Precisely a year ago Moscow joined the campaign in Syria at the request of Damascus. While killing thousands of jihadists, Russia suffered military losses, but became one of the driving forces behind attempts at the national reconciliation process.
On September 30, 2015 Russian jets conducted their first strikes against terrorist targets in Syria, hitting Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS/ISIL) positions near the cities of Homs and Hama.
By that time the US-led coalition had been already active in Syria for over a year. Yet Russia became the only state which received an official request from Syrian President Bashar Assad to conduct air strikes in the country. The Russian jets operated from the Khmeimim air base located in Syria’s Latakia Governorate.
Liberation of Palmyra
During its mission, the Russian Air Force aided the Syrian army in liberating one of the country’s key cities and a world heritage site – Palmyra. The ancient city had been under the control of IS since May 2015 before it was retaken by government forces backed by Russian airstrikes in March this year.
Jihadists destroyed numerous historical landmarks during the occupation, while leaving roads, houses and monuments booby trapped. Russian and Syrian sappers defused thousands of mines left by the terrorists after their retreat. Following the liberation of the ravaged city, the world-famous Russian conductor Valery Gergiev led a concert in Palmyra to support its restoration and honor the victims of the war.
Downing of SU-24
The Russian military operation in Syria was marred by a tragic incident last year after Turkish fighter jets downed a Russian Su-24 bomber near the Syria-Turkey border. One pilot died as a result, while another one was rescued. Ankara said that the Russian plane violated its airspace, but Moscow said the Su-24was attacked over the Syrian border. During their rescue operations Russian forces also lost a helicopter, which was attacked from the ground by the militants.
Reacting to the Su-24 downing President Putin called the incident “a stab in the back”, with Moscow imposing sanctions on Turkey. Russia suspended direct air connections with Turkey as a result. In June Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan apologized for the attack in a written statement, which led to the normalization of bilateral relations.
The Russian air campaign in Syria resulted in the loss of three more choppers. One of the helicopters was downed in Idlib province in July after a human aid delivery to civilians in the embattled city of Aleppo.
Reduction of military presence
On March 15 Putin ordered the withdrawal of the majority of Russian jets and personnel from Syria, announcing that the major part of the operation in Syria was over. “I believe that the objectives with which the Ministry of Defense has been tasked have been largely reached. Therefore, starting with tomorrow I order the withdrawal of the main part of our military from the Syrian Arab Republic,” Putin said.
Back then officials stated that the Russian jets conducted over 7,000 sorties destroying numerous bases and hideouts of jihadists and leaving nearly 13,000 terrorists dead. The remaining units of the Russian air force continued to assist Syrian government troops in tackling jihadists across the country.
Over the course of the Syrian mission Russia established a Reconciliation Center in the country. The facility was tasked with helping to monitor the cessation of hostilities and implement international peace proposals on the ground.
On July 28 this year the center and the Syrian government introduced three “safe corridors” for civilians willing to leave the ravaged Aleppo. The plan also included a fourth passage for militants who wanted to surrender. The corridors have been largely used to deliver humanitarian aid, including medicine and water to the population.
According to a representative, Moscow delivered tens of tons of aid to Aleppo from the Khmeimim airbase. Following the introduction of the routes, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu voiced his discontent with militants who “shelled villages, attacked the positions of government troops” near the exit routes as well as inside Aleppo. The UN estimated that around 250,000 residents of the city have been in dire need of basic supplies.
While battling jihadists from the air, Russia alongside the US was a key player in negotiating a political solution to the Syrian deadlock. Following marathon talks in Geneva in February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his US counterpart John Kerry brokered a deal on the cessation of hostilities in Syria.
The agreement, which came into force on February 27, included a stop to military action from both the rebel and government side. Terrorist groups, like IS and Jabhat al-Nusra were excluded from the truce deal. After establishing its Reconciliation Center at Khmeimim air base, Moscow handed over contact data to Washington.
However in the following weeks, the Russian Defense Ministry said that it noted “verified proof of systematical violations” on the part of anti-government forces. It has also urged Washington to stick to promises and push the rebels to delineate their territories from those held by terrorists. The US on its part said Damascus attempted to jeopardize the cessation of hostilities, adding that Moscow did not use its influence over President Assad.
The deteriorating violence across Syria forced the US and Russia to acknowledge that the ceasefire had to be renegotiated. A fresh round of talks resulted in a new deal on the cessation of hostilities, announced by Lavrov and Kerry on September 9 in Geneva. The agreement was part of a larger peace plan, which also included the delivery of humanitarian aid, in particular to Aleppo. The deal, which again excluded terrorist groups came into force on September 12 but has since been marred by numerous violations. Just three days later Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said US-backed rebels had been “intensifying the shelling of residential areas” in Aleppo.
Moscow also demanded Washington use its influence to persuading rebel forces to clearly separate themselves from jihadists in Syria to avoid hitting them in airstrikes. John Kerry in return said President Assad has not been willing to comply with the peace agreement.
Speaking to RT President Assad’s Political and Media Adviser Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban said that while Russia is “truly fighting terrorism,” internal disagreements in the US are hampering truce efforts inside Syria.
A fresh row between Moscow and Washington blew up Wednesday when State Department spokesperson John Kirby warned Russia that “more Russian lives will be lost” and its interests attacked if violence in Syria continued.
His comments came in the wake of reports of heightened bombing in Aleppo. In response on Thursday a spokesperson for the Russian Defense Ministry said that Moscow is “fully prepared to continue the dialogue with the American side and carry on with the joint actions to combat terrorists in Syria.”
However Konashenkov noted that even “slightest hints of a threat to our soldiers and Russian citizens must be excluded from this dialogue.”