Syria Insight: Russia's intervention five years on (Part 2)

Syria Insight: Russia's intervention five years on (Part 2)
In-depth: Five years have passed since Russia's intervention in Syria's war began.
10 min read
30 October, 2020
Russia is maintaining a strong military presence in Syria. [Getty]
This is a two-part Syria Insight, where we look at the political gains and human losses caused by Russia's military intervention, which began five years ago. You can read part-one here

For nine years, Russia has provided critical diplomatic cover for Bashar Al-Assad at the UN and embarked on a costly intervention in Syria to prop up his regime. 

While Moscow and Damascus maintained close relations during the Cold War, the collapse of the USSR in 1991 saw Syria lose a superpower patron and forced the Assad regime to find alternative partners in the region.

When war broke out in 2011, Assad was probably unsure what support he might receive from Moscow. The levels Russia has gone to ensure his survival have most likely surprised even the regime. 

Bente Scheller, head of the Middle East and North Africa Department, Heinrich Boll Foundation Berlin, noted in her book "The Wisdom of Syria's Waiting Game" that Damascus benefited most from Moscow's support during ebbs in US-Russia relations

This is exactly what happened when the regime's assaults on opposition areas intensified nine years ago.

"Often it is said that with Russia's intervention on the political, diplomatic and military level it has demonstrated that - other than the US - it sticks with its allies and can be relied upon. However, this is just a short-term perspective, looking back at the roller coaster Russia-Syria relations have been over the past 30 years," Scheller told The New Arab.

"Russia has pressured Syria hard whenever the regime was on good or acceptable terms with the West, and it has only stepped up when those relations deteriorated - not in order to back a valued ally but in order to use this ally to pressure Western countries and undermine their critical positions and sanctions."

US-Russia ties

Such a scenario played out in 2011 when Russia chose not to use its veto against a US, European and Arab proposed no-fly zone in Libya.

It would also appear fortunate for Bashar Al-Assad that NATO decided to expand its mandate and launch airstrikes on Libyan government forces.

After Libyan rebels toppled Muammar Gaddafi a few months later it left the de-facto Russian ruler, Vladimir Putin, feeling betrayed and embarrassed by the West's actions.

Moscow then doubled down on its support for Bashar Al-Assad, who Moscow feared would face a similar fate to the Libyan dictator.

Backed by member China, Russia has thwarted every attempt by the UN to build an effective and cohesive international response to the Syrian regime's violence.

"Russia has been backing Assad through its veto in the UN Security Council from the beginning of the conflict, but thought he could manage on his own or with the support of regional allies such as Hezbollah," said Scheller.

"When Russia saw in 2013 and 2014 that Assad could not manage to bring the whole country under his control, they intervened directly in order to give Assad the upper hand and thereby make sure that Russia's former diplomatic investments had not been in vain."

By 2015, a new-low in Moscow-Washington relations had emerged after Russia annexed the Ukrainian Crimea while things were looking bleak for Bashar Al-Assad after a series of losses to rebels.

At this point, the US had scaled back support for opposition forces and had failed to act when the regime crossed Barack Obama's "red line" by using chemical weapons on Damascus suburbs in 2013.

When Russia launched airstrikes on rebel bases and supply routes from 30 September 2015, it helped the regime survive a very near defeat.

Russia in turn was able to bolster its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean by expanding a naval base in Tartous and establishing the Hmeimim airbase.

Such trade-offs have become a key part of Russia-Syria ties, a relationship of convenience that ultimately seeks to undermine US influence and maintain the Assad regime, but both parties know the alliance is also illusory.

"The Russian intervention was not driven by motives of loyalty [and] it is not a 'historical friendship' that Syria can always rely on. As soon as Putin sees other, more promising options for its policy in the region - or on the international level - it can as easily drop Syria as it backed it before," said Scheller.

Russian firepower

The war in Syria has served as a good advertisement for Russian firepower and Moscow's reliable support for allies.

This also coincided with a dramatic realignment of US policy in the Middle East, which saw the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel charter their own course after the US' nuclear deal with Iran and other aspects of the so-called Obama Doctrine.

"The war in Syria was a welcome opportunity for Russia to re-position itself on the international level. Here it could easily demonstrate that Russia cannot be ignored: its intervention in Syria did not require any constructive plans for the future of Syria but mainly served to bolster Assad's clampdown on Syria's population," said Scheller.

As soon as Putin sees other, more promising options for its policy in the region - or on the international level - it can as easily drop Syria as it backed it before
- Bente Scheller

Despite the regime's victories on the battlefield, Russia is still locked in a conflict with no end in sight and no clear post-war vision beyond the rhetoric of "keeping Syria united".

It is also without the means to re-build Syria, which would be crucial for post-war stability, and is reliant on the West for reconstruction money.

"On the international level, Russia has somehow reached its goals: Whoever is discussing a solution to the conflict in Syria maintains that this cannot happen without engaging with Russia," said Scheller.

"However, five years of massive Russian engagement - with its air force, its military police, private military companies - such as Wagner while at the same time supporting the regime's efforts to withhold humanitarian and medical aid to force the population into submission have not managed to bring out a clear victory of the regime."

