With the formal end to five and half months of the brief Russian military intervention in Syria, many analysts are busy considering Russian profits and losses in Syria. Since the beginning, Russia maintained the stand that its operation would last for a limited time and with no intentions of an extensive military presence. Moscow was determined to avoid a protracted military operation that might compel it to deploy ground troops.
Memories of the Soviet Union’s bloody war in Afghanistan are still strong. Russia did not want Syria to be a second Afghanistan. From the start, the Kremlin had a minimal set of aims in the Syrian arena. Their minimal objective was to stabilize the Assad regime which was losing badly at the time. The Russians, as well as President Assad’s Iranian allies risked losing their strategic investment in Damascus. So they both stepped up their involvement.
The Kremlin clearly calculated that with the cessation of hostilities and a peace process in place, now was the moment to reduce its military contingent and cut the risk of getting sucked into a longer conflict.
When we analyze Russia’s gains from direct military involvement in Syria, we see that Russia actually gained quite a lot.
Eased International Isolation
The initial deployment and the announcement of the partial withdrawal by Russia both caught the West entirely by surprise. The Assad regime, which had been on the defensive and even faced potential fragmentation, has been stabilized and revived. Moscow’s claim to a say in Syria’s future cannot now meaningfully be challenged. Throughout the process, Western attempts to isolate Russia have been all but abandoned. Russia is now a dominant stakeholder among those who will chart the future of Syria. Washington has switched from precluding compromise and discouraging militants to lay down their arms before Assad steps down, to conceding that Assad will maintain some presence in the region. Moscow has demonstrated, to both the region and the West, the value of accommodating Russia as an ally, and the costs it can inflict if its security interests are ignored.
Because of Russia’s intervention in Syria, Moscow made some new allies in the Middle East, especially Iran and Israel.
Iran and Russia have reinforced their military and nuclear cooperation. Russia has authorized the delivery of S-300 anti-aircraft batteries to Iran, despite the strong opposition of the Western powers.
Putin is in constant communication with Israel, assuring Netanyahu that the security of Israel is a priority. Israeli President Rivlin was visiting Moscow discussing the Russian agenda and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was invited to Moscow to continue the conversation.
Russia also got a new friend in the region: the “Kurds”. Putin has been expanding ties to Kurdish groups in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) opened its first foreign office in Moscow, signaling a major step forward in the group’s campaign for international legitimacy. Russia has been a consistent advocate on behalf of the Kurds at the Geneva peace talks. The Kremlin also realized the importance of the Kurds to the politics just south of Russia’s borders.
Expansion of Military Presence
For a long time, Russia had maintained a naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus. As a result of their intervention, Russia has been able to increase their presence on this port significantly. Now they’ve also added a new air base called Khmeimim to its list of bases in Middle East. Putin is undoubtedly keeping total control of the Russian port in Tartus, its naval headquarters in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. From the strategic location of Tartus, Russia can listen in on and control all their assets and their forces as they roam throughout the region. They can listen to almost everything that happens with everyone else throughout the entire Middle East. Tartus is a huge strategic asset for Russia. Creating the port was one of Putin’s major goals from the very beginning of his Syrian operation.
Putin will also be keeping the newly Russian-built air force bases in Latakia and Khmeimim. Each of these bases houses dozens of fighter jets. When you add those jets to the 30 or 40 jets on the Russian aircraft carrier which is off the coast of Tartus, the number of Russian fighter jets around Syria reaches about 70 to75.
Promotion of Russian Weaponry
By conducting a successful air campaign in Syria, the Russians have demonstrated the capability of their weaponry, a splendid advert to any buyers of Russian arms. Russia showcased the best weapons the country has in its arsenal and this Syrian campaign was great for marketing Russian defense products.
There has been widespread confusion among analysts about Russia’s motives in Syria, a confusion that has led to flawed expectations. Russia never sought a ‘winner-takes-all’ victory. Rather, its entry into the conflict reflected its view that the West was a key obstacle in the way of a political settlement in Syria, hence its aim to weaken all armed groups and coerce a compromise. Russia still has a number of long-term objectives to pursue in Syria. These include the formation of a coalition government free from extremist organizations, such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, ensuring Syria’s territorial integrity, and ensuring Russia’s leading role in the country’s future.
Moscow should work to put pressure on the opposition and Assad to negotiate the transition to a coalition government, which could then take on ISIS and Nusra.