The Syrian war is a seventh year running as of now. Russia has emerged from the Syrian crisis with its military and diplomatic reputation significantly enhanced in the Middle East. However, this has been achieved amid massive controversy over the means used and amid much international criticism.
It, not the United States, is the “go to” player in Syria. Russia is marshalling a loose alliance of Iran and Turkey to try to plot Syria’s future. Even the Saudis have had to knock the Moscow’s door.
Russian air power, special forces and equipment gave a military backbone to President Assad’s crumbling forces, with Iran’s allies like Hezbollah and various other Shia militias providing badly needed foot soldiers.
Why did Russia intervene in Syria?
Russia intervened primarily to protect its strategic interests in Syria. The two countries have had a close relationship, going back decades. The Soviet Union supported Syria from the moment it achieved independence from France in 1946 and helped create the Syrian army. In return, Syria remained an ally of the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War.
Shortly after Hafez al-Assad came to power as a result of a military coup in 1970, he allowed the Soviet Union to establish a naval base in Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Thousands of tanks provided by the Soviet Union led Syria’s invasion of Israel in the October War of 1973. The close relationship between Russia and Assad continued after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the accession of Assad’s son, Bashar al-Assad in 2000.
When al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate and Western-backed rebels were pushing into Damascus and the Syrian government’s last sectarian stronghold in western Syria, Russia felt as necessary to staunch the regime’s losses and intervene militarily.
From Past to Present
To Russians, the country’s current military intervention in Syria is merely the latest phase of a continuing Holy War. Ethnic Russians have fought Muslims for centuries, and Russia’s current involvement in Syria is being portrayed domestically as an expression of Deus vult (“God wills it,” which was the battle cry of the First Crusade in the 11th century). With Russia’s seizure of Crimea and now its military presence in Syria, it has succeeded in a long-standing Russian ambition to surround the Ottoman Empire.
Support Assad Regime
Russia wants to prevent forceful regime change in Syria and retain its influence in the Middle East. Syria is Russia’s last reliable ally in the Middle East. Thousands of Syrians study at Russian universities and speak fluent Russian, and many among the Syrian elite have Russian wives. When the resistance movement against the Assad regime began in 2011, Russia remained loyal to Assad and intervened diplomatically to protect his regime against international condemnation, which could open the way for military intervention by the West.
Russia’s intervention comes with risks. Its air campaign will not be enough to permit the Assad regime to restore its authority throughout Syria. Russia could be drawn further into the conflict, but putting Russian soldiers — even as volunteers —on the ground in Syria could lead to a replay of Russia’s debacle in Afghanistan. Further terrorist attacks against Russian targets abroad and potentially in Russia itself are possible. Finally, fighting in Syria may further galvanise resistance in Russia’s turbulent Caucasus.
Kremlin concerns about the spread of Islamist violence are genuine. Russia has been the target of repeated brutal terrorist attacks carried out by jihadist rebels. Islamist rebels from the southern Russian republic of Chechnya have been fighting for independence since the 1990s, although a brutal six-year campaign by Moscow silenced much opposition and the autonomous region is now firmly under the control of Russian-appointed leader Ramzan Kadyrov.
No doubt, Russia is also worried about the reported contingent of 2,500 Russian Chechen Muslims who have joined the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In October 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that “7,000 jihadi fighters from Russia and the former Soviet east are fighting for the Islamic State.” Although Russia has fought two brutal wars against Chechen rebels, the Caucasus remains a restive region, and the Chechens who have joined ISIL are there to gain experience and a base for revenge.
The sabotage of a Russian airliner by an ISIL ally in Egypt, killing all 224 on board, recalls bitter memories and reinforces Russia’s determination to crush the group and the Chechen volunteers in its ranks. In 2004, Chechen terrorists brought down two Russian airliners as part of a continuing terrorist campaign.
Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula; confusion prevailed in the West. This has allowed Moscow to send special forces from Ukraine to Syria. The naval base in Crimea is now used to project Russian power southwards.
