It is not easy to make sense of the Russian buildup in Syria, but here is what we think needs to be watched.
If the buildup stops soon, then this was some weird propaganda play on the not-so-cheap. But if it does not, then it would seem that the Russians have decided one of three things:
Assad’s regime is about to collapse. Since the Russians are not willing to see Assad fall, they are starting to throw Hail Marys.
Russian planners have convinced themselves that with a little bit of backing the front lines can be stabilized, after which they can go back to their barracks and broker a peace agreement. The Vietnam analogy here is with McNamara’s March 1964 memorandum. Obviously, there is no direct Syrian analogy for what McNamara proposed in Vietnam, but a rough parallel would involve a Russian buildup of a 10,700+ man intervention force and increasing direct involvement in SAA and NDF operations. (The SAA is the Syrian Arab Army; the NDF is an acronym used for state-financed defense forces.)
- Russia believes that the Islamic State poses a serious ideological threat inside the Russian Federation. The government has decided that the best way to deal with such a threat is to inflict a short sharp defeat on the ground, liberating territory from the Islamic State and breaking its preferred narrative.
How to distinguish? Options (1) and (3) should show a sharper logistical ramp-up than option (2). And option (1) would, in the words of one analyst, “include militia units and a bunch of other high stakes risks that the others wouldn’t. A Berlin Airlift of crazy.” How would the armed forces of the Russian Federation sustain a Berlin Airlift of crazy? Not a lot of countries can do that at such distance; maybe only one these days. So a very large-scale intervention on the scale of the 1965 entry of U.S. combat forces in Vietnam seems unlikely.
Right now, then, it looks like the Russians are going with option (2). Which assumes, of course, that they believe that public opinion at home will accept some small level of casualties and that the lines can be stabilized with relatively little effort.
The problem, as pointed out by that same analyst, is that Americans are already deep in the field. If the Russians aren’t careful, they could wind up killing a bunch of American special forces. But that same analyst thinks they will be careful.
Shades of 1964. But not 1965.