On September 30, 2015, the Russian Federation formally entered the Syrian civil war as President Bashar al-Assad’s rule was increasingly under threat.
Since 2011, intense fighting and mass desertion had weakened the Syrian Arab Army. Even the support of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the deployment of Iranian militias and Russian mercenaries, and regular shipments of Russian weaponry had not been enough to stop the advance of the opposition and radical armed groups.
In March 2015, the Syrian government lost a second provincial capital, Idlib, when Jeish al-Fattah, a loose coalition of various armed groups, led a successful offensive on the city in the country’s northwest.
The provincial capital of Raqqa, with its strategic oil and water resources, had been captured the previous year and had become the main stronghold of the rising Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
In addition, the Syrian government had lost control of large swathes of several provinces – Idlib, Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir Az Zor, Hassakeh, Deraa and Quneitra – and was struggling to control Hama, Homs and the Damascus countryside.
The Russian intervention stopped the advance of the opposition, which was backed by the West, Turkey and the Gulf, and effectively preserved the Baathist regime in Damascus. This paved the way for a more assertive Russian presence in the Middle East, leading some observers to talk about “Russian resurgence” or even to make parallels with Cold War-era regional dynamics.
Why did Russia intervene?
Some observers have attributed the Russian decision to intervene formally in Syria to a July 2015 visit to Moscow by General Qassem Soleimani, the late commander of the Quds Force of the IRGC, who was assassinated by the United States in Baghdad in early January this year. The Iranian general supposedly convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin to send Russian troops and save the Syrian government.
However, it does not seem like the Kremlin needed convincing. The fall of al-Assad would have threatened Russia’s interests and eliminated another regional ally. This would have been a major blow to Moscow, particularly after the Western-backed toppling of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, which Putin, then a prime minister, personally opposed and criticised then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for enabling.
The decision to intervene in Syria also reflected the Kremlin’s fear of the so-called “colour revolutions” and their potential success sparking a major anti-government uprising in Russia itself. A year earlier, the pro-West Maidan revolution in Ukraine provoked a sharp reaction in Moscow, which led to the annexation of Crimea and Russian military intervention in the Donbas region. This, in turn, triggered Western sanctions, which hurt the Russian economy, particularly business circles close to the Kremlin.
Tense relations with the West also motivated Moscow to put troops on the ground in Syria. Given the deadlock on the Ukrainian crisis, an intervention in the Syrian conflict, which Western powers had been heavily involved in, presented the Russian government with another front where it could pressure the West into negotiations.
The rise of ISIL provided an opportunity to wrap the intervention in anti-terror rhetoric, ensuring domestic support, while the Obama administration’s reluctance to get involved more heavily in the Syrian conflict – to avoid an “Iraq repeat” – and the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal reassured Moscow that there would be no direct clash with the US.
Russia’s superior military power managed to shift the dynamics on the ground in Syria relatively quickly. Although the declared goal of its operation was to fight “terrorist” groups, the Russian army, along with its Syrian allies, first targeted groups of the moderate opposition backed by the West, who at that time were already suffering from internal divisions and having to fight on two fronts – against Damascus and ISIL.
Less than a year later, Russian troops, along with Iranian-backed militias and Syrian government forces, laid siege on East Aleppo, and by November, forced opposition armed groups to surrender and leave the city. This was a turning point in the conflict, as it marked the steady retreat of opposition forces and ushered in a new axis between Russia, Iran and Turkey, seeking to resolve the Syrian crisis while excluding the West and Arab powers.
In January 2017, the Astana (now Nur-Sultan) format was launched which brought together the Syrian opposition, including armed groups formerly supported by the West but by then largely abandoned, and the Syrian government, along with Russia, Iran and Turkey. Later that year, under this format, Russia managed to establish four de-escalation zones where all sides committed to pause military activities. This removed the burden of fighting on multiple fronts and allowed Syrian government forces, along with their Russian and Iranian allies, to take over one opposition-held area after the other. Parts of Idlib province now form the last de-escalation zone remaining in opposition control.
In the span of five years, Russia not only managed to preserve the Syrian government but also largely eliminated and marginalised the moderate opposition – the main challenger to al-Assad’s legitimacy and the only other political-military force whose participation in government would have been acceptable to the West.
Russia’s leading role in Syria also gave it regional leverage beyond the Syrian borders. It forced Turkey to re-engage, following a crisis in relations caused by the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkish forces, in 2015. The failed coup attempt against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in 2016, accelerated the process.
Russia’s perceived success in Syria also encouraged other countries in the Middle East to seek improved relations with Moscow amid the US pivot out of the region. The leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Sudan, and Israel have all paid visits to Moscow in recent years. This allowed Russia to enter into the Libyan fray, albeit late, and seek a say in the future of the country by backing the offensive of renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar on the capital Tripoli.