Will Russia Regret “Owning” Syria?

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Will Russia Regret “Owning” Syria?

Putin has established Russia as Assad’s patron. As the US can attest, that’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

With the Russian proposal for Bashar al-Assad to allow the international community to take control of his chemical weapons stockpile, the Obama administration happily claimed that coercive diplomacy worked. The details of such transfer remain complicated, and it’s certainly possible that ultimately there will be no actual transit of the weapons.

Were this deal to hold, it would largely fulfill two U.S. objectives: preventing another chemical attack by the Assad regime, and reinforcing the norm against chemical weapons use. However, the Assad regime would remain (for the time being) in power, leading many analysts to wonder whether this incident represents an example of successful coercion, or if Putin played the Obama administration for fools.

More importantly for East Asian alliance politics, what does the imbroglio over Syrian weapons tell us about the ways in which modern patron-client relations operate?  Both China and the United States maintain robust, often problematic relationships with sometimes-difficult clients. How has Russia’s performance as Syria’s patron affected the course of this crisis, and how might this performance affect patron-client relationships in the Pacific Rim? Two thoughts leap to mind:

  1. Even Modest Anti-access Capabilities Matter

The ability of the Syrian air defense network to defeat a serious U.S. or NATO air offensive is extremely limited.  With a combination of Tomahawk missiles, Suppression of Enemy Air Defense [SEAD] attacks against SAM installations, and attacks against Syrian Air Force bases, the United States Navy and Air Force could quickly achieved air supremacy over Syria. However, a full SEAD campaign seems to go beyond both what the Obama administration wants and what Congress is willing to accede to.

Similarly, the Syrian defense network limits the ability of states like France and Turkey to punish on their own. France can conduct a relatively limited cruise missile strike on Syria without U.S. participation, but it can’t carry out any kind of prolonged campaign without running significant risk of losing some aircraft, a risk that appears to go beyond Paris’ commitment.

This network is, of course, the fruit of Moscow’s relationship with Damascus. Russia has supplied, maintained, and modernized Syrian air defenses, not to the extent that they can prevent either a concerted campaign or a quick Israeli strike, but enough to give would-be attackers pause. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if this development affected international demand for elements of China’s own anti-access/area denial systems

  1. Soft Influence Matters

Besides strengthening Assad’s hard capabilities to defend himself, at various points during the Syrian Civil War, Russia has provided political cover intended to secure the Assad regime from direct Western intervention. This cover has not extended to military guarantees, but even “soft” influence has mattered. In the latest event, “soft” Russian assistance has helped undercut Congressional support for a U.S. strike, and given Obama a way to save face without launching cruise missiles.   

Such support still has its costs. Russia now effectively owns Syrian chemical weapons, even if it never actually takes custody of them, as any further attacks will seriously embarrass Moscow. It’s fair to acknowledge, of course, that embarrassing Russia can be difficult, and that any use of CW by the Assad regime will be blamed on the rebels. Even in this context, however, we can expect that the regime will take steps to limit the extent of the attacks to the degree that claims of rebel responsibility are at least faintly plausible.

This deal binds Assad’s fate to Russian policy. For the moment this may seem like a win for Russia, which can “lean in” in order to prevent the collapse of its client. As with all patron-client relationships in the international system, however, the Russian decision to take ownership of Syrian chemical weapons policy may prove less savvy in the medium and long run than in the short. China and the United States have both learned that tight patron-client relationships can put onerous responsibilities on the patron as well as the client. Russia may shortly be re-learning that lesson.