6 Years of Russian Intervention in Syria – Victory or a ‘Forever War’?
Moscow’s support of Assad has proved itself, but it remains to be seen whether it can convert them into political and economic success down the road
While other Arab leaders vanished with the winds of the Arab Spring, Bashar Assad benefited from Russian and Iranian support and survived, while Moscow skillfully inserted itself into the heart of the Middle East and the Mediterranean and expanded its sphere of influence. What did Russia achieve in Syria, what lies ahead, and does Russian victory necessarily translate to American defeat?
A few days ago, shortly before the September 17-19 elections to the Russian State Duma (the lower house of the Federal Assembly) took place, Syrian President Assad paid an unannounced visit to Moscow and met with President Vladimir Putin, the man who literally saved his skin six years ago.
In July 2015, Assad’s army was suffering major setbacks as the rebels fought ferociously for control of highways, towns and villages across the country. Back then, the united front of some 40 factions even attempted to open up the route into the regime’s stronghold of Latakia from Idlib and Hama. If they succeeded, Assad’s regime would be fighting for its life.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani paid a visit to Moscow that month: He briefed the Russian leadership on the precarious situation and urged Putin to help out the Syrian comrades. Soon Assad sent an official request for Russian military aid.
On September 30, 2015, the Federation Council (the upper house of the Federal Assembly) granted the request by Putin to deploy the Russian Air Force in Syria. That very day, Russian military units already based in government-held territory began an offensive against rebel targets.
“I remember that in 2015 many experts said that Russian involvement in Syria will end like Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. However, it’s clear that Putin is playing his cards right in Syria,” Alexander Baunov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and editor in chief of Carnegie.ru, tells The Media Line.
“If we’ll compare the Russian campaign in Syria to that of the US in Afghanistan, then it’s obvious that due to Russian support Assad controls a significant chunk of Syrian territory – close to 70%. It is much more than the US-supported Afghanistan government ever did. There is a regime in Syria – the Assad’s regime – but still,” he continues.
“And the Syrian army proved to be more reliable than Afghan military forces that were groomed by the US. I do not know what will happen if Putin suddenly decides to remove [Russian forces from the] base at Khmeimim [southeast of Latakia], but I doubt that they will disappear into thin air. Putin grew up in the Soviet Union. He has been careful about not repeating the mistakes it made in Afghanistan,” Baunov says.
During six years of war in Syria, Russia has relied primarily on its air force and stayed away from sending its men onto the battlefield. Instead, the private military company personnel (i.e., the men of the Wagner Group) as well as other foreign forces – Lebanese, Pakistani and Afghani militiamen − did the dirty work.
Moscow used its presence in Syria to build its air force and navy presence in the region, expanding its existing base in Tartus and building a state-of-the-art base at Khmeimim. It expanded its influence into neighboring Lebanon and stretched its muscle into the Mediterranean, in close proximity to European shores.
While the issue of an economic dividend is questionable, it is well known that close Putin allies such as billionaire tycoon Gennady Timchenko won lucrative contracts in the fields of construction and energy in Syria.
According to Maxim Suchkov, a senior fellow at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), that’s how the first phase of the war ended. “Since 2017, when Russia, Turkey and Iran launched the ‘Astana format,’ Russia began the second stage of its campaign in Syria, which was now ‘opportunity-driven.’”
Russia has sought to capitalize on its achievements in Syria and monetize its image of a strong and decisive power in the region; it was able to reinforce its position globally. It managed to fix its previously flawed relations with other countries in the Middle East, such as the Gulf monarchies. In reality, the record is more nuanced and “the capital earned has now been gradually exhausted,” says Suchkov, speaking to The Media Line.
Sand, blood and death
At the end of 2019, soon after proclaiming victory over ISIS (Russia did that, too), US President Donald Trump said he would not be sending any more troops to Syria. “Get the hell out of there. It’s sand, blood and death,” said President Trump and ordered a withdrawal of American troops from the country.
In the end he decided to keep a small American contingent to back the Syrian Democratic Forces in the country’s northeast, but the point was clear. Just like President Barack Obama before him and President Joe Biden after him, President Trump wanted to cut back American involvement in the Middle East, in Syria, in Iraq, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
“In the short and medium terms, Russia showed that it was ready to pay a higher price for achievement in the Levant, and the price was even not that high. Its support of Assad has proved itself – more countries in the Middle East today accept that Assad is part of the reality, and are interested in interaction with Damascus,” Ofer Zalzberg, Middle East program director at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute for Interactive Conflict Transformation, says, talking to The Media Line.
“One of these countries is Jordan, which is interested to export its goods via Syria and to import cheap Syrian goods. As for the US, its focus has changed from the Middle East to Asia. Also, its own legislation such as the Caesar bill somewhat limited its ability to maneuver in Syria,” Zalzburg says.
(The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 placed additional sanctions and financial restrictions on institutions and individuals related to the conflict in Syria – K.S.)
Baunov believes that if the US were to deploy a sizable contingent in Syria, similar to that which was deployed in Iraq, the Syrian war and the Russian involvement would play out very differently. He also says that this kind of scenario was always unlikely.
“If the US decided to go for massive involvement in Syria and repeat the Iraqi scenario, then Putin would probably back off. However in that case the American operation would be very different and include the conquest of Damascus and toppling the regime. Why on earth would Obama or Trump repeat the experiment of George Bush Jr. that turned out to be quite a disaster, which was already clear at that point? Russia has a wide range of interests in Syria – a political interest, showing that ‘we don’t abandon allies,’ there was a Russian navy base, a trade, an ally. There was something worth fighting for,” says Baunov.
So while America was losing interest in the Middle East, the Russian appetite kept growing, instigated by US and EU sanctions and the need to increase Moscow’s influence and find new markets. Russia had a clear strategy and an ally in Syria; the US had neither. However, not everything is simple and bright for Russia in Syria.
“While the US cannot impose its values on other countries, it can prevent the flow of American and European money to these countries,” says Zalzberg, indicating that the post-war reconstruction of Syria remains a far-fetched goal for Assad and his Russian allies.
Indeed, the lack of economic development in Syria is Russia’s Achilles’ heel. It can neither rebuild Syria by itself nor allow for the flow of foreign investment. Also, the province of Idlib, the stronghold of rebels, continues to cause tensions between Ankara and Moscow, while Assad’s army and the Iranians are undermining the Russian-sponsored agreement in Daraa.
Six years after Moscow began its direct involvement, it is still celebrating its military triumphs in Syria. It remains to be seen whether it will be able to convert them into political and economic success in the future.