The start of Russia’s military campaign in Syria a year ago came as a total surprise to the international community. Except for the 1999 incident in Kosovo, in which a peace-keeping force of Russian paratroops outpaced NATO to gain control of Pristina Airport, Moscow has not participated in military operations outside its national territory ever since the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan in 1989. Even though it agreed to throw its weight behind the campaign against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, which the United States launched in 2001, Russia confined itself to political and logistics support for the Western coalition. Small wonder, therefore, the Russian leadership’s announcement it was beginning a military campaign in Syria and the rapid redeployment of an air group to that country left foreign audiences dumbfounded.
What aims did Russia pursue? What has it achieved so far? And what was it that surprised the international community the most? Find the answers to these and other questions in this special feature by TASS.
On September 30, 2015 Russia’s Federation Council (the upper house of the two-chamber parliament) voted in support of President Vladimir Putin’s request for permission to use the national armed forces in Syria against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra (terrorist groups outlawed in Russia)
- The Russian Aerospace group dealt the first strikes against the militants’ positions later in the day.
- Initially, the group consisted of 50 combat planes and helicopters. In November 2015 Russia’s long-range bombers started flowing sorties to Syria.
- With time Russia’s Navy was involved in the operation as well. Combat ships in the land-locked Caspian Sea and in the Mediterranean Sea launched cruise missiles.
- On March 15, the main contingent of the Russian Aerospace group began to be pulled out of Syria on President Putin’s orders, while the Russian support facilities in Tartus and at the air base Hmeymim have maintained routine operation ever since. The remaining Russian planes continued to provide combat support for Syrian troops.
- According to May 2016 statistics more than 10,000 sorties had been carried out and 30,000 targets, including 200 oil extraction and refining facilities, were wiped out.
- The Pentagon estimates that by that time the Islamic State militants lost 45% of the territory they had controlled in Iraq and 20% of the territory in Syria. The Syrian army regained Palmyra to turn the tide of the campaign. The Russian military participated in the operation.
- Russia has airlifted to Syria 1,000 tonnes of foods, medical supplies and essentials.
Why did Russia launch the military operation in Syria?
Syria’s never-ending chaos posed a direct threat to Russia. According to statistics disclosed by secret services, up to 2,500 Russian citizens and some 3,000 citizens from the other CIS member-states had been involved in Islamic State operations in Iraq and Syria by the autumn of 2015. The flow of recruits continued unabated. The risk they might start returning to their home countries someday was high.
Back in June 2015 President Putin declared it was essential to create an international coalition against the Islamic State on the following principles.
- It should incorporate all countries of the region, first and foremost, those who fight the Islamic State on the ground (Syrian and Iraqi armies and the Kurdish militias).
- The coalition was to have the approval of the UN Security Council and/or legitimate governments of the countries where the operations would be conducted.
By that time the US-led coalition had been conducting military operations in the territory of Iraq and Syria for twelve months already without having either the UN Security Council’s consent or the approval of Damascus. But the Islamic State remained on the offensive. As a matter of fact, after losing some ground in Iraq the terrorists put the emphasis on Syria. By May 2015 the Islamic State had gained control of 50% of Syria’s territory and of the main road leading to Damascus. With a high degree of probability the Syrian capital’s hypothetical fall would entail the loss of the whole of Syria and eventually Lebanon. Christians, Alawites and other minorities would face the risk of utter annihilation, while the Islamic State would have gained access to vast economic resources. The terrorists’ ambitions as they are, their clash with Russia would be imminent in any case, with Russia’s starting positions being far worse than they looked just recently.
For several months Russia was trying to persuade the West to clinch a deal with the Syrian authorities, because without their support fighting the Islamic State on the ground would make no sense. Nothing came of it, though. In the end, the Syrian government turned to Russia with a request for help. Moscow agreed to start a military operation.
The Russian authorities repeatedly emphasized the idea their paramount goal was to preserve the basics of Syria’s statehood, and not keep President Bashar Assad in power at any cost.
Public opinion in the West was generally negative about Russia’s military operation. Western media criticism was confined to two arguments.
- Russia is allegedly fighting not against Islamic terrorists but against the moderate political opposition.
- Moscow decided to meddle for the sake of saving Assad.
A year later the Western establishment’s stance shows no fundamental change. But the Syrian president’s future is no longer an issue of paramount importance in discussions over the crisis in that country. As for the question who fights whom in Syria, there still remains great confusion who should be branded terrorist and who belongs to the armed opposition.
Local groups keep changing disguises like chameleons to vow allegiance to anyone who may come their way, while Washington keeps arguing with Russia.
Surprises for the West
Russian Armed Forces turn out effective
Whatever criticism Russia has faced so far and may still hear in the future, most leading Western media did not hesitate to put its operation in Syria on the list of last year’s top events.
Regardless of their attitude to the air campaign Western politicians, pundits and journalists agree the Russian military has changed beyond recognition. In particular, they pointed to smooth coordination, advanced hardware and effective strikes against the terrorists. All that was unanimously interpreted as evidence the military reform has borne fruit.
In Syria, many Russian air pilots have gained combat experience. Long-range strategic aircraft and submarine- and surface ship-launched missiles were used in real combat for the first time. The fire power of Russian weaponry impressed potential customers. Until just recently it had been maintained that Russia was unable to conduct any major military operations far away from its borders. In March 2016, the overall value of weapons export contracts soared to $56 billion - a record-high since 1992.
