Leaving So Soon?: The Short Timeline of Russian Intervention in Syria

1 year ago Alger Mag Editor 0


On September 30, 2015 Russian airstrikes began in Syria. According to the head of the Russian presidential administration, the sole purpose of the intervention was to protect the “national interests” of the Russian Federation, which includes concern for the eventual return of several thousand Russian citizens that have flocked to Syria to join the terrorist groups. Now, only five months later, President Vladimir Putin has announced the withdrawal of Russian forces, surprising much of the West.

To the United States this may seem unconventional, but this move is actually quite strategic. While the U.S. is no stranger to involvement in Middle East conflicts, Russia has learned from the Americans’ mistakes and their own incursion into Afghanistan in the 1980s. Russia had limited goals in its military intervention in Syria, and now that they have been largely achieved, its position in negotiations over the Syria question has been solidified.

No one doubts that the situation in Syria has gone from bad to horribly wrong in the last five years. It has become an entangled mess of multinational groups and governments  The main players are the Syrian government under the rule of Bashar al-Assad backed by Russia and Iran; the rebel groups that originally tried to overthrow Assad, the most moderate of which are backed by the United States and Turkey; the Islamic State (ISIS), who everyone agrees is bad news; and the Kurds, supported by the United States. (One of the best summaries of the conflict through the end of 2015 is this video.)

Putin understands how important Syria is to both stability and Russian influence in the Middle East. Assad is one of the few remaining allies, if not the only ally, that Russia has in the region. Although Egypt and Russia have recently had significant cooperation in the investigation of the downing of the civilian aircraft flying from Egypt to Russia, this hardly makes them strategic allies. Regardless, Russia is not willing to give up influence in the Middle East, putting it in opposition to the United States.

Russia has been propping up Assad, who the United States and other groups want to remove from office due to his history of human rights violations.  Before Russia intervened on Assad’s behalf, things were not looking good for the Syrian president. There was strong rhetoric against Assad and his possible involvement in a reformed Syrian government following the civil war. However, since Russia began its airstrike campaign, the language has shifted. Why? Because the Russians have not really been targeting ISIS as they said they would. Russia has been bombing rebel groups. Russia’s strategy was never to distinguish between rebel forces and ISIS but to bolster the Assad government’s forces. Russia openly admits that the plan of action was to assist the government in ending the rebellion before the central government is too weak to be saved.

Now the rebels in Syria are hurting from being attacked by both the government and ISIS, and the U.S. is struggling to find a clear way to support their allies and interests in Syria. Instead of maintaining the hardline position of excluding Assad, the United States has wavered by pushing the opposition forces to attend peace talks with the Syrian government. On April 2, 2016 the Syrian opposition remained pessimistic about a political transition in Syria. A member of the opposition, Riad Hijab, said, “There is no international will, especially from the U.S. side, and I do not expect anything to come of the negotiations.”

Assad has rejected opposition demands that exclude him in a transitional government, calling on a new “national unity government,” that includes a coalition of the opposition, independents, and loyalists. The opposition has said that the indirect peace talks are supposed to be about “establishing a transitional government body that can then draft a constitution and organize elections in which all Syrians can participate.” They claim that Assad is the “disease that has struck Syria,” and an agreement would require his departure from government. As if the ceasefire and peace talks were not shaky enough, the Syrian government has held elections that the opposition have called “a farce.”  

The talks are clearly far from over, but it is no coincidence that Putin announced the withdrawal of forces on the same day that the peace talks resumed in Geneva, March 14. This shows that Russia is somewhat confident that Assad (and therefore Russia) is in a good enough position to negotiate a settlement of the civil war.

While the Russian airstrikes have not helped the Syrian government forces gain much physical territory, they have proven that Assad and Russia will remain involved in negotiations, setting the stage for a Syria that remains friendly to Russian interests. The military intervention has not only proven that Russia is serious about protecting their interests in the Middle East, but has also allowed the country to flex its military muscles and demonstrate that it is a loyal ally.

One luxury of being Putin is that his approval rating is always high, so public opinion doesn’t matter as much as physical and economic resources. The truth is, the Russians can’t afford a quagmire, and they know that. In fact, they’ve said it.  When Russia announced its military support of the Syrian government, the head of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs said, “We would not risk getting stuck in a long conflict and threaten the lives of our troops.” The Russian economy is slumping amid low oil prices and harsh sanctions for their actions in Eastern Ukraine. Russia does not have the ability to entrench themselves in the middle of Syria for longer than absolutely necessary.

The West and United States have to remember that the Assad government’s total collapse would be extremely dangerous for the Middle East. Without proper planning and execution, the overthrow of the Assad regime could open up a new area for ISIS to expand into.

This relatively quick incursion into Syria has largely been a success for a Russia that has been weakened by low oil prices, economic sanctions, and condemnation from the international community. Russia was able to prove that it is an important international partner while avoiding entrenchment in a war that it cannot afford.


By: DeAnna Miller

Image Courtesy: www.kremlin.ru, Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported | Wikimedia Commons