What's behind Russia and Syria's joint patrol mission?

7 min read
02 February, 2022

Russia is working with Syria to patrol border areas that are under the Bashar al-Assad government’s control. On 24 January, Russia’s Defence Ministry released a statement about its joint air patrol mission with Syrian military pilots along Syria’s borders.

That day, the Russian pilots took off from the Hmeimim Air Base near the coastal city of Jableh while the Syrians took off from airfields near the capital. Fighter, fighter-bomber, and early warning and control aircraft were involved in this joint air patrol. The route of this mission went from along the Golan Heights to southern Syria, and then from the Euphrates River up to northern Syria.

For Russia, what are these patrols supposed to achieve?

“They are about solidarity with the Assad regime and aimed at improving interoperability amongst fighter jets and early warning systems from Russia and Syria, and also linked to Moscow's desire to help Damascus pre-emptively impede threats,” Dr Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI), explained to The New Arab.

"Israel's airstrikes in Syria have been an irritant for Russia but Moscow has been very careful to avoid a persistent conflict with Israel over these actions"

Moscow is attempting to help Damascus regain control over land in Syria that opposition forces hold. This is part of finishing the job that Moscow started nearly six-and-a-half years ago. The Russians do not want to be playing their current military role in Syria forever.

“Joint air patrols with Damascus are intended to increase the Syrian military’s independent capabilities and assert Syrian sovereignty,” Adam Lammon, the Managing Editor of the National Interest and a Junior Fellow in Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest, told TNA. “A more professional Syrian Air Force supports this effort while also reducing Russia’s operational burden in the conflict.”

These joint patrols are “meant to improve its pertinent capabilities so that it can resume anti-terrorist operations in the country without having to completely rely on the Russian Aerospace Forces in this respect like they presently do,” said Andrew Korybko, a Moscow-based American political analyst, in an interview with TNA.

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Israeli and Turkish positions in Syria

With the Golan Heights under Israeli occupation and Idlib under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army factions, how will Israel and Turkey view such patrols?

It is critical to appreciate the extent to which Israel and Turkey have had different experiences with Russia’s military role in Syria. While Israel has targeted the Syrian army’s positions and pro-Assad militias on countless occasions, Tel Aviv has managed to avoid any confrontation with Russia.

Back in 2015, Israel and Russia managed to arrange a deconfliction mechanism that has succeeded in preventing any clashes between the two countries in Syria. Yet, Turkey, on the other hand, has had a more confrontational experience vis-à-vis Russia in Syria, exemplified by the November 2015 Russian Sukhoi Su-24 shootdown.

“Joint patrols are symbolic, especially since they show that the Syrian Air Force still exists and is supported by Russia,” said Korybko. “Nevertheless, they shouldn’t be seen as a hostile sign against any regional player.”

Ultimately, the Russians are not trying to do much at all to incentivise the Israelis to change their conduct in Syria. Although Moscow, to some extent, sees Israel’s strikes against targets in Syria as counterproductive and destabilising, Russian officials also believe that Iran is engaged in rather destabilising conduct in Syria too.

Russia's military intervention in Syria began in 2015. [Getty]

Within this context, Russia has basically permitted the Israelis to bomb Syria - a known truth that has led officials in both Damascus and Tehran to accept that Moscow does not always share their views when it comes to questions surrounding Israel’s belligerence in Syria.

“Israel's airstrikes in Syria have been an irritant for Russia but Moscow has been very careful to avoid a persistent conflict with Israel over these actions,” explained Korybko. “I think that the latest patrols are unlikely to be a major irritant in the Russia-Israel relationship, but they will likely come up in routine discussions between officials from the two countries.”

While the dangerous Russia-Ukraine standoff intensifies, Moscow does not want a major confrontation with the Americans in Syria. Russia knows that if its agenda in Syria continues to sit well with Israel, the chances of Moscow facing major problems with Washington in relation to Syria will drastically decrease.

“The Russian presence in Syria is not a huge problem for the United States,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a senior fellow at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.

“For example, Israel is deeply in favour of the Russian presence in Syria. So just looking at it from that angle, you realise that Washington is not so deeply shocked by this reality.” Such dynamics will give Moscow incentives to avoid actions in Syria that could create any serious problems in Israeli-Russian relations, which have deepened significantly since Vladimir Putin’s ascendancy to power in 2000. 

"It is safe to say that the country in the region most concerned about how these joint patrols could harm its security is Turkey"

To be sure, these joint patrols are not aimed at giving Damascus the confidence to try to unilaterally reconquer the Golan Heights which Israel has been occupying since 1967. That is not a goal for the Russians. While officials in Moscow have consistently spoken about the Syrian regime retaking each inch of Idlib, they never speak about Assad’s government “liberating” the Golan Heights.

Already, one can dismiss the idea that these joint Russian-Syrian patrols have convinced Israel that it is too risky to continue bombing Iranian-sponsored forces in Syria. For example, on 31 January, the Israelis fired missiles that targeted outposts just outside Syria’s capital.

“This shows that the joint Russian-Syrian patrol had no deterrent effect, nor was that likely to be their intention anyhow,” explained Korybko.

“Russia doesn’t want Syria escalating tensions with Israel even though it occasionally condemns the latter’s regular strikes as illegal and destabilising. For this reason, nobody should expect Russia to approve of the Syrian Air Force engaging incoming Israeli jets…Syrian air defence systems will engage those targets but it’s also important to note that Damascus has yet to use the S-300s that were given to them by Russia after September 2018’s mid-air tragedy. This suggests that Russia still retains full operational control of these systems and is reluctant to allow Syria to use them out of fear of escalating tensions [vis-à-vis Israel].”

Ultimately, it is safe to say that the country in the region most concerned about how these joint patrols could harm its security is Turkey. Last month’s joint Russian-Syrian patrols occurred only weeks after the Russians bombed rebel-controlled parts of Idlib, raising the stakes more for Turkey which is under domestic pressure to not allow more Syrian refugees in from northwestern Syria.

It is unclear how these joint patrols impact Turkey’s vested interests in northern Syria at a time in which Ankara’s support for Ukraine has added to anxiety in Moscow.

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The view from Tehran

On balance, Tehran favours Russia and Syria carrying out these patrols together. Yet Iran does not expect such patrols to give the Islamic Republic any more reason to be less concerned about Israel’s hostility against Iranian and Iran-backed forces in Syria.

“Iran likely views these patrols positively, as they are a sign that Russia is trying to help Syria surveil against the threat of Israeli airstrikes, but Iranian officials will also view these as symbolic as Russia has no real appetite to confront Israel,” Dr Ramani told TNA.

“Tehran knows that Moscow has routinely permitted Israeli strikes on its forces and arms shipments, and that is unlikely to change in the near future,” explained Lammon. At the same time, there is competition between the Islamic Republic and Russia for clout in Assad’s Syria, and such joint patrols will be relevant to this dynamic between Tehran and Moscow.

“Additional military coordination between Russia and Syria will help reduce Damascus’ reliance on Iran’s [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps]-backed militia network,” as Lammon told TNA.

“Breaking Syria’s dependence on Iranian military capabilities has been a long-sought Russian goal, and this move exemplifies that the two countries will continue competing for influence in Damascus.”

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero