This month marks five years since Russia launched its well-publicised airborne intervention in Syria’s civil war. The first sparks of Syria’s unrest arose from civilian protests against President Bashar al-Assad, but the conflict morphed into a war of proxies. It soon grew more complicated, with a confounding array of factions and militias in competition across the country.
Before September 2015, Russia had remained coy about its involvement in the conflict. In launching its air campaign, Moscow initially claimed to be targeting Islamic State, but it soon became clear that it was stepping up to support its main ally in the Middle East, Assad.
Russia’s intervention marked several significant shifts. First, it meant that Moscow replaced Tehran as Assad’s most important external backer. Russia’s intervention also meant it had control of the skies, definitively bringing an end to international discussions about a no-fly zone. In the muddied conflict that the Syrian war had become, this, in turn, turned the tide in favour of the Assad regime. The conflict had earlier ground to a stalemate, but once Russia swung decisively behind Assad the momentum shifted against opposition forces.
Indeed, external backing has been crucial to the survival of the Assad regime. Lacking any support in the Arab world, it has had to turn to historical allies Iran and Russia. Short on manpower and resources, and corrupt, brutal and intransigent in its dealings with its own population, the Syrian government has little scope for ending the conflict, through either military victory or negotiation with opposition groups, without outside involvement.
At the same time, Syria remains an important element in Russia’s broader geopolitical strategy. The naval installation at Tartus, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, is the Russian navy’s only Mediterranean base and Moscow’s key mechanism of power projection in the region. In 2017, Moscow secured an agreement from Damascus to maintain its presence there for 49 years. The nearby Khmeimim airbase, built in mid-2015, from which Russia launches its air campaigns, further cements Russia in the Syrian landscape. Shoring up Assad’s position has allowed Moscow to protect—and extend—its own interests.
A senior Syrian opposition figure with whom we spoke remarked that the Russians were ‘just using the regime as an excuse whenever it was convenient for them’. Following its participation in negotiations over a ceasefire and evacuations that saw the major northern city of Aleppo reclaimed by the Assad regime in late 2016, Russia ‘calls the shots’ in Syria, this opposition figure argues. He recalled that no Syrian government delegates were present at the negotiations, only opposition members and Russian officials.
Summits in Astana, beginning in early 2017, are yet more instances when Russia, aided by Turkey and Iran, was able to play a leading role in determining the trajectory of the Syrian conflict. The meetings in the capital of Kazakhstan resulted in ostensibly humanitarian successes, namely ceasefires and the establishment of de-escalation zones. Yet, in practice, the de-escalation zones have created opportunities for the Syrian regime, which has focused its coercive efforts outside these areas and reclaimed territory accordingly. A Syrian human rights activist told us, ‘In Astana, [Russia, Turkey and Iran] agreed to manage—to organise—the struggle inside Syria, not to lessen it or increase it.’
To a considerable extent, Moscow has used Syria as a training and testing ground. Figures released in August 2018 by the Russian defence ministry state that Moscow has flown 39,000 sorties in Syria, while 63,000 personnel have received ‘combat experience’ and more than 230 types of new military technology have been tested.
In geopolitical terms, Russia has played its cards very effectively in Syria. Despite its relative military inferiority, the Kremlin has outpointed two US administrations through its more assertive posture. In the face of hesitation from Barack Obama to commit to Syria and Donald Trump’s impulse to extract Americans, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been able to advance his goal of containing and undermining US influence in the Middle East.
Russia has indeed acted ruthlessly, both in its indiscriminate attacks and in its dealings with the opposition. The opposition figure involved in the negotiations over the Aleppo ceasefire told us, ‘Russia does not do 99% of what it says it will do.’ But military actors forced to negotiate with Russia have little recourse if Moscow reneges on its promises. Russia may be outgunned in the global arena by the US, but in Syria it has established itself as the dominant actor.
Five years in, Russian involvement means that Assad now has the upper hand against the opposition. Yet the regime remains largely unloved and the political grievances that led to the uprising remain unaddressed. One activist told us that many opposing Assad were prepared to support the Astana process because they felt that the conflict was now unwinnable. They just ‘wanted to bring an end to the death and destruction’. However, he remarked, the struggle will not end ‘until we have democracy, because we [want] that for our people, for our children’.