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Bear in the Desert: What has Russia achieved from its intervention in Syria?

On 30 September 2015, the Federation Council, the upper house of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, approved the introduction of Russian forces into Syria, paving the way for Russian military intervention in the prolonged, bloody and multi-pronged Syrian Civil War on the side of the Syrian government. The Russian decision to intervene in Syria literally sent shock waves across the world and evoked both apprehension and outrage in Washington, Brussels, Ankara, Riyadh and other Western as well as Middle Eastern capitals. It was the first Russian military intervention outside the post-Soviet space (known as ‘near abroad’ in Russia) since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, Russia has maintained a limited military contingent in Syria, consisting of a limited number of air and ground personnel, naval infantrymen, airborne troops, special operations forces, military policemen and intelligence personnel, as well as small numbers of private military contractors (PMCs), including the Wagner Group, who are closely aligned with the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD).

The Russian intervention in Syria had, especially within the post-Soviet space, initially raised the spectre of re-enactment of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan against Afghan and foreign militants had resulted in the deaths of nearly 15,000 Soviet personnel and imposed a significant economic burden on the then stagnant Soviet economy, partially contributing to the process of the disintegration of the Union itself. There were fears on the part of the Russian populace (and on the part of the anti-Syrian government elements, hopes) that the Afghan scenario might repeat itself in Syria. However, nothing of that sort happened. Instead, the limited Russian contingent, working closely with the Syrian Arab Armed Forces, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and various pro-Syrian militias of Syrian, Iraqi, Lebanese, Afghan and even Pakistani origin, managed to turn the tides of the ruthless conflict and thus protect the Syrian government from the grim fate that befell on the Libyan government in 2011.

As of July 2021, the Russian intervention in Syria has been going on for more than five and a half years. Although the cost of the war has been relatively modest for Russia (as compared to the costs of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and the United States-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), it is still in the hundreds of millions of US dollars and some 300 Russian servicemen and PMCs have been killed in the course of the conflict. So, what has Russia achieved from their long and well-publicized intervention in the grim Syrian Civil War?

First of all, it should be noted that Syria has been an ally of Moscow since the 1950s. Even after the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and despite Syrian attempts to normalize relations with the United States of America (USA), close relations between Moscow and Damascus persisted. Russia and Syria maintained close political, economic, cultural, military and intelligence ties; Syria remained one of the largest markets for Russian arms; and moreover, the Russians maintained their only foreign military base outside the post-Soviet space in the port of Tartous, located in the Syrian province of Latakia. So, when the Syrian Civil War started in the wake of the Arab Spring and when the USA, assisted by its Western and Middle Eastern allies, began to arm the Syrian rebels in order to topple the Syrian government, Russia was threatened with the prospect of losing one of the few remaining allies it had in Western Asia and its only naval base on the strategically important Mediterranean coast. So, Moscow was compelled to act.

At first, Moscow continued to supply the beleaguered and defection-plagued Syrian military with arms and ammunition and to back the Syrian government politically and diplomatically, but at the same time, they attempted to seek a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the conflict. The then Russian President (and the current Deputy Chairman of the Security Council of the Russian Federation) Dmitry Medvedev had even hinted that the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should step down in order to help end the war. However, as the Syrian government forces began to lose ground rapidly to various militant groups, including the genocidal Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and numerous other Syrian and foreign militant groups, the perceptions in Moscow began to change and finally, Russia decided to militarily intervene in the war in September 2015.

Since the start of the Russian intervention, the Syrian government has managed to recapture nearly 60,000 square kilometres of land, including the key cities of Aleppo and Palmyra. The Syrian government now controls around 63% of the total territory of Syria. Through directly intervening in Syria, Russia has protected the Syrian government from near-certain collapse and thus saved an ally, retaining a large arms market and a Mediterranean naval base. This is the first and foremost achievement of Russia in Syria.

