The Bear Trap? Comparing Russian and Soviet Intervation in the Middle East

In December 1979 Leonid Brezhnev, then leader of the Soviet Union, ordered his military forces to invade Afghanistan. Soviet troops were to re-establish some degree of order in the increasingly unstable Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, a socialist state and Soviet satellite. What Premier Brezhnev and the leadership of the USSR did not realise was that they were taking their country into a bloody and nearly decade long war. This conflict would have a deeply damaging effect on the long term security both of the region and the wider world, and would be a contributing factor in the dissolution of the USSR itself in 1991.

Fast forward nearly 25 years since the end of the Soviet-Afghan war and the Russian Federation, under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, finds its military once again ‘invited’ to intervene in the Middle East. What lessons can Russia learn from its disastrous intervention in the late 1970s if its government is to portray its involvement in Syria as a success?

Afghanistan 1979 vs. Syria 2015

There are, indeed, many differences between the situation faced by the USSR in Afghanistan in the late 1970s and that faced by Russia in Syria in 2015. The nature of today’s relationship between the governments of Russia and Syria is radically different to the strained Soviet-Afghan relations which preceded the military intervention of 1979. The prevailing Soviet view of then Afghan President Hafizullah Amin was so low that one of the USSR’s first acts of the intervention was to ensure his assassination and replacement. At present there seems to be no suggestion that Russia will look to force out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even if it has the power to do so.

The entire nature of the Syrian conflict is also very different to the situation in Afghanistan in 1979. While in the Soviet-Afghan War there were a number of anti-Soviet Islamic forces, these disparate groups were all united in defence of their country, traditions and religion against a foreign aggressor. In contemporary Syria, Russia enters into a conflict with myriad different parties all broadly fighting for different ends. The picture in Syria seems even more complicated than that faced by the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Similarly it appears that the level of force Russia is prepared to commit to its Syrian intervention is decidedly less than the full scale deployment the former Soviet Union exercised in Afghanistan. Russia’s military presence in Syria has featured aerial bombardment, the launching of cruise missiles and the use of artillery. There remains speculation as to whether President Putin has authorised Russian troops to be deployed in Syria itself.

On the other hand, the reaction of the West (and particularly the United States) to Russian intervention in Syria seems markedly similar to its reaction to Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. In the Soviet-Afghan War the CIA supplied the Mujahideen, the religiously motivated Muslim guerrilla opposition to the Soviets, with funding and military hardware, including Stinger missiles, transforming the conflict into a Cold War proxy war. While the context of international politics has admittedly changed a great deal since the 1980s, it has been noted that Russia’s bombing of American-backed Syrian rebels serves to turn the conflict into a proxy war. All of this comes amidst a downturn in Russia-West relations, which some have labelled as “more dangerous” than a new Cold War.

Learning from past mistakes

As has been noted, there are a number of differences between the conflict which rages in Syria today and the war in Afghanistan in the late 1970s. Yet this does not mean that there are no lessons for today’s Russian political and military leadership to learn from failures of the past.

The reasons for Soviet failure in Afghanistan in the late 20th century are too vast and complex to consider in any great depth here. Among the many explanations for the USSR’s eventual withdrawal include the mismatch between Soviet conventional forces and the tactics of the Mujahideen which lead to an unceasing stalemate, and a failure on the part of the Soviet leadership to prevent their intended surgical intervention from snowballing into a much larger and complicated military effort to keep Afghanistan a socialist state.

Perhaps most important of all, however, was a failure on the part of the USSR’s military and political leadership to appreciate the complexities of Afghan culture, history and society. The USSR wanted to keep Afghanistan a socialist state without appreciating the sociocultural difficulties this would entail, and the inevitable support for the Mujahideen this would generate among many Afghans. This proved a unifying factor for the Afghan Sunni and Shia Mujahideen and the numerous factions within each group. The Soviet incursion was a rallying point for Afghans already disillusioned with their country’s experiment with socialism, and had a major impact on the outcome of the war.

