Is Putin increasing the stakes in Syria?

Brian M Downing 

Russian leader Vladimir Putin recently deployed more fighter aircraft to the Latakia airbase in western Syria –  two SU-57s. The move comes close on the heels of two setbacks  – Israel’s punishing strike on Syria’s Russian-made and much ballyhooed air defense system, and the US-SDF blunting of an offensive by Russian mercenaries in eastern Syria.

The Russian deployment of sophisticated fighters appears to be an escalation. The SU-57 is the most advanced fighter that Russian technology, espionage, and reverse-engineering have ever produced. It features stealth technology and is capable of air-superiority and attack missions. The deployment came with a warning to Israel and the US for violating Syrian air space. Why have the SU-57s been sent and what are the risks of greater conflict in the region?


Over the years Israeli fighters have struck government positions thought to store weaponry for Hisbollah. Syrian air defenses have been unable to stop the strikes and its fighters have thus far not chosen to engage them. The Syrian air force recalls a series of duels with Israel in 1982 which saw over 80 of its planes go down and several missile batteries blown up. Israel didn’t lose a plane. The aircraft and pilots have changed, but the outcome might not be very different.

Two SU-57s, even if expertly piloted, cannot alter the strategic equation over the Syrian skies. Having just had the effectiveness of its air defense system called into question by the Israeli air force, Russia does not want to see similar doubts surround its most advanced fighter aircraft. Arms sales are critical to the Russian economy and to Putin’s ambitions to extend his influence in the world. The SU-57s are unlikely to engage Israeli jets.


The SU-57 is a dual-use aircraft, designed for air-superiority operations but also for ground attack ones. The deployment could be to help retake the bulk of rebel-held lands and reestablish Damascus’s writ across Syria.

Such an effort would require substantial numbers of ground troops and they are not in good supply just now. The Syrian army and allied militias have taken very high casualties over the years, as has the IRGC contingent. Russian mercenaries too have been hard hit this year. It’s significant that troops recently sent to counter a Turkish drive toward Afrin have been militias, not overstretched regular troops.

There are several parts of Syria that will be difficult if not impossible to retake. Turkey has established a client-state with the FSA east of Afrin. Israel will not allow Syrian or allied forces to retake the uncontrolled glacis east of Golan. And the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia are forming an autonomous region east of the Euphrates. Russian fighters may be reluctant to encounter the American F-22s and F-35s that patrol northeastern and eastern Syria

A campaign to retake all Syria would be long, costly, and almost certainly unsuccessful. Two Russian planes will not make a difference.

Testing ground

Putin’s intentions regarding the SU-57s is probably highly limited, at least in regard to Syria. The jets are of course another token of his commitment to Assad but more importantly they are testing their effectiveness on actual combat missions. Russian intelligence can gather intelligence on US and Israeli abilities to detect these stealth fighters.

Putin must be concerned by the rise of Islamist militancy in the former Soviet republics along his southern periphery, and wish to prepare for long conflicts with sharp battles in Checnnya, Dagestan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. In the late 1930s, the Third Reich deployed aircraft, especially the Stuka dive bombers, into Spain amid its civil war. The airstrikes were heavy and pitiless. Hitler had his Guernica, Putin has had his Aleppo and Ghouta.

Copyright 2018 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.