By deciding to intervene militarily in Syria, Russia has saved Bashar al-Assad’s regime and helped him regain most of his territory. Moscow wants to impose its vision of a political settlement, keeping all the players in the game.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which began in 2015, was not inevitable. In the first year of the conflict (2011-12), Russia believed the Assad government could survive if it was protected against outside interference. This illusion was dispelled as the fighting intensified. Russia then tried to steer Syria and the international community towards compromise, and Russian leaders began to distinguish between Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian state. Having learned a lesson from Libya, which broke apart after the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011, they prioritised protecting Syrian institutions. But they remained convinced that Assad’s presence was vital if the Syrian state was not be dismantled, though this did not guarantee their support for him in perpetuity.
The Russian authorities have never fully trusted Assad; after he came to power in 2000, he attempted a rapprochement with Europe, and in particular with France. He turned to Russia only when this foundered, especially over the Syrian presence in Lebanon. In the 1990s and 2000s, Syria ignored Russian requests about Chechen rebels who had fled to Syria after their attacks on Russian civilian and military targets. Russia remained cautious over its partnership with Syria. In a speech in July 2016, Vladimir Putin indicated his unwillingness to repeat the USSR’s mistake over Egypt by trusting a Syrian government that could switch allies overnight. (In July 1972 Anwar Sadat suddenly expelled several thousand Soviet military advisers, signalling Egypt’s breach with the USSR.)
In September 2015 Russian concerns about the Assad government’s survival deepened as the Syrian opposition became more radical and made territorial advances. The Russians feared the government was on the verge of collapse and reckoned that supplying military, economic or technical aid would merely prolong its dissolution. Direct, long-term military intervention was preferable to the alternatives of supporting Assad through costly, one-off military operations or allowing his government to fail. Russian leaders justified their decision with reference to the precedents of Libya and Iraq, where they believed no good had come of the fall of the regimes; Syria should not become another jihadist sanctuary in the region.
Russia knew that ISIS was broken but not destroyed, and that the civil war was not over
Long before September 2015, Russia had warned the international community of such a risk. These warnings were initially part of a PR campaign to make the West look like a troublemaker in Middle East. But the threat became real in 2015 when foreign fighters from Europe, Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia joined ISIS (Islamic State) and other Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq. According to the Russian security services and independent analysts, around 12,000 Russian-speaking fighters from the northern Caucasus, the rest of Russia and expatriate Chechen communities fought in Syria in 2015, alongside Islamist groups such as the Al-Nusra Front (now Jabha Fatah al-Sham) and Ahrar al-Sham. These armed groups also included hundreds from Azerbaijan and former Soviet Central Asian republics, such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Not all of them identified with the cause of ISIS or Al-Nusra; some saw the war in Syria as preparation for struggles in their own countries.
A major objective of Russia’s intervention in Syria was to re-establish the Assad government’s military and political capabilities. So the prime targets for aerial bombing campaigns were any groups that represented a serious threat to the regime, including those that were not jihadist or categorised as terrorist, especially by the West. But the Kremlin never acknowledged this and still maintains that it only targeted terrorists, including ISIS.
Russian air power quickly achieved two objectives; it increased the regime’s chances of long-term survival, and made the creation of an air exclusion zone by western military impossible and a ground offensive against regime troops unlikely. At the same time, by sharing intelligence and trying to coordinate its military efforts with other countries, including the US, Russia promoted the idea of a broad coalition, also involving the Syrian government, against ISIS, ending Assad’s international isolation. By deploying its air force from the Khmeimim base southeast of Latakia, Russia also strengthened its diplomatic position; no decision on Syria could ignore Russian input.
Russia has pursued a much more ambitious objective than the short-term rescue of the Syrian regime. It claimed at first to be ending the war by organising a national dialogue between government and opposition forces, apart from radical Islamists and foreign fighters. But it was also trying to launch this reconciliation process on its own terms, which included preserving Syria’s territorial integrity and forming a coalition against ISIS, as Putin told the UN General Assembly in September 2015. Russia also demanded the preservation of Syrian state structures and would only countenance the transformation of the regime within the existing constitutional framework. In 2016 Putin was still emphasising the peace process in Syria, envisaging power sharing between the government and ‘healthy’ elements of the opposition. Assad’s removal was off the table as a precondition of national dialogue.
The fall of Aleppo in December 2016 gave Russia confidence that it could direct the course of events in Syria and the wider region. Even the new US political landscape after Donald Trump’s election did not alter this conviction. By 2017 Russia believed it had achieved a key objective: saving the Assad regime and allowing it to reclaim some territory. But that was not the end: it could not withdraw its troops without concluding the political negotiation process, which was still entirely hypothetical.