Russia avoids another Afghanistan
In February 2016, US President Barack Obama claimed that Russia would get bogged down in Syria precisely the way the Soviet Union in its day was stalled in Afghanistan. A large-scale operation on the ground and such adverse side effects as soaring costs and casualties and undesirable political developments at home were said to be more than guaranteed. A month later, though, the Russian president ordered the withdrawal of the bulk of the Russian contingent from Syria. Gloom prophecies the involvement of a ground contingent would ensue turned out wrong. Russia had derived proper lessons from the Soviet Union’s Afghan experience and also the experience of the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq. It confined itself to air support, while the presence and role of special operations forces and military advisers remained limited. The task of the commando units was to conduct reconnaissance of potential targets for air strikes and to direct planes to targets in remote areas, while the Syrian army was fighting on the ground. With Russian air support it managed to launch a counteroffensive. In the meantime, the United States has failed to identify any reliable allies on the ground in Syria. The armed opposition it supports is patchy and uncontrollable.
With Russia’s involvement in the military operation in Syria the diplomatic process went into high gear. In February 2016, a ceasefire agreement was concluded but the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra were identified as parties that remaining outside its framework. The United States and Russia pledged to monitor the situation. Two weeks later Moscow made a decision to remove its main forces from Syria.
The Russian operation lasted five months and fourteen days to have cost an estimated $2.8 million a day. In contrast the United States is spending about $11.9 million a day to fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
Putin has restored Russia to the position of a key actor in the region and he did so at a very moderate cost, analysts say.
The name of Russian officer Alexander Prokhorenko featured in Western media headlines last spring probably more often than in Russian ones. Senior lieutenant of the special operations force died a hero near Palmyra on March 24, 2016 while directing strikes by Russian aircraft against terrorist targets. When he realized he had been spotted and surrounded, Prokhorenko called in an airstrike on himself as the enemy was about to seize him.
A real hero, Russia’s Rambo, as many media said.
Career military around the world did not hesitate to pay their last respects to Prokhorenko and his courage. In a Facebook community for US military there appeared a transcript of Prokhorenko’s last conversation with his commander seconds before the surrounded officer urged an air strike on the position he was taking. The transcript appeared in the world web through unofficial channels.
Praying for Palmyra
Three days after Prokhorenko’s death the Syrian Army’s command said the Syrian military and people’s militias had regained full control of Palmyra. Russian planes flew about 500 sorties during the battle for that city.
On the same day President Putin told UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova by telephone the Russian contingent would participate in a mine-clearing operation in the city featuring on UNESCO’s world heritage list. By the end of April the road to Palmyra reopened to UNESCO’s researchers and specialists, who had for more than a year been watching Palmyra’s horrible plight.
On May 5, in the ancient outdoor theater the IS terrorists had been using as a site for mass executions, the Mariinsky Theater’s orchestra under conductor Valery Gergiyev gave a unique performance titled Praying for Palmyra.
Although many Western media reported the concert with a great deal of skepticism, few doubted that Palmyra’s liberation was Russia’s major military and image-bolstering victory. Some watched the performance with tears in their eyes. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said the concert demonstrated that Russia and Europe shared common values, such as the greatness of human dignity.
Russia casts a protective veil over Syria’s Christians
Russia’s efforts to protect the Christian population of Syria drew the European media’ special interest. While the Russian operation was still in the early phase, Western media made attempts to lend a negative flavor to Russia’s role in the Middle East, prompting allusions to the era of crusades. In due course, though, Moscow began to be referred to as the sole force in the whole world that threw the spotlight on the need for taking care of Syria’s Christians.
Local residents – Christians, experts and Western and Syrian priests – unanimously express this opinion to the media.
The rendezvous Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill and Pope Francis had in Cuba played an important role to draw worldwide attention to this issue.
What has Russia achieved?
Has the situation in Syria changed to any significant extent over the twelve months since the military operation began?
On the one hand, the Islamic State’s onslaught has been thwarted. The process of local reconciliations is proceeding. Armed opposition members achieve more negotiated solutions with the authorities on leaving the zone of combat operations and laying down part of their armaments. On the other hand, the fundamental truce agreements continue to be violated.
One year after the question of concerted action by all forces involved in the war on terror in Syria is still relevant. The main problem is the mediators distrust each other.
Washington has groundlessly accused Russia and the Syrian army of attacking a humanitarian UN convoy near Aleppo. It is noteworthy this happened just a couple of days after the United States erroneously hit the Syrian army’s positions near Deir ez-Zor.
Both incidents caused another disruption of ceasefire. As Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin has said, now it would be possible to discuss the restoration of truce only on the collective basis.
In a situation like this the chances of prompt stabilization in Syria look slim.
The Russian military has coped with its task and helped the Syrian army stop a major Islamic State offensive. But if no diplomatic backup follows and if the US-Russian agreements on coordinating the struggle with terrorists in Syria remain just a sheet of paper, the march of events may turn for the worse again. The conflict in Syria admits of no solution from the position of strength. Only joint efforts can succeed. Russia has been saying this all the time from the very first day the Syrian conflict flared up.