The 30th of September 2019 marked four years since President Vladimir Putin approved the Russian military intervention in Syria. The decision was officially based on the request of the Syrian government for military assistance against “foreign conspiracies” - mostly Western - that threatened the independence and sovereignty of the Republic of Syria, as well as against “domestic terrorism and Islamist radical Jihad supported by foreign powers and forces”.
The Russian military actions included: air strikes, use of cruise missiles – launched by Russian ships deployed in the eastern part of the Mediterranean - active use of military counsellors on the front, deployment of Russian Special Forces, as well as elite military units. They ran against the Syrian military opposition and against Islamic terrorist groups affiliated to the Islamic State in Levant and Iraq (DAESH) and to the Al-Nusra Front - the Syrian Al-Qaeda - as well as to other mercenary jihadist groups that employed fighters coming from over 60 countries - Arabic, European, Transatlantic and Asian.
After the first two and a half years of continuous involvement on the Syrian front, on 14th of March 2016 the Russian president Vladimir Putin said that the Russian military in Syria involvement “is almost at an end” so the majority of the Russian military forces were to be withdrawn. After a symbolic re-deployment, the Russian forces continued to be, and are still actively involved in supporting the Syrian government.
The Russian military involvement in the Syrian civil war and its successes and failures in the Levantine region were subjects of continuous debate in almost all world languages. All these actions weren’t able to put an end to the questions that remain unanswered, and that mainly refer to the basis and the content of the strategy that Moscow developed in the past four years, to the real talent of policymakers or to the real interests of the Russians on the chessboard of Syria and Middle East. The turning point which was the Russian intervention didn’t come from nowhere and should not be considered an isolated act. Let’s not forget that a year before, in 2014, Vladimir Putin defied the entire western community by annexing Crimea, thus starting a new conflict whose main actor was Ukraine and redefining the geostrategic relations of the new century. Consequently, Russia’s involvement in Syria was but a new chapter of military and political escalation that Vladimir Putin set in motion in 2008 with his military intervention in Georgia, a starting point for redesigning the maps of Russian influence in the area of the former Soviet Union.
Today, four years since the start of the Russian military intervention in Syria, the same analysts and experts found out that, while developing and implementing its policy in Syria, the Kremlin faces a series of challenges and difficulties that keep on building up. One of these originates in the rifts that occurred in the agreement between the Russian Federation and Recep Tayyp Erdogan’s Turkey. We are referring to the creation and function of the so called “de-escalation zones” or “security areas” in some of Syria’s provinces, especially in the Kurdish zones and at the Syrian northern border with Turkey. To these we add the activity and the intensification of the US presence and military actions in approximately the same northern and eastern areas where they cross paths with the interests of the Russian Federation and Turkey. These elements carry the potential to significantly reduce the chances to implement some of the most important slogans that make the foundation of the Russian strategy. The most important one is “the preservation and consolidation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Syria”.
Furthermore, the sudden degradation of the security situation in Idlib, in north-western Syria and the restart of the military operations to stabilize this area following the Astana negotiations (under the patronage of the trio Russia-Turkey-Iran) revive the doubts regarding the competition to reshape the area of influence and control among the parties that are involved in the Syrian civil war and among the militias that are practically spread all over the country. At the same time, this is a competition and a confrontation between Russia on one side and each of Turkey and Iran on the other. It means a more active involvement of Israel in settling scores with Iran and its militias. Under such circumstances one can see without much difficulty that Russia’s policy regarding the Syrian dossier is heading from accomplishing its initial goals - a swift end to the war and a swift victory, and the consolidation of the Russian presence in Syria and the Middle East - towards a deeper involvement in the amalgam of regional and international issues, influences, and agendas. To this we add the extra political, economic and military efforts that are inevitable and take an unpredictable amount of time.
No less concerning for the Russians is the evolution of the relations between the USA and Turkey. The tensions between Washington and Ankara regarding Recep Tayyp Erdogan’s “orientation” towards Russia, recently materialised by the delivery (to Turkey) of the “S-400” missile system, amplified by US steps to exclude Turkey from the F-35 program didn’t prevent Donald Trump and Recep Tayyp Erdogan to agree on a modus vivendi et operandi in the northern and eastern Syria. We are referring to the creation of a “security zone” matching both USA’s tactical needs to support the Kurdish rebels on one hand, and Turkey’s interest in eliminating all Kurdish threats to its national and security interests on the other hand. These ups and downs raise serious questions regarding whether Moscow will succeed in implementing its long term strategy that is the result of the permanent disagreements between Turkey and the USA regarding Syria and implicitly regarding the resilience of the cooperation between Moscow and Ankara. A serious misstep that would affect the alliance between Putin and Erdogan would cause Russia to lose its dynamism, efficiency and credibility gained during the Astana process.
This is Russia’s leverage over the process to finding a political solution for the Syrian civil war, in opposition to the Geneva negotiations, its western equivalent in “the Syrian competition”. Under these circumstances, the long term strategy of the Russian Federation faces a new obstacle, generated by the Iranian equation and by the difficulties faced by the desire and efforts to keep in balance the relations between Russia and Iran on one side and between Russian and Israel (with regard to both Syria and the West) on the other. It is true that last year Russia successfully managed to ensure the Iranian withdrawal to 80 km from the Syrian-Israeli border in the Golan Heights (thus giving in to Benjamin Netanyahu’s demands). It is also true that this agreement with Khamenei’s mullahs and “Pasdaran” proved to be purely formal and short-lived since, over the past few months, observers and media reported that the Iranian presence was strengthening in the southern part of Syria and in the south-western area close to the borders with Jordan and the Golan Heights. In the context of the Iranian repositioning and Hezbollah’s intense military activity in the proximity of the same area, commentators in Moscow draw attention on the fact that the Israeli government might, under a security pretext, stop asking for permission or even inform the Russians and take significant military actions against Iran and its militias. This undertaking would show the inability of the Russian Federation to really prevent a massive re-ignition of the Syrian front and would have serious consequences over Russia’s plans and strategies to pacifying and “preserving the territorial integrity and state sovereignty of Syria”.
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Vladimir Putin’s decision, in the fall of 2015, to get involved in the Syrian civil war made him to ultimately believe that Syria - at that time at a turning point from a military perspective - offered Russia a last opportunity to widen its narrow strategic influence. This opportunity favoured a worldwide expansion and the involvement in a new regional and international security framework. The materialization of this framework proved to become, sooner or later, a reality that involved more or less all the actors taking part in the Syrian civil war. Under this approach, the Russian Federation had to be involved and had to ensure its own role in this undertaking. Moscow believed, at the same time, in having a balanced and peaceful relationship with all other powers active both on the Syrian front and in the Middle East.
Russia paid attention to cooperation with the influential powers in the region, thus aiming to enhance its leeway and diminish the limitations imposed on its policies by the West in general and the USA in particular. This explains the closeness and the agreements concluded by Russia with Israel, Turkey, Iran and the oil monarchies. It would be superficial to believe that circumstance and the conflicting interests of the regional powers would seriously damage Russian projects and the complex and diverse relationships between Moscow and the other regional capitals - Ankara, Tehran, Tel Aviv, Riyadh or Abu Dhabi. These misunderstandings can’t make the Russian Federation significantly change its policy regarding Syria and the region. The Syrian civil war is far from over, even if its continuation means mostly affecting the Syrians.