Russian Military Operation in Syria - a Year On

Marek Czajkowski

ZBN Analysis No. 7 (13) / 2016

14 November 2016

 

It is now over a year since the armed forces of the Russian Federation have started their combat mission in Syria with the official goal to help legitimate authorities in Damascus survive against armed insurgency. However, what was apparently supposed to be a rather limited engagement, it has turned into a prolonged and difficult fight. Loudly trumpeted “withdrawal” of the “main part” of the Russian forces in mid-March 2016 is now utterly forgotten.

At the moment it seems that Moscow clearly has achieved many of the initial goals of its Syrian engagement, probably even most of them. But some other look even further away from accomplishment than it appeared a year ago. Moreover, the endgame, whatever it is supposed to be, is rather far away. It is even possible that the Kremlin has no idea what kind of final solution it could pursue, or maybe a lasting and stable outcome is not desired at all.

Right at the beginning of the Russian adventure in Syria, in October 2015 the author of this text attempted to identify what were its goals, both in short- and long-term perspectives. Now, thirteen months on, it is a good moment to review this list and try to answer the question: what objectives have been reached and what has gone wrong. It is worth to note that a similar assessment was produced by this author on April 2016, six months after the Russian operation had started.

 

  1.  

As it had been identified a year ago, the immediate goals of Moscow’s intervention addressed the concerns referring to a possible fall of Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria. The forces loyal to his government were largely in a measure in disarray, rebel units belonging to many different organizations and sponsored by outside powers were persistently pressing on. The so-called Islamic State (IS) was also gaining strength, despite international military intervention against it led by the United States. Indeed, it seemed very likely that the Syrian regime would fall, despite Russian support that included supply of arms, financial assistance and political backing. Should it happen, the Kremlin would not only have lost an important client but it also could be a huge political setback and decrease of Russia’s international prestige.

All these negative developments have been averted due to the use of Russian combat support. What is more the great effort had been undertaken by Russians to augment Syrian army prior their direct engagement. The Russian military established de facto control over all the assets that are fighting on behalf of the Syrian government, including tight coordination with Iranian and Hezbollah contingents. All these developments turned the campaign against the insurgency into a relatively well organized and largely effective effort; consequently the government has been successfully shored up. This we can count as clear Russian achievement, Moscow has proven to be ready and capable enough to support loyal partners efficiently.

 

2.

Another set of important goals should be analyzed from a broader perspective. Moscow clearly wanted to enlarge and deepen its influence in the Middle East, the region of great global importance. The successful military operation, together with an extensive diplomatic offensive, has allowed Russia to strengthen considerably its position there. Especially the establishment of a permanent and robust military foothold in Syria has been highly instrumental to the purpose of positioning the Kremlin as one of the main power-brokers in the region. By the logic of zero-sum game Russia has also managed to weaken the United States’ position there, what undoubtedly was one of the goals of the Russian policy as well. This we can count as another clear achievement.

 

3.

If we broaden our perspective even further, it would lead us to another very important and permanent goal of the Russian general strategy. It is the alleviation of the country’s status to the level of a truly global power, with decisive say in all world affairs. What is more and equally imperative, the Kremlin wants the world, and especially the United States, to acknowledge this status. It has been a longstanding paradigm of the Russian foreign policy since the very first years after the demise of the Soviet Union: to raise the country again to the status of superpower.

This ambition has not been fulfilled so far, although the Syrian engagement has brought it somewhat closer, but still out of reach. It is because the capability to conduct one military operation abroad is not enough to name Russia a superpower and compare it to the United States. This ability to project power at great distances does not mask all the shortcomings, especially when it comes to the economy and its prospects. Moreover, to be counted as a real great power Russia has yet to prove that it is also able to create or co-create the lasting order and keep control over it in a long-term perspective. To date, Moscow has proven that is only able to contribute to disruption, devastation and destabilization.

Russia has doubtlessly demonstrated to be effective enough to contradict the United States in the Middle East and force its will there. Yet to a great extent it happened due to the American reluctance, which limits Washington’s commitment and is caused by internal political factors and lack of coherent strategy. Furthermore, the US has been stepping back under Russian pressure precisely because of Washington’s strong intention to avoid situations that might lead to a major confrontation.

 

4.

From the very beginning it has been quite obvious that Russian engagement in the Middle East was also supposed to relax the political isolation of Russia which had been imposed on it after the annexation of Crimea and subsequent assault on Ukraine in 2014. Firstly, the Kremlin could have expected that its enhanced relevance in the Middle East would be instrumental as a bargaining chip in the Ukrainian issue. Secondly, it looked obvious for Moscow that the superpower which is able to show its capabilities as such must automatically be reckoned with. All this was supposed to bring the West to greater compliance with Russian interests.

Nothing of that kind has happened. On the contrary, Moscow is now considered more and more unreliable and even more aggressive. Most of western powers, especially the United States, do not regard Russia as a good partner - even though we hear loud voices that a compromise with the Kremlin should be reached. Nevertheless, in practical terms western leaders are not ready to consent to Russian terms, because Moscow wants too many concessions, such as: recognition of de facto sphere of exclusive influence in Eastern Europe and its strong presence in Central Europe, watering down NATO and weakening American position in Europe.

Even in the most urgent issue, concerning Ukraine, Russia has not achieved western approval for its stance on this conflict. Neither it has forced western powers to withdraw their support to Kiev despite the fact that Ukraine was doing a lot to disenchant western countries.