Secondly, through its intervention in Syria and the protection of the Syrian government from imminent collapse, Russia managed to challenge the hegemony and unilateralism of the USA that had persisted since the collapse of the USSR. Following the termination of the Cold War, the USA has systematically dismantled the remaining allies of Moscow across the world. For instance, notwithstanding the strong objections of Moscow, the USA and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies bombed the former Yugoslavia in 1999 under the pretext of protecting the Kosovar Albanians from Yugoslav atrocities, slicing the territory of Kosovo from Yugoslavia in the process. In 2003, despite strong Russian (and worldwide) opposition, the USA and its allies invaded Iraq under the false pretext of Iraq’s so-called possession of nuclear weapons, overthrowing the Iraqi government and then enabling the ‘judicial murder’ of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In 2011, the USA and its allies twisted a resolution of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) regarding the imposition of no-fly zones over Libya and invaded the country, enabling rebel forces to topple the Libyan government and murder the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Apart from direct military invasions, the USA also used ‘colour revolutions’ across the post-Soviet space and beyond to topple pro-Russian leaders and to install pro-Western leaders in their places. For example, the USA and its allies engineered the ‘Euromaidan Revolution’/coup d’état in Ukraine in 2014 in order to topple the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and to install a virulently anti-Russian government there. All the while, apart from issuing statements of protest, Russia was largely unable or unwilling to reverse the process.

But thanks to the effective Russian intervention in Syria, the Western-backed colour revolution could not succeed there. In addition, the Russian intervention prevented the West from launching a direct invasion of Syrian government-controlled territory and thus toppling the Syrian government. By doing so, Russia has, for the first time in three decades, managed to challenge and stall the USA-led ‘regime change’ policy across the world. According to political analyst Mona Yacoubian, this is the culmination of the ‘Primakov Doctrine’, a foreign policy doctrine promulgated and promoted by former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov that outlines that Russia would not tolerate a unipolar world dominated by the USA. The Russian intervention in Syria is the first instance of the Primakov Doctrine being put into practice successfully.

Thirdly, the Russian intervention in Syria has provided Russia with a significant geo-economic victory, which is ironically not much discussed in either Western or Russian media. It is known to all that Russia is one of the chief suppliers of hydrocarbon resources, including natural gas, too many of the European states. However, the dependence of the European states on Russian gas limits their geopolitical options. As they are largely reliant on Russia, they cannot antagonize Russia by taking overtly anti-Russian steps. The USA and its allies wanted to reduce the European states’ energy dependence on Russia and thus cripple a major source of Russian income, potentially creating unrest inside Russia. Hence, they were seeking alternative sources of natural gas to supply the European states.

Qatar, a small Gulf Arab state closely allied with the West and endowed with huge natural gas reserves, seemed a perfect choice. But in order to ensure the steady flow of Qatari gas to Europe, the proposed gas pipeline has to go through the territory of Syria. Syria rejected the proposal owing to its alliance with Russia and thus became a serious hurdle to the implementation of Western plans. So, it was in the interests of the collective West to topple the Syrian government and replace it with a pro-Western government, enabling the construction of the proposed pipeline. By protecting the Syrian government and thus derailing the Western plans, Moscow managed to prevent the construction of the Qatar-Europe gas pipeline. This has allowed Russia not only to maintain but also to boost the number of its gas exports to the European states. Indeed, following the Russian intervention in Syria, Russia and Germany (the key US ally in the European Union) agreed to build the ‘Nord Stream 2’ gas pipeline in order to supply more Russian gas to Germany.

Fourthly, as repeatedly stated by the Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s primary motivation in its intervention in Syria has been to protect ‘Syrian statehood’, not necessarily the Syrian President Assad. It should be noted that following the start of the Syrian Civil War, nearly 7,000 citizens of the post-Soviet republics (including Russia), including the commander of the Tajikistani OMOM special forces Gulmurod Khalimov, flocked to Syria in order to join various militant groups. From the viewpoints of the Russian and other post-Soviet republican governments, this presented a serious threat to their states’ stability and territorial integrity. If the Syrian government had been toppled, Syria might have turned into a hotbed of international militancy and thus a major base of Russian-speaking militants. Russia had already fought at least five large-scale and bloody wars against militant groups (Afghan War, First and Second Chechen Wars, Tajikistani Civil War and Dagestan War) by that time and had no desire to fight another such war on or near Russian territory.