With this aim, the idea of a new platform for negotiations, known as Astana after the Kazakh capital where the first meetings were held, was put forward, which would allow discussions of a ceasefire between the Assad government and the opposition, sidestepping the UN process set up in Geneva. Initiating direct dialogue with Iran and Turkey, important regional actors excluded from previous talks, advanced the idea of a diplomatic resolution.
Change in strategy
Russia’s strategy changed last year with the fall of ISIS’s main strongholds. In December Putin even ordered a partial Russian withdrawal. But Russia was under no illusions: it knew that ISIS was broken but not destroyed, that the civil war was not over and that it would have to continue military support if it wanted to keep Assad in power. In these circumstances, Russia has every intention of maintaining a military presence, especially as the current stage of the conflict does not require many personnel. Some Russian troops may have been sent home, but this is a rotation intended to adapt the military presence to real needs. In any case, previous announcements of withdrawal have shown that the Russian army can increase its contingent again as circumstances require.
The announcement of a withdrawal had more of a political than a military function. On the eve of the Russian presidential election this March, Putin was keen to talk up some international successes. With western countries prolonging and toughening economic sanctions against Russia, and stalemate in Ukraine, the Middle East was one of the few places where Russia could boast of foreign policy impact. While continuing to insist that the presence of its troops was temporary, Russia could portray itself in a good light when then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson planned to maintain a US presence in northeast Syria.
Today Russian diplomats’ discussions are mainly with their counterparts from countries that have a direct influence on the ground: Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. During the Saudi monarch’s visit to Moscow last October, Russia encouraged him to create a united opposition group to represent anti-Assad forces at the Geneva talks. At the same time, Russia has stepped up its consultations with Iran and Turkey on Afrin and Idlib, as well as future de-escalation zones. It is also trying to reassure these states, which have reservations over Russia’s commitment to its partners. On 14 November Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov made a statement affirming the legitimacy of Iran’s military presence in Syria, a signal that Russia considers its cooperation with Iran as important as its relationship with Israel (see Iran and Russia’s very pragmatic alliance,in this issue).
Officially, Russia condemned Turkey’s military operation against Arab-Kurdish forces in the Afrin region in January. In reality, it gave air access to Turkish planes and also its approval, according to a tacit agreement with Turkey, which allowed the Turks a free hand in return for not contesting the advance of Syrian government forces in Idlib and Ghouta, the last rebel stronghold in the Damascus suburbs. The success of the Afrin operation also promised to distance Turkey a little more from the US and other NATO countries such as France, which support the Arab-Kurdish forces.
Despite the bombing of Syrian military installations this April by US, British and French forces, Russia reckons that the US and EU will not play a decisive role in this phase of the negotiations as neither has shown a real desire to engage with Syrian politics. Nor do they have much influence on the ground. During the Trump-Putin meeting in Vietnam last November, Russia got what it wanted from the US: assurances that the US recognised Assad as Syria’s legitimate president; that it would respect the principles of Syria’s territorial integrity and of de-escalation between belligerents; and that it would continue to support the Geneva process. In return, Putin backed Trump’s declared priority, fighting terrorism in the region. In their joint declaration, Russia confirmed its determination to fight ISIS alongside the US until final victory. Russia will not widen the debate on Syria’s future beyond these issues until the US is ready to engage more with Syrian domestic politics.
Nearing a red line
To date, Russia and the US have been careful to avoid direct confrontation in Syria, but this line is becoming hard to maintain. This February, Russian mercenaries in conjunction with Syrian forces tried to seize an oilfield near the city of Deir al-Zor on the Euphrates operated by the Conoco group and controlled by Kurdish forces. The Kremlin says it did not approve this operation and claims it was an initiative from Damascus and the Russian company Euro Polis, a military contractor with links to businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. According to the Russian press, Euro Polis agreed with the Syrian government that it would ‘liberate’ local oilfields using mercenaries in exchange for Syrian oil sector contracts entitling Euro Polis to a quarter of those fields’ output.
But the Kremlin could not have been unaware that the attack was imminent. Russian forces deployed at Hmeimim received intelligence from Kurdish fighters and the US about a build-up of militias, mercenaries and Syrian forces near the oilfield. But they did nothing to stop the attack, for at least three reasons: to test the US’s reaction; to assess the Kurds’ military capability; and in the event of the operation succeeding, to bolster the Syrian regime with the windfall from the oilfield.
Russia knew that ISIS was broken but not destroyed, and that the civil war was not over
US air power came to the aid of the Kurds and halted the attack, killing dozens of Russian fighters with American ordnance. This successful counter-attack was intended to show Russia that the Trump administration, unlike its predecessor, was ready to defend its interests. It is not a coincidence that since February Russia has avoided any provocation to the US, even if it has threatened to deliver S-300 missiles to Damascus. From this perspective, the bombings carried out by the US, France and the UK in April, as a response to Syria’s supposed crossing of a red line in using chemical weapons, was a reminder that Russia is not the only force that can determine the evolution of the situation in Syria.