Unassailable or unenviable? Putin's position in Syria

Russia deployed approximately 4,000 personnel to Syria in September 2015 and eventually succeeded in preventing the capitulation of Assad’s regime and defeating ISIS.

Conversely, by virtue of said success, Russia has become saddled with the problems of Syria’s post-war reconstruction and mediating conflicts in Syria and the Middle East (ME) writ large.

Assad – Russia’s last-remaining client in this crucial region – is seen as a symbol of resistance to allegedly Western-instigated ‘regime change’, undoubtedly of paramount importance to Putin. But this close relationship is certainly not new. Dating back to the Cold War era, the Soviet Union supported Assad’s father, Hafez, who was President from 1971-2000.

Terrorism still poses a threat, with c.45,000 jihadis remaining in Syria and ISIS’ estimated remaining financial reserves of $50-$300m.

In 2016-17, regime forces regained vital areas such as Aleppo and Homs and, by 2019, controlled most major cities. It is possible, however, given the opposition to his rule, that Assad has merely staved off defeat – rather than secured victory.

In December 2017, Putin proclaimed victory over Islamic State in Syria, an organisation which had been Russia’s ‘main adversary’. Even on these grounds, however, involvement must not be considered an unequivocal success. Terrorism still poses a threat, with c.45,000 jihadis remaining in Syria and ISIS’ estimated remaining financial reserves of $50-$300m.

Russian and regime savagery may make Russia a more significant target of future attacks, as well as exacerbate outrage against Assad and the reviled ‘Shia axis’, thereby deepening the sectarian dynamics of the war. The significant numbers of jihadis who travelled to Syria from the North Caucasus is also problematic for Russia. As they return home, Russia may well find itself confronting a growing domestic terrorism issue.

Worryingly on that front, the AaK – a Chechen-led Islamic fundamentalist group – reportedly sees the Syrian war as a crucial training centre for future operations inside Chechnya and Russia more generally.

America’s departure in 2019 left Russia as the only non-regional player in Syria.

In intervening in Syria, Putin sought for Russia a role as a key regional player. This, he has undoubtedly achieved: Russia’s position means that every major regional power – from Israel to Iran – works with it on foreign policy issues.

Russia has mediated between the regime and the rebels – who see Russia as a pivotal broker for honest deals – between Damascus and the Kurds after American withdrawal, and between Israel and Syria after the downing of an Israeli F-16 in 2018. Russia has, in effect, replaced the U.S. in the region. Indeed, America’s departure in 2019 left Russia as the only non-regional player in Syria.

Putin’s purported goals of distracting from Crimea and bringing Russia back into the fold of respected nations, however, have been less successful: Russia is now seen as part of the problem in Syria rather than a constructive force; its presence deepened the conflict.

In securing lease extensions on the strategically significant Tartus – Russia’s sole remaining naval base in the ME and on the Mediterranean Sea – and Hmeimim bases, Moscow has ensured a long-standing foothold in the region from which it can project power regionally.

Moreover, Russia has been able to prevent a Qatari gas pipeline that would have crossed Syria to Turkey. Its influence over Assad will allow Russia to pressure him not to accept such plans – as it has in the past.

As Richard Spencer of The Times has reported, it is expected to have a devastating impact on any international will to invest in Syria’s reconstruction.

As Rumer has argued, its position as the ‘power broker to whom all actors must talk’, positions Russia well to act as a conduit for investments in Syria’s reconstruction, as well as to secure lucrative contracts for Kremlin-friendly firms. It is also likely to be a boon for Russia’s arms industry – important for its sanctions-hit economy.

Putin’s endeavours in Syria, then, have had strategic and reputational benefits, particularly in protecting an ally. By his own admission, and that of Fyodor Lukyanov, a foreign-policy adviser to the government, the intervention exceeded expectations.

This all relies, though, on Assad remaining in power- which currently seems as uncertain as ever given the current Assad family feud. Further, the U.S. ‘Caesar Act’, which took effect on Wednesday 17th June, will hinder reinvestment: the new legislation will extend penalties beyond sanctioned officials and companies, to the American and European firms which do business with them. As Richard Spencer of The Times has reported, it is expected to have a devastating impact on any international will to invest in Syria’s reconstruction.

The percentage of Russians supporting the intervention dropped by more than 20% from 2016-19.

Longer-term involvement could also strain an already weak Russian economy and weaken Putin’s popularity: the percentage of Russians supporting the intervention dropped by more than 20% from 2016-19. Given the recent collapse in the price of oil, on which the Russian economy is terribly dependent, and that Russian operations have cost an estimated $4m daily, Putin’s Syrian adventure may well catch up to him.

Russia’s responsibilities for now, however, includes investments in Syria’s future and the stabilisation of a war-torn nation. Bearing in mind that Syria is a nation in which, according to the UN, 83% of citizens live below the poverty line, and where the currency just this year has fallen from S£500 to the dollar to S£2,500, this is no mean feat.

It must also prevent conflict between Israel and Iran – two other major players in the region – in order to prevent further regional chaos, which would threaten Russia’s position and strengthen Islamic extremism.

Putin must now turn battlefield victories into diplomatic successes and domestic stability.