Despite the huge investments Russia has made in Syria, few are paying dividends.

Idlib remains in opposition hands and much of northern Syria is under the control of Turkish or US-backed Kurdish militias, including areas rich in oil and gas.

Regime areas remain unstable, corrupt, and on the verge of financial collapse.

"All that despite the full-fledged engagement of Russia - I think Russia underestimated the dynamics on the ground and thought that by stepping up its intervention in 2015 it could easily declare Assad the victor in this war and benefit from Western reconstruction money," said Scheller.

For Russia, its hopes for European or US reconstruction money hinges on constitutional talks between the regime and opposition, but this appears challenged by Assad pushing ahead with another round of uncontested presidential elections in 2021.

Russia is also working on building state institutions and restructuring the Syrian Arab Army, which has been left decimated after nine years of fighting, defections, and draft avoidance.

Centralising power

Iranian militias now make up the bulk of the Syrian regime's fighting force and Moscow's attempts to build a centralised military have not been so straightforward, says Ayman Abdel Nour, director of the all4Syria media platform.

"In order to have Syria as one power, under one sovereignty, Russia needs to make the national army more powerful and train militias to act more like military brigades. They are concentrating on changing the attitude, the hierarchy, and discipline of these groups to make them more like an army," said Abdel Nour.

Russia's military intervention has been used by Moscow to test and advertise its weaponry to a global market.

[Russia is] also seen by Gulf states as the only power that can kick the Iranians out of Syria
- Ayman Abdel Nour

It has been successful in opening-up new markets in Asia and Africa, and even attracted interest from Gulf powers for its S-400 weapons system.

"One element of the intervention was to test Russian weapons in Syria and promote sales across the world. Because of Syria, Moscow has sold billions in weapons to Arab, African and Asian countries," Abdel Nour said.

Moscow's defence ministry has amplified the effectiveness of Russian military equipment in the Syria war, saying that it has tested more than 200 new weapons in the conflict.

Its build-up in Hmeimim and port access in Tartous has also made it a new player in the Eastern Mediterranean, while Syria has been a launchpad for Russia's other intervention in Libya.

"Now they are in the Mediterranean and Syria - which is the crossroads of Europe and Asia - so they have better ties with Gulf countries. They are also seen by Gulf states as the only power that can kick the Iranians out of Syria," said Abdel Nour.

"They have also been able to announce to the world that they are a superpower again and carrying out vetoes (of US and European resolutions on Syria) with China, and this has helped their image internationally."

Abdel Nour said that Moscow's goal of creating a centralised state in Syria are in stark contrast to Iran's, which is to increase its influence through the patchwork of territories under militia control.

"The Iranians want to dismantle Syria like Lebanon, so it is run by militias. Russia wants to maintain the sovereignty of the Syrian state so it can consolidate its hold on Hmeimim," said Abdel Nour.

"That is why they dismantled (some) militias that were under Iran and brought the National Defence Forces under the military's control."

Muddled policy

Yet Russian policy is far from clear and cohesive and has suffered from the rivalries between the different government agencies handling the Syria file, chiefly the Defence Ministry under Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Affairs headed by Sergey Lavrov.

"There is a clash between the Russian defence ministry and foreign affairs. Now we have four envoys for Russia who have 'Syria' in their job titles. No other country has four envoys for one country, it's a mess," said Abdel Nour.

"Each department has different objectives and has different priorities, which is part of the bigger issue [for Russia]."

The ministry of foreign affairs remains highly bureaucratic with an "Orientalist" mindset, Abdel Nour said, but has the benefit of long relations with key figures in the Syrian regime, including the powerful Makhlouf family.

The defence ministry is meanwhile trying to incorporate militias, including former rebel groups, under its command but is facing resistance from the Syrian regime.

Lavrov's visit to Damascus in September - the first one by the foreign minister since 2012 - highlighted a key turning point in Russia's relations with the regime and coincided with the appointment of a new envoy to Syria.

"Lavrov was [telling Assad] that now you have to deal with me," said Abdel Nour.

He also denied Assad's requests for an expanded credit line and more Russian investment in Syria, the analyst said, leading to the regime to resort to typical acts of obtrusion.

Shortly after Lavrov's visit, four Russian-linked militia leaders in southern Syria were killed, allegedly at the hands of the regime.

Assad also replaced key figures in Russian-linked businesses with regime hardliners, "to give them hell", as Abdel Nour said.

It showed that Assad will stop at nothing to remain in power and will maintain his independence from Moscow regardless of the consequences.

Assad remains completely opposed to any compromise with the opposition and is establishing relations with other powers, such as the UAE, to maintain a counter-balance to Russian and Iranian influence.

"Assad does not care about the economy, he knows people will do nothing even if they are dying like in North Korea, so he is not afraid of that. So, he has started saying no to Moscow and used North Eastern Kurds to provide wheat instead of Russia, Gulf states to test cooperation with Israel, and Iran against Russia," Abdel Nour said. 

Russia might find, as the USSR did before, that despite its investments in Syria it will not guarantee the loyalty of the Assad regime.

Syria Insight is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Insight in your inbox each edition, sign up here.

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin