For one year now Russian warplanes are darkening the skies over Syria. While one can follow the official propaganda behind this direct military intervention, and if one can also record its acts and measure their impact on the ground, there lingers a mystery: what is the Russian strategy in Syria, and what the master of the Kremlin really wants?
First, let us look at what Russia says: The initial Russian discourse evolved around the already well-known language of “fighting terrorism”. Its declared targets were the “Islamic State” organization (or ISIS), as well as Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front. The Kremlin declared that more than 2’000 citizens of formerly Soviet Republics had joined terrorist groups in the Middle East, which posed a danger to its own security. Moscow also declared that its intervention was limited in time to six months, in order not to be bogged down in an endless foreign conflict.
Moscow also argued that its intervention aimed to stabilize the administration of Bashar al-Asad, whose forces were losing ground rapidly in summer 2015. ISIS took Palmyra in May 2015, and threatened to block the main highway linking Damascus with the north. Army of Conquest (Jaysh ul-Fath’), al-Nusra led coalition of Islamist groups had rapidly advanced and took over the entire Idlib province, and advanced towards Latakia province, a regime stronghold. Once again the rule of al-Asad dynasty was being shaken; once again it was saved by an outside military intervention. Moscow argued that the collapse of the Damascus authorities would lead to chaos and terrorist groups taking over the state
What did Russia do during a year in Syria? First, Russia is relying heavily on its air force. It has brought over 80 warplanes, including strategic bombers, and has ground troops of over 4’000 men. Six months into their intervention Russian planes were carrying out 60 raids per day on average, compared to US forces carrying out 7 raids in their “war against terror” in Syria. The result of this intense firepower was to stabilize the positions of Syrian regime forces, who went into the counter-offensive.
The Syrian army recaptured some strategic positions thanks to the Russian air support: Palmyra was taken back from ISIS, and broke the siege Kuwayris military airport east of Aleppo. The Russian military kept a large ambiguity on what it terms as “terrorists” in Syria, which has largely remained one of the tensions with the Americans: apart from targeting ISIS and al-Nusra fighters and their command structures, Russian aviation heavily targeted armed groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), groups supported by the US and Turkey.
The most controversial aspect of the Russian intervention is its behavior that could be considered as war crimes under international law. This is not a secondary issue, if one considers that the Russian leadership is very careful to spin its military intervention in Syria under international law: Moscow argues that it has sent its forces after a request from the Syrian authorities who still remain the legitimate rulers in Syria according to the UN. Yet, a number of international human rights organizations have documented Russian airstrikes against civilian targets, including hospitals. In fact, Russian military action is helping Syrian loyalist forces to enforce sieges against population areas, and to force rebels to surrender after running out of food, medication – as well as ammunition. One such example is Darayya, a suburb of Damascus, from which rebel fighters and civilians were evacuated after a record siege that lasted for four years. The deliberate attack on September 20 that targeted UN and Syrian Red Crescent aid convoy destroying 18 trucks and killing 12 humanitarian workers is a war crime, although its aim was to help regime loyalists troops on the ground to advance towards Aleppo and lay siege to rebel held eastern part of the city, where an estimated 275 thousand civilians are currently trapped.
In case one can easily show the difference between what Russia says and what Russia does, it is difficult to guess what Russia wants in Syria. First, it is necessary to underline the unprecedented nature of Russian military intervention outside its borders, until recently. The Soviet Union, after the end of the Second World War only intervened directly in Afghanistan, and that ended in a disaster – both for the Soviet army soldiers, but even more so for Afghani population. But over a period of seven years Putin sent his armed forces to engage in three invasions abroad: Georgia, Ukraine and now Syria.
Many observers saw the 2015 Syria intervention as a way to go out of its isolation, following the occupation of Crimea and Western sanctions that followed. That has failed. But Putin managed to become a global player and he and his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov keep occupying TV screens. But on the ground, and after a year of endless bombing Russian success on the ground remain limited and reversible.
Russian diplomacy did have an opportunity to contribute to a negotiated outcome, at the time of “Geneva-3”. Before that round of peace talks Russia announced that it was going to withdraw its airforce, a step seen as pressuring Damascus. Alas, it was only a maneuver; diplomacy and Syria lost another precious occasion.
Now, Russian leaders, as well as their American counterparts, are saying that there is no political solution on the horizon. The problem for Moscow is that the regime troops have become too thin, and after advancing on a front they retreat elsewhere. Second major problem is Russia’s ally in Damascus, who needs to go to open up possibility of a political process. While regime troops are making some progress here and there, any change in the regional and international power balance could change that rapidly.
Do the Russian leaders know what they want from their Syria adventure?