So the Russian strategists concluded that it would be better for them to eliminate the Russian-speaking and Central Asian militants on Syrian territory. Following the intervention in Syria, Russian forces eliminated a large number of Russian-speaking and Central Asian militants there, including ISIL Minister of War Gulmurod Khalimov, who was killed in a Russian airstrike in 2017. As a result, the threat of these militants returning to Russia and the Central Asian states and causing major instability there has been greatly reduced.

Fifthly, the successful Russian intervention in Syria has increased Russia’s prestige on the international stage and greatly boosted Moscow’s geopolitical clout in Western Asia. Before the intervention, Moscow coordinated its activities with Iran and Iraq, leading to the creation of a loose ‘Iran-Iraq-Syria-Russia Coalition’. Owing to the intervention in Syria, the already extensive relations between Russia and Iran were further solidified. As Russian forces started to pound the militants with air and naval strikes, regional states that were heavily involved in the war against the Syrian government were compelled to come to terms with Moscow in order to avoid a direct war with Russia. These states included Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, following the intervention, the Middle Eastern states began to reckon Russia with considerably more respect and proceeded to develop their relations with the ‘extremist people of the Cross’, as the Saudi religious leaders have described the Russians at the beginning of the Russian intervention in Syria.

Indeed, following the intervention, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar signed contracts with Russia that are worth billions of dollars. In addition, Russia has gained lucrative energy and other contracts in Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Russian military-technical cooperation with states such as Iran, Iraq, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Turkey has also gained increasing momentum. Thus the Syrian expedition has largely strengthened Russia’s position in the Middle East.

Sixthly, the Russian military has benefited immensely from the Syrian intervention. Through their participation in the Syrian War, they have gained practical experience in conducting modern warfare. Owing to the Russian practice of rotating officers and soldiers after every few months, thousands of Russian servicemen have gained invaluable experience and this would assist them in conducting future warfare. In addition, as the Russian senior officers had to serve in Syria in the same way as the junior officers and soldiers, all commanders and deputy commanders of Russia’s military districts are now war veterans with considerable experience of leading large formations of troops. Moreover, through participating in the war in Syria, the Russian military has been able to identify their deficiencies and shortcomings, and they have launched an effective military reform on the basis of their findings.

Moreover, the Russians have tested hundreds of new weapon systems on the battlefields of Syria and this has boosted Russia’s arms sales across the world. For instance, according to the Russian MoD, Russian forces tested 600 new weapon systems in Syria in 2017 alone. As a result, states across the world have become more interested in purchasing battle-tested Russian weapon systems. This has boosted the Russian economy, which is under considerable strain owing to Western sanctions.

In addition, following the intervention, Russia has not only managed to preserve its existing naval base in Tartous but also expanded it and established other bases, including the Hmeimim Airbase, across Syria. This has greatly strengthened the Russian military foothold on the Mediterranean Sea, which the Russians consider to be the ‘first line of defence’ for Southern Russia. In fact, Russia has established an effective anti-access/area denial (AA/AD) system near the Syrian Mediterranean coast, potentially threatening NATO activities in the area. This has increased Russia’s defence capability vis-a-vis NATO, to which Russia remains inferior in terms of conventional forces.

Seventhly, the Syrian intervention has provided Russia with economic benefits, although its scope is rather limited considering the poor status of the Syrian economy at present. Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin (who is considered to be the mastermind behind the shadowy Wagner Group) has gained lucrative contracts in the Syrian oil and gas sectors. Another Russian businessman Gennady Timchenko has gained contracts to mine phosphates and to develop the port of Tartous (a $500 million worth deal). Some other Russian companies have also gained valuable contracts in various sectors in Syria. Although the prospects of Western sanctions continue to discourage many Russian companies to invest in Syria, analysts are sure that Russia would play a major role in the post-war reconstruction of Syria, thus gaining millions or even billions of dollars.

