There has been an extensive debate in the international community on Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict. The Syrian conflict has been raging since 2010 and has become the breeding ground for terrorist organizations like ISIS, Jabhat Ul Nusra, Hezbollah, etc. The conflict in Syria and Iraq presents a new security challenge for the regional as well as global powers. Countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece and EU have been the recipients of the refugees pouring out from the conflict zones. The sectarian battle lines in the region are drawn between the Assad regime backed by Russia and Iran; and Sunni rebel opposition groups backed by the GCC and the Western powers, which were in the position of overpowering the Syrian regime in its last bastions till Russia entered the conflict in September 2015. Just like the backing of Egypt in the Egypt-Israeli War of Attrition in 1969-70, the Kremlin has once again been instrumental in tilting the balance in favour of its allies in the Middle East.
The western media and strategic think tanks were caught napping by Russia’s strategic surgical forays which depict that the Russian military still has the prowess to stall the designs of the American Deep state of overthrowing governments in critical states like Syria, which are its allies. The US establishment exulted that the Russian intervention on the side of the Syrian regime would only prolong the conflict and complicate matters. Some neo-cons in Washington went to great lengths to draw parallels between Afghanistan and Syria, saying that the Syrian conflict will be Russia’s Vietnam as it will get stuck in the Syrian Quagmire. All these strategic thinkers have been made to bite the dust with the Russian intervention significantly altering the geopolitical dynamics in the region.
The Russian military intervention in Syria began in September 2015 when the Assad regime was attacked in Idlib province after it lost substantial territory. The consolidation of the Syrian Rebels in the Idlib province in Northwest Syria in early 2015 directly threatened the regime's supply lines and routes leading up to the west coast city of Lattakia and Tartus where Russia has a naval base. The loss of Palmyra by the regime to ISIS in May 2015 further highlighted the fragility of Syrian Arab Army (SAA). Russia was faced with the prospect of Western-backed rebels and Jihadists like ISIS toppling a friendly regime and threatening its strategic assets in Syria. The Syrian government forces, post the loss of about a third of their men and several military bases, required active backups from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah, to hold the fort. The failure of Iranian-backed operations against the Syrian Rebels was pivotal in prompting Russia’s calculated decision to intervene in Syria and secure its strategic assets.
Russia’s military campaign in Syria began in September 2015 with one Cruiser, one Destroyer and two Frigates in the Black Sea fleet. Its assets in the Lattakia Airbase included 4 SU-34 fullback Fighter Bombers, 12 SU 24 Fencer attack aircraft, 12 SU 25 Frogfoot close air support, 4 SU 30 Sukhoi Flanker jets and 12 MI-24 Attack Helicopters. The Russian airstrikes map of Syria primarily targeted the Rebel-held areas in the Hama and Idlib provinces erasing the gains made by the Rebels and bolstering the Assad regime. The bombing patterns of the Russians till very late in their short campaign focused on the Alawite minority-dominated regions of Hama, Idlib and later Aleppo. The pattern clearly showed that Russia’s primary aim was not to defeat ISIS, but to strengthen the Assad regime and secure its assets like the naval base at Tartus on the Syrian Coast. The United States and its Sunni Arab coalition was incensed with the Russian intervention as it spoilt a likely victory in Syria. Russia in the meanwhile, set up a coordination centre with Israel, allowing the Israeli Air force to strike a transfer of arms to Hezbollah, a sworn enemy of Israel in return for better logistical support from an unlikely US ally in the Middle East. This co-ordination with Israel was however limited as Russia is also supplying weapon systems to Israel's nemesis Iran.
The bombing of a Russian jetliner by ISIS in Sinai over Egypt killed nearly 226 people on 31st October 2015, provided a new challenge to the Russian leadership over its campaign in Syria. The Russian leadership remaining steadfast over its military intervention suspended its flights to Sinai to mitigate such risks. Nearly a month after the deadly bombing of the Russian jetliner in Egypt, Russia faced another military challenge on 24th November 2015 when the Turkish Air force shot down a Russian Air force jet SU 24 on its border with Syria. The shooting down of a Russian jet by a NATO country was a first in many decades and had the potential to escalate the Syrian conflict globally. Turkey justified its shoot down of the Russian jet claiming it violated its airspace despite warnings; while Russia categorically denied the same and countered with economic sanctions against Turkey. Russia in response also deployed its S-400 Missile Defence system to securing the Syrian airspace for its missions and Turkey responded by deploying the KOLAR electronic jamming system on its southern border with Syria.
The bombing of the Russian jetliner and the killing of its pilot by the Syrian rebels by Turkey further aggravated the Russian response to the Rebels in Northwest Syria. The Russian leadership under Vladimir Putin displayed its resolve by intensifying its air campaign in Syria in Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo, which was countered by the western media as high human casualties due to the bombings of schools, bakery’s, hospitals, etc. The continuous bombing raids by the Russian Air force and the coordinated ground assault by Regime forces along with the Shia militias further choked the Syrian Rebels, pushing them back. The offensive started to show results. The events in early 2016 (January-February) started tilting the balance on the ground towards the Assad regime as the Rebels started to lose their earlier territorial gains. The Aleppo offensive in February 2016 was another decisive manoeuvre by Russia where the supply lines to Turkey were cut off. This put the city under siege leading millions to flee towards the Turkish border as refugees. The battle for Aleppo, the centre of the Syrian Revolution was a defining moment.
Russia’s military offensive against the Syrian Rebels was followed by swift diplomatic manoeuvres like the talks in Geneva with the US and the Saudi Arabia led GCC states to help achieve a political solution. Russia’s forceful intervention and the pushback of the Syrian Rebels strengthened its diplomatic hand at the negotiating table. Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the 2015 Riyadh Conference gathered all the Rebels groups, but Russia refused to accept their say in the peace process and demanded that the Syrian Kurds who were actively fighting against ISIS, should also be made a part of the political process. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, however, rejected this demand. Meanwhile, the US-backed and trained SDF, a group of Syrian Arab and Kurdish groups who were leading the charge on ISIS; opened its office in Moscow. After Russia’s acceptance, the UNSC; post five years of the Syrian Civil War finally passed a Resolution No. 2254 on 18th December 2015. The UNSC Resolution called for a ceasefire between the Syrian Regime and the Rebels while declaring ISIS and Nusra as terrorist organizations. The Resolution also laid down the conditions of dialogue under UN Leadership leading to a political transition in Syria by way of a New Constitution leading up to 2016-2017.
Russia, cashing upon the gains made in the short military campaign took advantage of America’s dithering of fighting against the Jihadists; backed the Syrian Kurds by proposing a Federal Structure for new Syrian Constitution. After years of opposition, the Syrian rebel groups finally seem to be embracing the Russian idea of sharing power with the Assad regime in Syria as a part of a political transition. Russia was instrumental in not only suppressing the Western-backed rebels but also getting them to drop any preconditions of the removal of Assad. Russia followed this up with Cessation of Hostilities Agreement which was announced by the Foreign Ministers of the US and Russia on 22nd February 2016. This stated that a nationwide ceasefire would go into effect between the Syrian regime and the recognised Syrian Rebel groups while the fight against ISIS and Nusra jihadists will continue. The ISSG Taskforce will monitor the ceasefire under the UN. This ceasefire came into operation on 27th February 2016. Contrary to various western experts and strategists, the Russian leadership quickly de-escalated its military campaign while maintaining sufficient strength on the ground to deter any change of status quo. Russia withdrew some of its forces in March 2016 surprising the Western experts who prophesized a quagmire like Afghanistan for Russia. The Russian leadership taking a leaf out of its Afghan disaster in the 80's minimized the risks while achieving its strategic objectives. As the ceasefire precariously holds on, the Russian-backed offensive of Syrian regime achieved another success by liberating Palmyra from ISIS.
To understand the Russian military campaign, one needs to decipher the strategic goals; the Russian policy makers had in Syria. After carefully examining the pattern of Russian air strikes in Rebel-held areas, it can be stated that the Russian strategic objectives in Syria were multi fold. They were (a) To protect its naval assets in Tartus Port and push back the rebel forces to a safe limit; (b) Ensure the stability of the fragile Syrian regime which was on the verge of collapse, (c) Increase the regime depth in the Northwest provinces of Hama, Idlib, and Aleppo by air strikes, (d) Secure the Alawite, and Druze minority dominated enclaves in the North and West of Syria. Last but not the least; secure a place for itself at the negotiating table when the talks for the Syrian Political transition mandated by the UN get underway. It was a strategic and a diplomatic victory which Russia sought to underscore by a short and swift military campaign.
Russia’s military scale down just when the battle of Aleppo was nearing a crescendo and its acceptance to coordinate with the United States on the Political Transition in Syria and the fight against ISIS underscores the strategies of the Russian leadership. The Russian military campaign was never aimed at securing a military victory for Assad or to wipe out the ISIS. Russia outsmarted the West in the Syrian conflict while securing its strategic interest and also sent a global message that Russia is a dependable ally. The Syrian conflict also provided the Russian military industrial complex to showcase that its men and machines still have the power to roll over and stall hegemons across the world.