Since it first entered the conflict in 2015, Russia has changed the course of the Syrian civil war. The country managed, along with Iran, to turn the tides of battle back in the Syrian government's favor. And now that it has, it is looking for a way off the battlefield. Moscow doesn't want to be stuck in the Syrian conflict, but neither does it want to lose gains it has made there in solidifying its presence in the country and establishing itself as a critical influence in the region.
To that end, Russia has advocated a divide and conquer strategy with its Iranian and Syrian allies. First, it will draw down the rebellion against the Syrian government by offering the rebels and their backers "de-escalation zones" to freeze key sectors of the battlefield. Once the de-escalation zones have freed up enough manpower, Russia will then go after hard-line extremist groups in the country such as the Islamic State. The strategy has so far enabled Russian and Iranian-backed loyalist forces to switch their focus from fighting rebels in western Syria to claiming as much territory as possible in the eastern part of the country in the Islamic State's wake. But as Moscow is finding out, achieving its goals in Syria will be far more complicated than it anticipated.
Despite Russia's apparent advantages in Syria, the flaws in its exit plan are starting to show. The de-escalation zones the country set up during earlier peace talks in Kazakhstan have all but collapsed. Part of the problem is that independent rebel groups in the regions have shown no sign of acceding to outside pressure. The militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, for example, has refused to recognize the ceasefire negotiations and has launched offensive operations on loyalist positions in Hama province from its stronghold in nearby Idlib. Russia's own allies have also undermined its plan. Though Iran and the Syrian government understand the logic of the Russian strategy, they are reluctant to give up their claim to rebel-held territory by suspending hostilities there. Tehran and Damascus, unlike Moscow, are in the war for the long haul and won't back down until they achieve complete victory. Consequently, Syrian loyalist forces have continued their assaults on rebel positions in the west, particularly in Jobar and in the eastern Ghouta region.
Beyond the de-escalation zones' failings, Russia is also facing setbacks as the loyalist troops under its aegis push east toward the Iraqi border. Moscow is frustrated, for instance, that the U.S.-backed Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) may block the loyalists' advance toward Deir el-Zour with its own march down the Khabur River. While the SAC has made headway, the loyalists have run up against counterattacks from the Islamic State that have caused considerable casualties across the broad battle zone in the east. These strikes have cost Russia high-ranking officers, including a lieutenant general. In addition, on Oct. 3 the Islamic State released video footage showing two captured Russians, likely private military contractors, whom the group claims to have seized in a recent raid.
Complicating matters for Moscow is the decreasing popularity of its intervention in Syria back home. According to a survey in early September from the Levada Center, an independent pollster, less than one-third of Russians support their country's involvement in the Syrian civil war, down from two-thirds in 2015. Protesters across Russia have turned out at demonstrations with signs calling on the government to end the expensive operation and to focus its spending on feeding its people instead. To shore up their positions before elections in 2018, Russian leaders have highlighted the value of the Syrian mission by pointing out that it has enabled the Federal Security Services to find and arrest Islamic State operatives planning attacks in Russia.
Yet notwithstanding the challenges that have impeded — and will continue to impede — its exit plan in Syria, Moscow is unlikely to give up on the strategy anytime soon. Russia will continue to use a combination of military pressure on rebel forces and diplomatic outreach to their supporters, and to its own allies, to influence the conflict. Even if it can't end the war in Syria, Moscow can at least try to get the conflict to a point that won't require such a big military commitment on its part.