Eighthly, the successful use of the Wagner Group mercenaries in Syria has resulted in the group gaining a number of contracts across the globe to fight in similar civil wars/conflicts. Following the intervention in Syria, the Wagner Group has gained contracts in Libya, Sudan, Venezuela, the Central African Republic, Mozambique and a number of other states. This has allowed Russia to expand its influence in a number of states and gain lucrative mining and other contracts, all the while enabling Moscow to deny its involvement in the conflicts and limit the number of ‘official’ casualties, thus avoiding domestic political backlash.

Finally, the intervention in Syria has enabled the Russian government to collect domestic political dividends. The intervention in Syria solidified Russia’s resurgence as a great power, and this, along with the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, greatly boosted the popularity of President Vladimir Putin and contributed to his landslide victory in the 2018 presidential election. Moreover, the intervention has, paradoxically, served the purpose of integrating the Russian Muslims more effectively into the fold of ‘all-Russian patriotism’ as Russian Muslim religious leaders and a large number of ordinary Russian Muslims rallied to the support of the Russian government.

In a bizarre twist, the intervention in Syria benefited the Russian North Caucasian Muslim-populated republics of Chechnya and Ingushetia. Since the onset of the conflict, the governments of Chechnya and Ingushetia solidly backed Moscow’s designs in the Levant and sent ethnic Chechen and Ingush military police contingents to Syria. These two governments had their own interests in the elimination of militants of North Caucasian origin in Syria (who pose direct threats to their authority in their republics), and this goal has largely been achieved. Moreover, by overtly supporting the Russian intervention in Syria, Grozny and Magas sought to attract more federal funds for the development of their republics and to improve their image among ethnic Russians. These goals have also been partially achieved. Thus, the Syrian intervention has provided the federal Russian government and the peripheral Chechen and Ingush governments with a win-win situation.

Thus, through its participation in the Syrian Civil War, Russia has achieved a number of geopolitical, geo-economic, military-technical, symbolic and domestic political dividends. Therefore, in hindsight, Moscow’s decision to intervene in Syria seems to have been well-calculated and wise. However, there is also much that Russia has not been able to accomplish in the Syrian War. The Syrian War is not yet over; the Syrian government still does not have full control over the Syrian territory; the post-war reconstruction has not yet begun in the true sense; Russia has not managed to use its newly gained regional clout to its fullest extent owing to resource and other constraints; and potential points of friction with Turkey, the USA and Israel remain in place. Hence, while Russia has achieved a lot by intervening in Syria, there is still a long way to their final victory in the deserts of Syria.

References:

  1. Can Kasapoglu and Sinan Ulgen. “Russia’s Ambitious Military-Geostrategic Posture in the Mediterranean.” Carnegie Europe, June 10, 2021. https://carnegieeurope.eu/2021/06/10/russia-s-ambitious-military-geostrategic-posture-in-mediterranean-pub-84695?fbclid=IwAR3l9Cr3PglGg897JmPS_oQ__UTPviqXiiIxVBIsl0v-IbhKIxZ7IDtlWKQ
  2. Charis Chang. “Is the fight over a gas pipeline fuelling the world’s bloodiest conflict?” News.au.com, December 2, 2015. https://www.news.com.au/world/middle-east/is-the-fight-over-a-gas-pipeline-fuelling-the-worlds-bloodiest-conflict/news-story/74efcba9554c10bd35e280b63a9afb74
  3. Mariya Petkova. “What has Russia gained from five years of fighting in Syria?” Al Jazeera, October 1, 2020. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.aljazeera.com/amp/features/2020/10/1/what-has-russia-gained-from-five-years-of-fighting-in-syria
  4. Mona Yacoubian. “What is Russia’s Endgame in Syria?” United States Institute of Peace, February 16, 2021. https://www.usip.org/publications/2021/02/what-russias-endgame-syria
  5. Philipp Casula. “Why Russia needs troops from the Caucasus in Syria – and how they bolster Moscow’s ‘eastern’ image.” The Conversation, August 1, 2017. https://theconversation.com/amp/why-russia-needs-troops-from-the-caucasus-in-syria-and-how-they-bolster-moscows-eastern-image-81281

 

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