the unwillingness by the Americans and the Europeans to bring about a quick end to the Syrian civil war. The time to act was about two to three years ago after the Syrian chemical weapons use. The Obama Administration laid down a red line and should have acted decisively against the regime, AS WELL AS Islamic State, once Assad started using CW on a large scale. But Obama always prefers to lead from behind and as a result, he gave the initiative to the Russians – we are where we are now because of that.

    • Sibir_RUS

      Bashar Assad is the legitimate President of a sovereign country.
      Russia and the U.S. more recently negotiated with Bashar Assad on the elimination of chemical weapons, which was successful. This once again confirmed, that he is a sane President in charge of the country and is able to engage in constructive negotiations with the international community.
      If by that time he was overthrown, and at the head of Syria stood thug from ISIS ( it is they used chemical weapons and lit up with it in Turkey) , how would you negotiated with terrorists about the elimination of the ISR?

      • Of course the elimination of chemical weapons was successful! And if you believe that, you too can sprout wings and fly to the Moon Comrade! Give my regards to Putin next time he tells you what to say online.

        • Sibir_RUS

          You should be grateful to Putin for what he helped Barack Obama to save face and don’t make a mockery of him
          with his “red line” and “Bashar must go”.
          Vladimir Putin has acted nobly towards to your President, although Barack Obama doesn’t deserve this.

          • On Dre

            Vladimir Putin is complacent in the shoot down of an airliner. Bashar regularly drops bombs on civilian houses in neighborhoods not to his political liking. Bashir and Russia will hit moderate Syrian opposition long before they take on ISIS.
            And nobody is responsible for more dead ISIS then Obama. Don’t come trolling around here without some facts.

          • Sibir_RUS

            Boeing MH-17 was downed by the armed forces of Ukraine. This was the second civilian plane, that was shot down by them during the years of independence.

          • Secundius

            @ Sibir_RUS.

            As I recall, the Non-Russian, Russians admitted Shot Down the Plane. And on International TV, TOO. How Stupid, is STUPID…

          • Sibir_RUS

            ‘No Good Evidence’ Russia Behind Shootdown of Malaysia Air Flight 17 in Ukraine, Says Longtime CIA Analyst Ray McGovern: ‘BradCast’ 8/20/2015

          • Secundius

            @ Sirir_RUS.

            Just by the Way You Phrased Your Question “No Good Evidence”, is ALL the Proof I Need…

          • Sibir_RUS

            Even assuming that the armed forces of Ukraine shot down the Boeing by chance, anyway the fault lies with the official Kiev, because they didn’t close the airspace above the conflict zone.

          • Secundius

            @ Sibir_RUS.

            Vladimir Putin doesn’t need Outside Assistance to Look Like A Fool. He’s a “One Man Show”, when it comes to Looking Like A Fool…

      • Secundius

        @ Sibir_RUS.

        As I recall from my History Lessons, Czar Nicholas the II was the Legitimate Ruler of Russia. Didn’t prevent to Communists from Removing him from His Legitimate Throne, DID IT…

  • Sibir_RUS

    «U.S. officials may confrоnt a more lasting prоxy cоnflict scеnario.»
    Every State has an inalienable right to choose its political, economic, social and cultural systems, without interference in any form by another State, and no state shall organize, assist, foment, Finance, incite or tolerate armed, subversive or tеrrorist activities, aimed at changing the regime of another state by means of violence, as well as interfere in civil strife in another State.
    The creation and support of armed mercеnary forces by a state for the purpose of subverting the sovereignty of another state –
    determined by international law as ” state terrоrism ” according to the Gеneva Declarаtion of 1987.

    • tpharwell

      I see, well then the RF has done nothing of the sort in respect to Ukraine, other than seize the President’s chocolate factory.

      The thing I do not understand is this: why does the Kremlin bother with the troubles of Syria ? It is such a thankless task. There is nothing in it for Russia. Syria is a total liability. The base in Tartus ? Who cares ? I am sure the Obama administration does not. As for the threat of terrorist attacks, a very real concern, I would submit that Russian intervention will aggravate that problem. Were I in the Duma, I would counsel staying out of Syria. Russia is already a target of extremists because of its support for this legitimately criminal regime. Getting deeper involved in a Middle East religious war will only earn Russia greater enmity.

      As for economic gains, and “honoring contracts”, Syria is bankrupt and on total life support from Moscow and Tehran. Ukraine, I can see. Syria is just a huge liability. Talk about putting a noose around your neck.

      Respectfully submitted.

      • Sibir_RUS

        You are mistaken. Islam is a peaceful religion.
        In the Islamic world should not be flirting with the terrorists.
        They do not forgive this. Look at Egypt, there are posters of “Obama supports terrorism”

  • disqus_zommBwspv9

    Syrian policy? That is news to me too