However, the more critical factor is domestic public opinion. Russia is a television culture, and Russian television news is devoted almost entirely to the world beyond Russia. In the last few days, Russian television has completely changed the subject: from Ukraine to Syria. What must not be mentioned is that Russia has not achieved its goals in Ukraine. The Ukrainian war shows that Russia can fail even when the European Union pays only a minimal amount of attention to the conflict. What Russian leaders seem to want in Syria is a war without EU sanctions, which they can win for the viewers at home.
It has got stalled deals with Russia over gas and oil exploration, however. In July, Gissa Guchetl, the executive director of the Russian Union of Gas and Oil Industrialists, told state news agency RIA Novosti that Russian business would consider resuming energy contracts in Syria worth $1.6 billion if the country manages to stabilise from its civil war.
Moscow wants to keep Assad – its closest ally in the Middle East – in power and secure its military influence in the region. It has an important military airbase in the western province of Latakia and a naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus. Russian leaders support a peace deal with broad consensus among Syria’s moderate factions that would allow Assad to remain in power. It has also hinted it may support limited autonomy for opposition forces in certain regions within Syria.
Arms sales are the most significant achievement through the Syrian war. Russia showcased its military capabilities in the region by firing long-range Kalibr-NK missile from Corvette, dropping laser-guided weapons from Sukhoi fighter jet and placing fifth-generation fighter Su-57 in Syria.
Russia uses Syria as a testing ground for their new weaponry, e.g. SU-35S fighter jet, Kalibr-NK cruise missiles, TU-160 long-range bombers, etc. Actually in 2016 and 2017 Russia has increased the export of weapons as a direct result of demonstrating their capability in the Syrian conflict.
From its top-of-the-range Su-35 air superiority combat jets to its brand-new ship-launched Kalibr cruise missiles, Syria provides Russia with a dramatic backdrop to promote its most high-tech weaponry. Russia is the second largest arms exporter in the world. Sales to nations like China and India — which are carefully watching the Russian impact on the Syrian war — could now see a significant upswing. Russia secured arms sales to long-standing American allies in the region.
- Long-range S-400 surface-to-air missile sold to Saudi Arabia and Turkey
- Talks underway to sale S-400 Surface-to-air missile Iraq and Qatar
- Talks underway to sale Su-35 to United Arab Emirate
Most importantly for Putin can now showcase cooperation with the West —on his terms. He created a perception of Russia as a great power broker and obtained international recognition for his latest ceasefire initiative in southwest Syria that led to the establishment of de-escalation zones after Putin met with Trump in July of this year. Russia, Iran, and Turkey serve as ceasefire guarantors. Putin always resisted Western-protected safe zones in Syria, but a Russia-led ceasefire allows him to preserve his interests in the country.
|Country||Who its support?||Fighting Against||What it wants||Peace Talk Involvement|
|Propping up Hezbollah against Israel and Saudi Arabia||With Turkey & Russia|
Free Syrian Army
|Kurdish opposition forces||Prevent Kurdish territorial gains||With Iran & Russia|
|Military influence in the region||With Iran & Turkey|
|United States||Syrian opposition
Kurdish opposition forces
|Block Iran propping Shiite militia Hezbollah
Destroy IS position
|UN Peace talk but
Assad departure as a precondition
|Israel||None||Shiite militia Hezbollah||Block Iran propping Shiite militia Hezbollah||Not a party at the Peace talk|
|Saudi Arabia||Al-Nusra||Assad Government||Proxy against Iran||Not a party at the Peace talk|
- The US has mostly avoided direct conflict with pro-regime forces, but in April US President Donald Trump ordered airstrikes on a Syrian airbase in response to a government chemical weapons attack against civilians.
- Washington has supported UN peace talks held in Geneva since 2012 between representatives from the Assad government and the Syrian opposition.
- Moscow has long backed the Assad regime. It has provided government troops with air support and weapons and given it diplomatic backing at the UN and in international peace talks. Russia also has troops on the ground.
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