Moscow’s support for Assad has been proven, but it remains to be seen whether it can turn them into political and economic success in the long term.
As other Arab rulers faded into the winds of the Arab Spring, Bashar Assad enjoyed Russian and Iranian backing and survived, while Moscow skillfully inserted itself into the heart of the Middle East and Mediterranean and expanded its sphere of influence. . What has Russia accomplished in Syria, what lies ahead, and does Russian victory necessarily translate into American defeat?
A few days ago, shortly before the September 17-19 elections in the Russian State Duma (the lower house of the Federal Assembly), Syrian President Assad paid an unannounced visit to Moscow and met with President Vladimir Putin, the man who literally saved his skin six years ago.
In July 2015, Assad’s army suffered major setbacks as rebels fought fiercely for control of highways, towns and villages across the country. At the time, the united front of some 40 factions even tried to open the road to the stronghold of the regime in Latakia from Idlib and Hama. If they were successful, the Assad regime would fight for its life.
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Major General Qasem Soleimani paid a visit to Moscow that month: he briefed the Russian leadership on the precarious situation and urged Putin to help the Syrian comrades. Soon Assad sent an official request for Russian military aid.
On September 30, 2015, the Federation Council (the upper house of the Federal Assembly) granted Putin’s request to deploy the Russian Air Force to Syria. On that day, Russian military units already based in government-controlled territory launched an offensive against rebel targets.
“I remember that in 2015, many experts said that the Russian engagement in Syria would end like the Soviet engagement in Afghanistan. However, it is clear that Putin is playing his cards well in Syria, ”Alexander Baunov, senior researcher at Carnegie Moscow Center and editor-in-chief of Carnegie.ru, told The Media Line.
“If we compare the Russian campaign in Syria to that of the United States in Afghanistan, then it is obvious that because of Russian support, Assad controls a significant part of Syrian territory – almost 70%. This is far more than the US-backed Afghan government has ever done. There is a regime in Syria – the Assad regime – but still, ”he continues.
“And the Syrian army has proven to be more reliable than the Afghan military forces prepared by the United States. I don’t know what will happen if Putin suddenly decides to delete [Russian forces from the] base in Khmeimim [southeast of Latakia], but I doubt they will disappear into thin air. Putin grew up in the Soviet Union. He was careful not to repeat the mistakes he made in Afghanistan, ”Baunov said.
During six years of war in Syria, Russia relied mainly on its air force and refrained from sending its men to the battlefield. Instead, personnel from private military companies (i.e. men from the Wagner Group) as well as other foreign forces – Lebanese, Pakistani and Afghan militiamen – did the dirty work.
Moscow has used its presence in Syria to bolster its air and naval presence in the region, expanding its existing base in Tartus and building a state-of-the-art base in Khmeimim. It extended its influence to neighboring Lebanon and spread as far as the Mediterranean, near the European coasts.
While the question of an economic dividend is debatable, it is well known that close allies of Putin such as billionaire tycoon Gennady Timchenko have won lucrative construction and energy contracts in Syria.
According to Maxim Suchkov, senior researcher at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), this is how the first phase of the war ended. “Since 2017, when Russia, Turkey and Iran launched the ‘Astana Format’, Russia began the second stage of its campaign in Syria, which was now ‘focused on opportunities’.
Russia has sought to capitalize on its achievements in Syria and monetize its image as a strong and decisive power in the region; it was able to strengthen its position on a global scale. It has managed to mend its previously flawed relations with other countries in the Middle East, such as the Gulf monarchies. In reality, the picture is more nuanced and “the capital earned is now gradually depleted”, explains Suchkov, speaking to The Media Line.
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Sand, blood and death
At the end of 2019, shortly after proclaiming victory over Daesh (Russia did too), US President Donald Trump said he would no longer send troops to Syria. “Get out of there. It is sand, blood and death, “President Trump said and ordered the withdrawal of US troops from the country.
He ultimately decided to keep a small American contingent to support the Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast of the country, but the point was clear. Much like President Barack Obama before him and President Joe Biden after him, President Trump wanted to reduce American involvement in the Middle East, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
“In the short and medium term, Russia has shown that it is ready to pay a higher price for an achievement in the Levant, and the price is not even that high. His support for Assad has been proven – more and more Middle Eastern countries now accept that Assad is part of reality and are interested in interacting with Damascus, ”Ofer Zalzberg, Middle East program director at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute for Interactive Conflict. Transformation, he said speaking to The Media Line.
“One of those countries is Jordan, which is interested in exporting its goods through Syria and importing cheap Syrian products. As for the United States, their focus has shifted from the Middle East to Asia. In addition, its own legislation, such as the Caesar Law, somewhat limited its ability to maneuver in Syria, ”Zalzburg said.
(The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 imposed additional sanctions and financial restrictions on institutions and individuals related to the conflict in Syria – KS)
Baunov believes that if the United States were to deploy a large contingent in Syria, similar to the one that was deployed in Iraq, the Syrian war and the Russian involvement would play out very differently. He also says that this kind of scenario was always unlikely.
“If the United States decided to get heavily involved in Syria and repeat the Iraqi scenario, then Putin would probably back down. But in this case, the American operation would be very different and would include the conquest of Damascus and the overthrow of the regime. Why on earth would Obama or Trump repeat the experience of George Bush Jr. which turned out to be a disaster, which was already clear at that time? Russia has a wide range of interests in Syria – a political interest, showing that “we are not giving up on the allies”, there was a Russian naval base, a trade, an ally. There was something worth fighting for, ”says Baunov.
So as America lost interest in the Middle East, Russian appetite kept growing, prompted by US and European sanctions and the need to increase Moscow’s influence and find new markets. Russia had a clear strategy and an ally in Syria; the United States had neither. However, all is not easy and bright for Russia in Syria.
“Although the United States cannot impose its values on other countries, it can prevent the flow of American and European money to these countries,” Zalzberg said, indicating that the post-war reconstruction of the Syria remains a far-fetched goal for Assad and his Russians. allies.
Indeed, the lack of economic development in Syria is Russia’s Achilles heel. It can neither rebuild Syria on its own nor allow the flow of foreign investment. Moreover, the rebel stronghold of Idlib continues to provoke tensions between Ankara and Moscow, while Assad’s army and the Iranians undermine the Russian-sponsored deal in Daraa.
Six years after Moscow began its direct involvement, it is still celebrating its military triumphs in Syria. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to convert them into political and economic success in the future.