On September 30, 2015, the Russian Federation formally entered the Syrian civil war as President Bashar al-Assad’s rule was increasingly under threat.
Since 2011, intense fighting and mass desertion had weakened the Syrian Arab Army. Even the support of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the deployment of Iranian militias and Russian mercenaries, and regular shipments of Russian weaponry had not been enough to stop the advance of the opposition and radical armed groups.
In March 2015, the Syrian government lost a second provincial capital, Idlib, when Jeish al-Fattah, a loose coalition of various armed groups, led a successful offensive on the city in the country’s northwest.
The provincial capital of Raqqa, with its strategic oil and water resources, had been captured the previous year and had become the main stronghold of the rising Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
In addition, the Syrian government had lost control of large swathes of several provinces – Idlib, Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir Az Zor, Hassakeh, Deraa and Quneitra – and was struggling to control Hama, Homs and the Damascus countryside.
The Russian intervention stopped the advance of the opposition, which was backed by the West, Turkey and the Gulf, and effectively preserved the Baathist regime in Damascus. This paved the way for a more assertive Russian presence in the Middle East, leading some observers to talk about “Russian resurgence” or even to make parallels with Cold War-era regional dynamics.
So after five years of the war effort in Syria, where does Russia stand today? Has the Kremlin achieved its goals and has it challenged the US dominance of the region?
Some observers have attributed the Russian decision to intervene formally in Syria to a July 2015 visit to Moscow by General Qassem Soleimani, the late commander of the Quds Force of the IRGC, who was assassinated by the United States in Baghdad in early January this year. The Iranian general supposedly convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin to send Russian troops and save the Syrian government.
However, it does not seem like the Kremlin needed convincing. The fall of al-Assad would have threatened Russia’s interests and eliminated another regional ally. This would have been a major blow to Moscow, particularly after the Western-backed toppling of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, which Putin, then a prime minister, personally opposed and criticised then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for enabling.
The decision to intervene in Syria also reflected the Kremlin’s fear of the so-called “colour revolutions” and their potential success sparking a major anti-government uprising in Russia itself. A year earlier, the pro-West Maidan revolution in Ukraine provoked a sharp reaction in Moscow, which led to the annexation of Crimea and Russian military intervention in the Donbas region. This, in turn, triggered Western sanctions, which hurt the Russian economy, particularly business circles close to the Kremlin.
Tense relations with the West also motivated Moscow to put troops on the ground in Syria. Given the deadlock on the Ukrainian crisis, an intervention in the Syrian conflict, which Western powers had been heavily involved in, presented the Russian government with another front where it could pressure the West into negotiations.
The rise of ISIL provided an opportunity to wrap the intervention in anti-terror rhetoric, ensuring domestic support, while the Obama administration’s reluctance to get involved more heavily in the Syrian conflict – to avoid an “Iraq repeat” – and the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal reassured Moscow that there would be no direct clash with the US.
Russia’s superior military power managed to shift the dynamics on the ground in Syria relatively quickly. Although the declared goal of its operation was to fight “terrorist” groups, the Russian army, along with its Syrian allies, first targeted groups of the moderate opposition backed by the West, who at that time were already suffering from internal divisions and having to fight on two fronts – against Damascus and ISIL.
Less than a year later, Russian troops, along with Iranian-backed militias and Syrian government forces, laid siege on East Aleppo, and by November, forced opposition armed groups to surrender and leave the city. This was a turning point in the conflict, as it marked the steady retreat of opposition forces and ushered in a new axis between Russia, Iran and Turkey, seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis while excluding the West and Arab powers.
In January 2017, the Astana (now Nur-Sultan) format was launched which brought together the Syrian opposition, including armed groups formerly supported by the West but by then largely abandoned, and the Syrian government, along with Russia, Iran and Turkey. Later that year, under this format, Russia managed to establish four de-escalation zones where all sides committed to pause military activities. This removed the burden of fighting on multiple fronts and allowed Syrian government forces, along with their Russian and Iranian allies, to take over one opposition-held area after the other. Parts of Idlib province now form the last de-escalation zone remaining in opposition control.
In the span of five years, Russia not only managed to preserve the Syrian government but also largely eliminated and marginalised the moderate opposition – the main challenger to al-Assad’s legitimacy and the only other political-military force whose participation in government would have been acceptable to the West.
Russia’s leading role in Syria also gave it regional leverage beyond the Syrian borders. It forced Turkey to re-engage, following a crisis in relations caused by the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkish forces, in 2015. The failed coup attempt against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in 2016, accelerated the process.
Russia’s perceived success in Syria also encouraged other countries in the Middle East to seek improved relations with Moscow amid the US pivot out of the region. The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Sudan, and Israel have all paid visits to Moscow in recent years. This allowed Russia to enter into the Libyan fray, albeit late, and seek a say in the future of the country by backing the offensive of renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar on the capital Tripoli.
Despite the increased diplomatic engagement in the region and the prestige on the international scene that has come with it, Russia has not really achieved the same level of influence the US has had.
“It’s clear for everybody now that [Russia] is a superpower now and [it is] playing a crucial role in the Middle East. But at the same time, there are limits to its economic and political resources,” Leonid Isaev, senior lecturer at the Higher School of Economics, said.
Moscow has also failed to leverage its position in the Syrian conflict to jump-start dialogue with the West on sanctions or even get Western Europe to commit to funding the reconstruction of war-ravaged Syria.