Reasons for Russian intervention in Syria

For President Putin the main aim of Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict at its start appeared much clearer than the more ideologically driven rationale behind Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Russia, it is widely acknowledged, has sent its planes to bomb Syria in an attempt to keep its ally Bashar al-Assad in power. There are also a number of political benefits stemming from Mr Putin’s authorisation of military action. In late September Russia appeared to seize the initiative on Syria, in contrast to the caution of Western nations, publicly flexing its military muscle in the process. There are also, as has been noted elsewhere, numerous domestic motives for President Putin’s intervention in Syria.

Just by entering the conflict President Putin appears to have achieved much politically. Yet the terrible events in Paris on the 13th November and the suspected downing of Metrojet Flight 9268 on 31st October by an onboard explosive device might force a temporary change in priorities. Russia, it appears, has now greatly increased its targeting of ISIL, although it continues to strike Western-backed rebels. A grand coalition against ISIL might in the short term assist Russia in its aim of keeping President al-Assad in control of the country, if Western powers focus their attentions on eradicating ISIL first. And the recent downing of a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M bomber by a Turkish F-16 fight jet has demonstrated how quickly diplomatic relations can turn sour and strategies change in the midst of conflict.

Identifying and Achieving Aims

The events of the last month, however, have shown how unstable and unpredictable the Syrian conflict can be. To avoid the fate of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, President Putin must communicate to his military officials and to his public how long he is prepared to wait, and what cost he is willing to pay, in order to achieve his aims in Syria.

If the Syrian Civil War rages on until 2020, will economically troubled Russia still be prepared to spend money and risk its armed forces’ lives to prop up Bashar al-Assad? If the conflict escalates further and further, even beyond a ‘proxy war’, will Russia be prepared to increase the support it provides to the Syrian government and risk open confrontation with the United States? Is Russia prepared to become a target for Islamist extremists if it presses on with its military action? Would President Putin be able to survive the political embarrassment of a Russian plane being shot down over Syria, or worse, the public outrage if a Russian pilot were to fall into the hands of ISIL? If al-Assad’s position looks close to hopeless will the Russian leadership be able to justify both at home and abroad the deployment of Russian troops inside Syria? And if a grand coalition emerges between Western powers and Russia for the purpose of destroying ISIL, how will Russia respond if and when ISIL is gone and Western nations once again turn their sights to the Syrian president? All these are questions that Russian military and political strategists must answer if they are to avoid a repeat of the disaster of 1979-89.

There are many differences between the Soviet-Afghan war and today’s Syrian Civil War, but for Russia the prospect of getting sucked into a long, bloody and ultimately unsuccessful conflict remains a real risk. Vladimir Putin must learn from the mistakes of his Soviet predecessors and not underestimate the complexities of the conflict into which he has ordered his nation’s military. Identifying clear aims and methods for success are essential if Russia is to portray its intervention in Syria as positive, but this can only be the start.

At home, the Russian President must be honest with his generals and the Russian people as to how long the intervention will last. He must push for greater co-operation with Western nations who are also bombing Syria, both to avoid mid-air confrontations and to perpetuate the image of Russia as an equal partner in a coalition of powers dedicated to destroying ISIL. And perhaps most importantly and uncharacteristically of all, President Putin must be prepared to compromise with the West over the fate of the Assad regime. He must realise that the prospect of President Assad remaining in power for the long term is simply untenable for the West, and that for as long as Assad stays in office the civil war will not end. If President Putin and Western leaders can somehow come to a solution which sees the removal of President Assad from power, alongside the preservation of Russian strategic interests in Syria (such as the Russian naval facility at Tartus), then both parties will be able to claim a victory. Such a compromise would pave the way for a swift destruction of ISIL and an eventual withdrawal of Russia military forces from the country.

Yousaf, Mohammad & Adkin, Mark (1992) Afghanistan, the bear trap: the defeat of a superpower

Author Bio

Thomas Cowie is currently an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge studying Classics. His particular interests include Chinese foreign and domestic policy and China’s relations with the West. Other interests include the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU.


Cover image: IoSonoUnaFotoCamera under a CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license


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