Five years ago Russia became involved in the Syrian civil war, prompting an abrupt U-turn in the situation on the ground and ending the spread of Islamist terrorism in the country. Middle East expert Ghassan Kadi and Syrian journalist Basma Qaddour have taken a look at the Russo-Syrian strategic partnership’s achievements and plans.
On 30 September 2015, Russia started an air operation against Daesh* in Syria in response to a request for military help from the Arab Republic’s legitimate government headed by President Bashar al-Assad.
“We all know that thousands of people from European countries, Russia, and the post-Soviet region have joined the ranks of the so-called Islamic State, a terrorist organisation that – I want to stress again – has nothing to do with genuine Islam”, President Vladimir Putin told a special summit of government members on that day. “There is no need to be an expert to realise that if they succeed in Syria, they will inevitably return to their own countries, and this includes Russia.”
Russia’s Involvement Became a Game Changer
The Russian involvement became a turning point for Syria, which has been engulfed by civil war since 2011. As a declassified document compiled by the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 2012 indicated, the major forces driving the insurgency in the Arab Republic were the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood*, and al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)* that “supported the Syrian opposition from the beginning, both ideologically and through media”. At that time the US and EU signalled their sympathy with the so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels and urged Assad to step down.
In September 2014, the US intervened in Syria under the pretext of the war against Daesh (ISIS/ISIL)*, a terrorist organisation that emerged out of AQI. The US military led a coalition of several regional and external players – including forces from the UK, France, Jordan, Turkey, Canada, Australia – and provided support to the Syrian rebels and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the ground.
Apart from the invasion by the US-led coalition, tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of fighters poured into Syria from Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, recalls Ghassan Kadi, a Middle East expert and political analyst of Syrian descent.
“They were heavily armed and trained”, he stresses. “Without the use of targeted air power, eliminating such forces would have been a very difficult task to perform on the ground.”
There was a considerable likelihood that the terrorists were going to win, the Middle East expert continues. If the jihadists prevailed, the political, constitutional and demographic nature of Syria would have changed “from that of tolerance, secularism and inclusivity, to that of a Wahhabi Sunni fundamentalist, one that does not even tolerate Sunnis who don’t adhere to this tradition”, according to Kadi.
By September 2015, jihadi groups had moved very close to the Syrian capital, Damascus, which was nearly two-three weeks away from falling to foreign-backed terrorist groups, echoes Basma Qaddour, a Syrian journalist and head of the news department at The Syria Times.
Moscow’s military move of 30 September 2015 came as a “huge turning point”, according to the observers.
“The biggest role that Russia played militarily was in the use of its air power and expertise on how to fight in a dense urban environment”, notes Ghassan Kadi. “This tipped the balance of power against the invaders and in favour of the Syrian Army.”
What Goals Have the Russo-Syrian Alliance Achieved?
By December 2017, the Russo-Syrian coalition eliminated 60,318 jihadists, including 819 terrorist leaders, and liberated 1,024 settlements, most notably the strategic cities of Aleppo, Palmyra, Akerbat, Deir ez-Zor, Meyadin and Abu Kemal.
Backed by the Russian Aerospace Forces, the Syrian Arab Army eliminated Daesh’s major strongholds, with Idlib remaining the only jihadi hotbed in the country. Thus the Russian military presence on the ground and successful anti-terrorist aerial campaign made any prospective full-scale NATO offensive irrelevant, according to Ghassan Kadi.
After the deployment of the military police in the Arab Republic to monitor a cease-fire in new de-escalation zones in July and agreeing with Damascus on the formation of a permanent grouping at the Tartus naval facility and the Hmeimim airbase, President Vladimir Putin announced the withdrawal of the Russian troops to their permanent bases in December 2017. However, Moscow continued to provide support to Syria: in general, the Russo-Syrian coalition has liquidated more than 133,000 jihadi militants.
In parallel with its military effort, Russia, together with Iran and Turkey, arranged peace talks between the Syrian government delegation and opposition forces in Astana in late December 2016. In subsequent years, the Astana format of negotiations led by Moscow, Tehran and Ankara helped to lower the intensity of the clashes on the ground by concluding ceasefire deals and founding four de-escalation zones in the war-torn country.
“Here we can point out to the fact that the Astana peace talks aimed at a post-war Syrian order as an effective alternative to similar efforts within the United Nations”, Basma Qaddour underscores, referring to the Geneva peace talks on Syria held since June 2012 under the auspices of the UN.
Obstacles in the Path to Restore Peace & Order
Still, the reconciliation process is largely hampered by the US and Turkish military presence in the region, argues Qaddour, stressing that these foreign players must pull out of the Arab Republic. Touching upon the issue of the US-SDF military bases in the region, the journalist suggests that the Syrian popular resistance is likely to squeeze them out from these areas. In August 2020, Syrian tribal leaders in Deir ez-Zor and Aleppo called upon the US and their Kurdish proxies to leave the region.
“The problem is that US-backed ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) militia in eastern Syria are currently in control of approximately 70% of Syria’s national oil resources and a number of valuable gas facilities. The eastern Euphrates is under the control of US occupation forces and SDF militia,” says Qaddour.
In addition to this, Idlib is still controlled by terrorist groups, she points out, stressing that as many as 85% of terrorists in Idlib are affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)*. Kadi echoes the journalist’s concerns: “Apart from non-Syrian fighters who were either killed or fled, the remaining actual Syrian fighters are all in the Idlib region, hence any reconciliation talks will have to wait until the region is fully back under the control of the Syrian Government”, he notes.
Turkey, which supervises the Idlib de-escalation zone, has vowed to separate the moderate opposition from terrorists, liberate the M4 highway and form a security corridor around this highway. According to Moscow and Ankara, these agreements are being gradually implemented.
Russia to Help Syria Revive Post-War Economy
However, at the present moment, reconciliation seems to have taken a step back from centre court, as the major issue to deal with at the moment is the economy, Kadi points out, citing the Syrian oil issue and Washington’s Caesar Act strangulating the country.
“The Western-centric order has made it almost impossible for nations to trade and interact without reliance on the greenback, the Internet and the SWIFT banking system”, the Middle Eastern expert says. “Any nation that finds itself under Western sanctions risks being isolated and falling under the mercy of even further sanctions such as the Caesar Act.”
Under these circumstances, Damascus is expanding business ties with Russia to facilitate economic recovery. During the Russian delegation’s September visit to Syria, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov told the press that Moscow had presented a package of economic proposals to the Arab Republic in July in order to tackle the post-war crisis and US sanctions. It is expected that these proposals will be sealed in December 2020.
The economic difficulties and the pressure exerted by the West have prompted regional players, most notably Syria and Iran, to form new alliances and economic partnerships, notes Kadi.
According to him, the US sanctions policy is doomed as “the West is no longer the centre of manufacturing even of advanced commodities”. The political analyst suggests that in the foreseeable future nations such as Russia, China, Iran, Syria, in theory, will be “capable of supplying each other with all of their basic needs without having to resort to Western imports”.
The Syrian civil war and subsequent events on the ground have once again proven that the days of the post-Cold war Western-centric world order are over, echoes Basma Qaddour.
“The US pushes an anti-world agenda in order not to face the difficult reality that it is no longer the world’s only superpower and it has to adapt to an increasingly multipolar world”, she concludes.