At the same time, Russia is not in full control of Damascus. Despite Putin’s repeated gestures of disparagement towards al-Assad, who he is said to personally dislike, he is not the only decision-maker in Syria.
“There is mutual understanding between Iran and Russia in Syria and there is a division of spheres of influence and competencies,” Kirill Semenov, a Moscow-based Middle East analyst, said. “It is difficult to say which one can influence Assad more. The regime is quite independent and is able to use both Moscow and Tehran to ensure its survival.”
In addition, the continued Turkish and American military presence in resource-rich northern Syria also guarantees Ankara and Washington a say in the future of Syria. It also prevents the advance of Syrian government forces and their Iranian and Russian allies to re-establish Damascus’s full territorial control.
Russia entered the Syrian war amid an economic crisis due to slumping oil prices and the fallout of the Ukrainian crisis. This initially caused domestic concern about the cost of the war.
According to the government, the first six months of the operation cost $464m, which compared with the US spending in Iraq (nearly $2 trillion in 16 years or about $125bn per year), was a relatively modest number.
Two years after the start of the intervention, Russia’s defence budget dropped from 5.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) ($79bn) in 2016 to 3.7 percent ($61.4bn) in 2018, alleviating fears of overspending on the military.
At the same time, the Russian government has presented the operation in Syria as an opportunity to test and promote Russian weaponry (something other large arms exporters, like the US and Israel, have also done in the region). In 2017, the defence ministry said some 600 new weapons had been tested in military action in Syria.
The Syrian war has also boosted the mercenary business in Russia, particularly the Wagner group associated with Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman nicknamed “Putin’s chef” for catering at events attended by the Russian president. In recent years, there have been reports of Wagner mercenaries being employed in Venezuela, Mozambique, Madagascar, the Central African Republic, Libya and elsewhere.
Prigozhin, along with another Russian businessman considered close to the Kremlin, Gennady Timchenko, has won some lucrative contracts in Syria.
“Putin’s chef” has been linked to oil and gas deals with Damascus, while Timchenko has acquired the right to mine phosphates and operate the port of Tartous, where a $500m Russian investment has been announced.
But apart from these two investors and some smaller Russian companies, there have been no significant economic and trade opportunities for Russian business in Syria, whose oil and gas reserves are much more modest than Iraq’s.
“Apart from Timchenko and Prigozhin, Russian businesses do not want to work in Syria. This has much to do with the impact of sanctions,” said Semenov.
The European Union and the US are major trade partners of Russia and both have imposed heavy sanctions on Syria, which Russian businesses would rather avoid.
This has also complicated the reconstruction process in areas badly damaged by fighting where the Syrian government has regained control. Russia itself has not committed any significant funding for reconstruction and has failed to convince the EU or Gulf countries to do so.
The situation has further been exacerbated by Syria’s deepening economic troubles, including its currency collapse, which was deepened by the crisis in Lebanon. The financial lifeline, which Tehran was able to extend since the beginning of the war, has also dried up due to US sanctions on the Iranian economy.
While economic opportunities have not been that significant for the Russian economy, the political leverage that Russia acquired with its intervention in Syria opened the door to increased economic cooperation with other countries in the region.
“[Russia] has some political assets which it tries to sell to the Gulf countries … In return, [it is] looking for stronger economic and investment cooperation with the Gulf,” Isaev said.
In recent years, Russia has signed investment pledges and deals worth billions of dollars with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. Russian companies have also acquired lucrative energy contracts in Egypt, Lebanon, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Turkey.
Apart from concerns about the financial cost, there was no major domestic opposition to the intervention at its outset. The Russian public, including most of the political opposition, largely embraced the Russian government’s narrative that it was going to fight “terrorists” in Syria.
Subsequent reports of the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces, the targeting of hospitals by the Russian air force and a high death toll among civilians have not swayed public opinion.
However, there have been some fears, especially among the older population, of a possible repeat of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, which resulted in the death of more than 15,000 Soviet troops and a humiliating withdrawal.
Russian authorities have been sensitive to these concerns and have allegedly underreported casualties among troops and failed to acknowledge losses among mercenaries. Still, the actual death toll is believed to be in hundreds – much lower than in the Afghan war. In March 2019, the Russian defence ministry officially claimed that 116 soldiers had died in Syria since 2015.
The Kremlin has been eager to declare victory in Syria and create the impression that the conflict is nearing its conclusion. Putin himself announced the withdrawal of Russian troops twice – in 2016 and 2017, although Russian servicemen continue to be deployed on the ground. In August, a roadside bomb killed a Russian major general near the city of Deir Az Zor.
Despite the absence of an active anti-war movement in Russia and concern about the fate of the Syrian people, the Russian public is growing tired of the conflict. An April 2019 survey by the independent pollster Levada Center showed that some 55 percent of respondents said Russia should end its military operation in Syria, up from 49 percent in 2017.
This sentiment seems to be linked to the growing perception that the Russian government has major domestic problems to resolve and cannot waste its energy on a foreign conflict.
“Russia now has a lot of internal problems … like the economic impact of the COVID lockdown, the aftermath of the referendum on the constitution, the parliamentary elections next year,” said Isaev. “Now, I’m not sure we are so interested in the Syrian conflict.”
According to him, Russia’s current foreign policy priorities include the political crisis in Belarus and the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. This has pushed to the background the Syrian war, wherein the Russian government is mainly interested in preserving the status quo and maintaining a frozen conflict.
Follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter: @mkpetkova