When Russian fighter pilots flew their first missions in Syria five years ago, it became clear on the first day that Moscow had very different priorities from the West. Only some of the 20 airstrikes on September 30, 2015 targeted positions of the terrorist militia “Islamic State”, which was then fought from the air by the US and other Western states. The missiles and bombs mainly hit Syrian opposition groups seeking to overthrow President Bashar al Assad.
Moscow’s military intervention saved the Syrian president from certain defeat in the war, altered the balance in the region and marked Russia’s return to the Middle East.
Russia primarily intervenes with fighter planes and helicopters in the battles in Syria, relying on the Hmeimin air base at Latakia on the Mediterranean and the naval base in Syrian Tartus, Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean. Both bases are expanded for long-term use. Moscow also employs hundreds of military policemen and military advisers.
Russia offers hardly any regular ground forces, although Russian mercenaries fight in Syria. In February 2018, more than a dozen of them died in a US air raid east of the Euphrates. The biblical river forms a dividing line between Russia and the United States: to the west of the Euphrates, Russia has air sovereignty, to the east the US.
Moscow’s return to the region after decades of absence from the Middle East following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 2015 is partly due to the goal of preventing Russian extremists from returning to Russia from Syria. In addition, Kremlin boss Vladimir Putin is taking advantage of the US’s disinterest, which significantly reduces their involvement in the region after the disastrous Iraq war.
His involvement in Syria allows Russia to break through its international isolation after the war in Ukraine: Putin is building close cooperation with Turkey and Iran. The Moscow leadership also sees the countries of the Middle East as buyers of weapons and nuclear technology.
Syria is suffering
In the first phase of the 2011 civil war, the Syrian military was pushed on the defensive by Assad’s opponents, controlling only about 25 percent of the national territory when the Russian intervention began. But the Russian intervention five years ago fundamentally changed the military situation. Thanks to the energetic support from Moscow, 70 percent of the area is now under Assad’s sphere of influence.
With Idlib, only one province – ruled by Islamists – is in the hands of the insurgents. However, observers are sure that it is only a matter of time before this region is also recaptured by the regime. Assad has never doubted that he considers all of Syria his territory. To achieve this goal, he does not hesitate to commit war crimes. This has resulted in the deaths of thousands and thousands. Millions of people are on the run. Much of the country has been destroyed.
Clouds of smoke rise after a Russian air strike in the Idlib region Photo: Mohammed AL-RIFAI / AFP
The corona pandemic is hitting Syria all the harder. The health system cannot respond to the spread of the virus – it hardly exists anymore. Hospitals, if they exist, often cannot admit or treat patients with Covid 19, according to the United Nations. Then there is the economic setback. Food and fuel prices have reached record levels. More than 80 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line.
Power factor in the Middle East
Five years after the intervention began, it is clear that without Russia there will be no solution to the Syrian conflict. Putin is working closely with Turkish head of state Recep Tayyip Erdogan to accelerate the departure of the NATO member from his traditional ties with the West.
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In addition, Russia has been improving its relations with Israel and Egypt since 2015. Putin has long been a sought-after discussion partner for top Middle Eastern politicians. In October 2017, King Salman was the first Saudi Arabia monarch to visit the Russian capital. The Kremlin is now also trying to expand its influence in Libya.
However, Russia is not strong enough to completely oust the US as a power in the Middle East. Moscow cannot bear the cost of rebuilding Syria alone, estimated at least at $ 250 billion. Militarily, the US, with its naval and air bases in Turkey and the Gulf and its tens of thousands of soldiers in the region, will remain much stronger than Russia for the time being.
It is therefore an open question whether Moscow can translate the political achievements of recent years into a sustainable Middle East strategy. Putin may still have to rely on taking advantage of opportunities “created by regional states or the mistakes of the West,” writes Middle East expert Becca Wasser of US think tank Rand.