Russian aircraft based in Syria. AP file photo.
In September 2015 Russia intervened decisively in the war in Syria on the side of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. One year on to the month of that intervention’s beginning presents a timely moment to assess how the battlefield in Syria has changed and what Russia has achieved in that war-torn country in the last 12 months.
“Moscow’s principal goal in Syria is clear: to preserve, if not strengthen, the Assad regime,” John E. Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine and the Director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council think-tank, told Rudaw English.
“This has been the case since the first protestors appeared in Syria over five years ago,” he added, “Once the armed rebellion began in the fall of 2011, Moscow began to offer more military support. Moscow’s military surge in the fall of 2015 was prompted by the steady gains of insurgent forces – principally Islamic State (ISIS) and other militant Islamic groups – and the steady retreat of Assad’s troops in the first half of 2015.”
From September to December 2015, however, the Russian air campaign did not do much to help Assad retake any territory. That changed early the following year.
“Early in 2016, Moscow began regular carpet bombing of civilian areas populated by the moderate opposition groups backed by the West, with the exception of Kurdish fighters in traditionally Kurdish areas of Syria,” Herbst explained. “This tactic has proved successful and enabled Assad’s forces to regain substantial territory, particularly on the road to Aleppo.”
It has also taken a heavy toll on the civilians in those areas subjected to such bombing, which has displaced more Syrians and produced more refugees. Even this, Herbst reasoned, has “an additional benefit for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, because it contributes to instability in Europe. In particular, Mr. Putin would like to see the position of [German] Chancellor [Angela] Merkel weakened since she is the figure most responsible for marinating the sanctions on Moscow for its ongoing aggression in Ukraine.”
Also, a year in Syria, Herbst reasons, has enhanced the “diplomatic clout” of Russia in the Middle East region.
“Since the beginning of the Russian operation in September of 2015 the US has been trying to negotiate a stable ceasefire with Russia, again, with little success. Moscow’s interest is in weakening the moderate opposition groups so that the West concludes that Assad is the only alternative to Islamic extremists,” he explained.
Herbst considers it a pity that “Washington has not established a firm policy of striking Assad’s forces every time Moscow hits the moderate opposition.”
“Such actions would likely persuade Putin to direct his operation against ISIS, or at a minimum dissuade him from continuing his war against Western-backed forces,” he concluded.
Michael Kofman, an expert on Russia and Eurasia at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, says Russia knew from the start that its campaign in Syria “was not going to be quick and easy.”
“Moscow found a way to translate the use of military power into desired political ends in the Middle East, something we have struggled with repeatedly in the US. I think looking a year on it is both remarkable how much Russia has achieved on the ground with the little military power they committed,” Kofman told Rudaw English.
There is a caveat however.
“At the same time the strategic prospectus of their stay in Syria is one of diminishing returns,” Kofman added, “What Russia was surprised by is not how long they stayed but the woeful state of the Syrian armed forces. To be blunt, the Syrian Army is not a thing, but rather a composite of militias. All sides are heavily reliant on proxy groups and militias composed of foreigners, including Palestinians, Afghans and so on, beyond the known Iranian militias and Hezbollah.”
This, Kofman argues, led the Russian leadership to realize that a political solution is needed in Syria, “and not just a fig leaf process, because unlike a real army, the Syrian forces cannot hold ground.”
Generally over the course of its campaign these last 12 months, Kofman said, “Moscow preferred showpiece gains like Palmyra, and making itself relevant in the fight against ISIS rather than the exhausting battle for Aleppo.”
While they can, and indeed have, recaptured territory from their opponents with Russian help “they cannot hold it, and that means the gains made on the ground can quickly disappear into the Syrian sand. As the US has discovered in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, these countries can absorb men and money without results ad infinitum.”
Instead of helping the Syrians reconquer territory they cannot hold Kofman thinks Russia has been “quite effective at fragmenting, destroying and steadily killing its way to victory. The objective is to remove moderate opposition groups from the conflict, either forcing them to disband or radicalizing them into joining jihadist groups so that there is no viable alternative to the Syrian regime.”
The outcome of about a year of this policy has seen the latest battle being waged between the Russian-Iranian-Syrian coalition on the one side, and the former al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra on the other, with more moderate Syrian opposite groups “fading in relevance as political or military” entities. This coalition Russia is working with, Kofman explained, does not share the same objectives. Russia doesn’t believe a military solution can be brought about and would rather reach a deal with the United States, while Tehran and Damascus both want to push on and vanquish their various enemies in that country.
Kofman view the failure of the latest ceasefire this September as “further evidence of an inability to reconcile allied interests – something the US has long been dealing with on its side with Turkey and Saudi Arabia.”
Timur Akhmetov, an independent Russian researcher who specializes on Turkish-Russian relations, believes that Russia has, in its first year in Syria “managed to achieve the main political goal of its military campaign, securing and consolidating the central government.”
“Russia's calculation that its military engagement in Syria would eventually lead to more dialogue with the West turned out to be right: US not only relies heavily on Russian assistance in pushing through political solution in Syria, it also find itself forced to coordinate military actions to avoid undesired accidents,” Akhmetov told Rudaw English.
Furthermore Russia’s intervention in Syria and subsequent military campaign over the course of the last year has enabled the Kremlin, Akhmetov contends, “to gain/regain its image as a leading world power.”
“Putin gained not only considerable reputation domestically, but also internationally by challenging the West. Syria also served as a good advertisement of Russia’s modern weapon systems,” he added.
However, as Russia remains in the Syrian conflict Akhmetov envisions several challenges and problems Russia will face down the road, something he considers “the price of being a leading power within this conflict.”
For one, he said, Russia will have to tactfully manage its relations with different regional countries and groups which are hostile to each other, namely the following conflicts/cold wars between: “Israel vs. Iran, Israel vs. Syria, Syria vs. Turkey, Syrian Kurds vs. Syria and Syrian Kurds vs. Turkey.”
While Russia has been trying to keep its military presence limited in Syria, Akhmetov explained, it will “eventually be forced to unofficially deploy more troops.”
And another problem Akhmetov identifies, interestingly, is Assad himself.
“With no clear political solution on the horizon Russia will eventually have to deal with Assad,” Akhmetov reasoned, “This requires an establishment of ties within the Assad clan and supporting alternatives to Assad from his clan.”