Compare these figures to Russia’s losses in several years of fighting in Syria. Russia has more than 4,000 troops based in Syria yet has lost fewer than 50 (excluding private military contractors). Russia has so successfully avoided war casualties that the world was shocked by the news of several hundred Russian mercenaries killed, with the Kremlin scrambling to deny their very existence.
Russia’s casualty aversion in Syria is suggestive of a broader trend. Autocrats, once indifferent to military casualties, today seem less willing to see their troops killed. But force protection has led to less discriminate military tactics that result in high levels of civilian fatalities.
The authoritarian wartime tool kit.
That appears to no longer be the case. Syria has been fought in part as a proxy war among autocratic regimes — those of Syria, Iran, Russia and Turkey, primarily. These regimes have shown a remarkable unwillingness to incur casualties or shed blood when it comes to taking key terrain. They have preferred a more indirect approach, relying mostly on heavy artillery, indiscriminate airstrikes and siege warfare.
Why autocrats are more sensitive to casualties.
All autocrats today face some constraints when it comes to casualty aversion. Even authoritarian rulers like Russian President Vladimir Putin face strong domestic elites they must appease to stay in power. Unlike their democratic counterparts, autocracies purposely keep their conventional forces weak to lower the threat of a coup.
Why? One explanation is that today’s autocrats are less secure domestically than their predecessors. A recent survey in Russia found that only a third of Russians favored the Kremlin’s military support of President Bashar al-Assad. The popularity of the Russian intervention has waned as casualties have climbed. Despite his near-absolute power, Putin is not immune to this public pressure. In Syria, he wants to keep Assad in power, embarrass the Americans and its proxies, and retain his influence in the region. But he wants to do so as painlessly as possible, to shore up his domestic support.
This explains his use of mercenaries in Syria and war zones such as Ukraine. High-risk fighting, often in dense urban terrain, has been subcontracted out to private military contractors, which gives the government a double-edged sword of plausible deniability: to avoid blame when these privateers kill civilians, and to avoid blame when body-bags pile up. Publics are less casualty-averse when it comes to guns-for-hire dying rather than troops.
Likewise, in Iran, the public has maintained its support for the country’s intervention in Syria, despite a climbing casualty toll there. This is arguably because for the bulk of the campaign, only a fraction of those fighting in Syria were Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) troops. Instead, Iran has offloaded losses to Shiite paramilitary groups like the Basij or foreign fighters such as Afghans, Pakistanis or Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
By contrast, casualties among Turkey’s armed forces have slowly inched upward after Ankara launched a major air and ground offensive in northern Syria. While Turkish public support for the war has remained high, the bulk of the offensive has relied on indiscriminate strikes, which have killed hundreds of civilians in the area. The war has also been framed as one of “neutralizing” Kurdish terrorism, not as an intervention in a civil war.
Casualty aversion is bad for civilians.
Today’s autocrats appear far less willing to send their forces into direct combat. This is enabled by new military technology that makes it easier to fire from afar. The autocrats waging the Syrian war have fought on the cheap, relying primarily on crude barrel bombs and indiscriminate shelling, air sorties flown above the reach of the opposition’s antiaircraft defenses, and low-risk siege-warfare tactics.
This newfound casualty aversion helps to explain the starve-or-surrender tactics employed by the Syrian military, but also its strength and strategy. The reliance on imprecise airstrikes, artillery barrages and siege warfare are presumably meant to inflict as much pain as possible on opposition-held areas to hasten their surrender. These types of tactics shift the cost of war from troops to civilians. About 400,000 ordinary Syrians have either perished or been wounded in this war. Millions have been displaced, while entire neighborhoods have been leveled.
Possibilities for war termination?
This casualty aversion reveals that autocrats may be less secure domestically and, thus, more open to coercive diplomacy and less willing to escalate conflicts. Assad, for example, has studiously avoided responding militarily to Israel’s cross-border strikes — about 100 — on Syria for fear of escalation. When Syrian rebels were on the outskirts of Damascus in 2012, we saw waves of Syrian officers defect. When the U.S. military looked poised to intervene in 2013, the regime quickly made concessions to dismantle its chemical weapons program. More recently, recordings of Russian mercenaries obtained in Syria reveal that these paid-for-hire troops were awed by U.S. artillery.
The new Russian, Syrian or Iranian “way of war” clearly suggests that the regimes in those countries are less willing to send their forces into harm’s way than their 20th-century predecessors. This makes the likelihood of civilian casualties during wartime higher, yet, presumably, also makes outsiders’ use of coercive diplomacy backed by sticks more effective.
Lionel Beehner holds a PhD in political science from Yale University. He is assistant professor in the Defense and Strategic Studies Department at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and director of research of West Point’s Modern War Institute. The views here are his own.