Five years ago, specifically at the end of September 2015, Russia intervened militarily in the Syrian war that had started years earlier. At that time, the commander of the Quds (Jerusalem) Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qasem Soleimani, who paid an urgent visit to Moscow, was said to have persuaded Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu that unless Russia intervened immediately, it would lose Syria to the rival forces of the West.

At that time, Russia was experiencing a phase of violent clash with the West as a result of Russia’s occupation of the Crimean Peninsula and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, resulting in the imposition by the West of harsh economic sanctions on Russia that strained its economy. Russia was looking for strength cards to ease Western influences on it. It was also wary of the Arab revolutions, which it classified as coloured revolutions that before long would extend to the countries of Central Asia, i.e. "Russia's backyard", based on the social, religious and political similarities between this region and the Arab region.

However, the Russian intervention in the Syrian crisis had started early. Russia participated in the release of the "Geneva I" statement on 30 June 2012. It also intervened strongly to persuade the then US president Barack Obama not to strike the Syrian regime after the latter used chemical weapons on 21 August 2013, crossing the red line set by Obama, namely that the US would intervene in the Syrian war if the regime uses internationally banned weapons against its opponents. Russia managed to solve the issue by making the Syrian regime hand over its chemical stockpiles and join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

Russian military intervention and its consequences

The Russian military intervention marked a turning point in the history of the Syrian war, in which the balance of power tilted in favour of the opposition and its regional and international allies. Russia managed to completely change the map of the conflict and control all opposition areas, except for the northern regions, by using excessive force after having neutralised the regional players, isolated their influences, and pushed them to cut their links with the armed opposition factions.

Russia has also emptied the Syrian decisions of their contents, especially the “Geneva I” conference statement, by adopting interpretations of the contents of the statement, especially with regard to “establishing a transitional governing body that can create a neutral environment in which the transitional process would proceed”. Russia insisted that Bashar al-Assad remain at the head of the proposed body.

The most serious steps taken by Russia in the context of its military and diplomatic control over the Syrian crisis file are as follows:

  • Creating new paths to solve the crisis (Astana and Sochi) and marginalising the role of the United Nations (UN).
  • Imposing different agendas on both the political and military Syrian oppositions.
  • Assisting Iran in the demographic change project by claiming to fight terrorism and destroy its sponsors.
  • Eliminating Arab influence in Syria completely and limiting the actors in the Syrian issue to the regional countries (Iran and Turkey) and, to a lesser extent, Israel.

Russian gains

The expectations of the West were that Syria would constitute a quagmire in which Russia would drown and drain its energy. This reason may have formed the background for the West's silence about the Russian intervention.

However, through its intervention, Russia achieved many gains, namely:

  • Turning into a major player in the Middle East. Russia was able to become the party in control  of all aspects of the Syrian issue and the addressee of all actors involved in the Syrian crisis, after having remained as an isolated power for a period of time, being described by former US President Barack Obama as a "major regional power".
  • Realising the old and chronic Russian dream of reaching the waters of the Mediterranean, after the latter remained for decades a US lake where the US Sixth Fleet comfortably roams its waters and shores. Russia now has a base in Tartus for free for a period of 49 years. It can deploy up to 10 warships, including nuclear ships, in addition to the Hmeimim base in Latakia.
  • Syria became an invaluable testing ground for Russia. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, 63,000 soldiers, 26,000 officers and 434 generals received practical combat experience in Syria. According to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, nearly 90 percent of the pilots of the Russian Aerospace Forces were tested in combat conditions, 316 types of weapons were tested, and different methods of fighting were learned. In addition, the Syrian arena was used to promote Russian weapons. During a meeting of the Commission for Military Technology Cooperation with Foreign States in April 2020, Putin indicated that "the increase in the export of Russian weapons to countries of the world, despite the tough competition in this area, is attributable to the practical testing of those weapons in Syria”. Putin revealed that his country implemented its plans to export weapons in 2019 at a rate of 102 percent, stating that Russia “was able to sell military equipment totalling over 15 billion dollars, and its current order portfolio amounts to over 55 billion dollars".
  • Control over the Syrian economy by exploiting the economic and political conditions of the besieged and isolated regime, pushing it to give up Syria's economic assets, including oil, gas and phosphates, in addition to preparing conditions for Russian companies to be the first beneficiaries of the reconstruction process.

The future of the Russian intervention in Syria

Russia did not lose much as a result of its intervention in Syria. Indeed, its strategists often refer to “cheap intervention” when comparing the costs with the benefits. Moscow has also disappointed the West regarding Russia’s involvement in the Syrian quagmire, becoming the top player on the Syrian front.

However, despite those successes, as of today, Russia is unable to declare a "final victory". Furthermore, its profits are vulnerable to turn into losses if Russia fails to arrange a permanent political settlement. In fact, Russia has so far been unable to impose its vision of a solution in Syria. It has also been unable to persuade other international actors to initiate the reconstruction of this country on the pretext that this is an issue that should not be subject to political conditions. However, the international position as a whole rejects this process unless there is a clear political change and unless the Assad regime dismantles the alliance relationship with Iran. In this context, Russia finds itself caught between two fires: on the one hand, it is unable to impose Assad on countries of the world, and on the other, it is unable to subdue Assad and adapt him to the demands of those countries. This has led Russia to describe Assad as "our difficult ally". The former Russian ambassador Aleksandr Aksenenok expressed this Russian predicament by saying: "the Assad regime believes that the implementation of Resolution 2254 is a return to pre-2011"!

However, the Russian predicament has begun to manifest itself in a more serious fashion. Russia finds itself in control of a country whose cities have turned into rubble, has a shattered economy, is fraught with corruption, and is dominated by a massive militia chaos from north to south, with the presence of four international and regional armies (US, Iranian, Turkish and Israeli).

In the fifth year of the Russian intervention, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that the military phase of the war is over. However, he also admitted that "Russia alone cannot arrange a political settlement". Indeed, Moscow cannot possibly accomplish anything without making radical understandings with the US, Europe and the Gulf states. It realises that those understandings will have great prices that it will pay. It most likely will pay them after its tactics failed one by one to change the international position on the Syrian issue.

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