Consequently, the Russian engagement has become indeed a bargaining chip in the relations with the West, but its value remains rather low in comparison to expectations. It is limited to the Middle Eastern affairs, where Moscow has established itself as a truly important partner in every action or solution. On the other hand, it is considered to be an untrustworthy partner, thus may not necessarily benefit a lot from the co-operation. Particularly because the Kremlin looks determined to impose its own agenda unilaterally and in full. This automatically reduces the value of any negotiations.

 

5.

The military operation in Syria, conducted with great prowess and efficiency, was also supposed to prove Russian power and capabilities. Moscow wanted to display its strength and show that it was able to do everything what the US could do. Be it long range cruise missile strikes or carrier operation in distant regions. It is a part of the strategy of showing the strength of an otherwise weak country by stressing these instruments of power which still remain at Moscow’s disposal. This goal, however, was not achieved in full. To some extent, especially in the eyes of weak countries or general public in developing world, it could look like this. Those better informed, especially general public in the developed world, do not accept this message entirely. Russia indeed is considered a bigger threat than before, an improvement of the military performance is well visible, but this does not mask overall weakness which is exposed by western media outlets, pundits and many politicians.

Thus, Russia has certainly shown an improvement of the military capabilities but this only partially has added to Moscow’s international prestige otherwise damaged by relentless and indiscriminate bombing campaigns and reluctance to negotiate in the spirit of good will.

6.

Arguably, the most important feature of the Russian engagement in Syria is its internal political dimension. The notion that the most important driver of the Kremlin’s actions is the struggle to preserve power in the situation when current legitimization wanes, is not new. The controlled conflict with the West is supposed to scare and then unite Russians around the authorities which offer the people the sense of safety. The operation in Syria is clearly a part of this policy, especially as a show of force focused on the internal public. It demonstrates that the leaders are both bold and able and they wield powerful instruments of national security. National pride intensifies in this process, adding up to the rally-around-the-leaders effect. Furthermore, the focus on external issues should help to conceal the problems of everyday life in Russia.

This goal has surely been achieved, but only because the Kremlin tightly controls the media outlets and thus the public discourse is highly rigged. The narrative concerning the war in Syria is carefully prepared to serve the abovementioned purpose and it has been effective so far. Russian society, increasingly nationalistic and bombarded by the notion of western menace is being reassured that security of the state is entrusted in able hands of resolute leaders and the highly capable military.

 

7.

There are some other long-range goals of the Russian intervention in Syria which had been identified a year ago. Firstly, it was supposed to address the problem of purportedly widening influence of IS in Russia. Rising tide of fundamentalist insurgency was being displayed as a clear and present danger to the Russian state which had to undertake every measure to counter it. Secondly, Russia probably wanted to interfere in a number of gas transit projects which had emerged in the Middle East, with the obvious aim to enhance its own position. An outcome of Russian actions with regard to these problems remains to be seen, it is impossible to assess it at present.

 

Conclusions

Based on the analysis given above, we can now try to summarize some general assessments concerning the Russian intervention in Syria. We can also attempt to put forward some modest forecasts concerning the Kremlin’s Middle Eastern strategy.

1. The Russian intervention clearly has made Syrian government greatly reliant on Moscow. On the other hand, this dependence cannot be executed with completely free hand, because the government is not entirely stable. It relies not only on its regular military, but also on different militias and external actors who obviously have their own agendas. Russia must tread carefully in order to keep the balance within the controlled part of Syria.

2. On the other hand, Russia has become dependent to some extent on Syria’s al-Assad and Iran. Moscow, in order to maintain its newly asserted Middle Eastern position, must keep those allies more or less content. And this is not given for granted, especially Iran may not be happy with Russia achieving pivotal role in the Middle East – Tehran wants this part for itself.

3. That is why it is not obvious whether Russia fully controls the situation on its side of the conflict. It is also unclear if Moscow has any idea what to do next, except general but rather vague notion of its Middle Eastern and global power status. This may be the greatest of the shortcomings of the whole adventure that may lead to unexpected and costly developments. The Kremlin is confident that Russia has arrived in the Middle East to stay, however,  does Moscow know how to act effectively in a long-term perspective?

4. Therefore, an important question arises: is Moscow capable to clean up the disorder in the Middle East and impose its domination there, confirming its great power status? Most probably it is impossible, because no sole power has such potential – the Americans seem to understand that. It is conceivable that even all the world powers working in an improbable concert are not able to enforce a settlement of the Middle Eastern conundrum. There are too many difficult issues to be solved, so it looks like the Middle East is going to remain a hellish place for the time being, despite every effort, which could be made.

5. Of course, the Russian Federation is likely to be able to stay there as an important actor, but as time goes by Moscow would probably be dragged deeper and deeper into the prolonged and costly conflict which also may have a negative spillover into Russia. Should it happen, the exploitation of  emerging opportunities to get short-term gains would be the only source of success.

6. Finally, as it is more and more clear that conflict in itself is the main goal of the Russian strategies, it is possible that Russia will be neither interested in a long-term solution, nor the costly dominance. If it is as true as it seems, that the Kremlin’s international activity is subordinate to the strategy of the survival of the regime, then all what Moscow needs is just to remain in the Middle East and to show power there. As long as boldness and strength is displayed, mostly for the use of domestic public, the main goal would be achieved. In that case Russia’s whole engagement in the Middle East might be considered the clear and lasting success, because the Russians are continuously winning not by achieving geostrategic goals or by enlarging and strengthening the sphere of influence, but only by keeping their presence for show.