After Five Years of Fighting in Syria, Putin Has Gotten What He Wants
With Russia’s influence in the region solidified, peace will not come without its assent.
“Far from learning from others’ mistakes, everyone just keeps repeating them.” So argued Russian President Vladimir Putin in September 2015, two days before ordering his country’s military into Syria to support long-ruling dictator Bashar al-Assad’s desperate effort to cling to power. We have just passed the fifth year since Russia launched its first airstrikes in the Syrian war around the city of Homs. As Russia’s intervention in Syria enters its second half-decade, what can we say about the conflict so far?
Start with the Kremlin’s rationale for the war. To justify the Russian intervention, Putin pointed a finger at the United States, no stranger to Middle Eastern wars, most of which Russia had opposed. “How did it actually turn out?” Putin asked. “Rather than bringing about reforms, an aggressive foreign interference has resulted in a brazen destruction of national institutions. … Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty, and social disaster. Nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life.” To prevent the same from happening in Syria, his argument went, Russia would need to step into the fray.
Five years on, Putin’s critique of American interventionism in the Middle East looks a bit rich. “How did it actually turn out?” is a question one might fairly ask of Russia’s war in Syria. There has been “brazen destruction” aplenty, notably in the brutal assault on Aleppo. “Violence, poverty, and social disaster” continue to plague the Syrian people. As for human rights, the government whose torture of protesters incited the civil war remains firmly entrenched in power.
Moreover, the “political stabilization, as well as social and economic recovery, of the Middle East” that Putin promised look as far off as ever. Syria’s civil war is far from over. Fighting continues around Idlib, in northwest Syria. And in August, U.S. soldiers were injured in a standoff with Russian troops in northeast Syria. Reconstruction, meanwhile, remains a distant dream. Despite continued Russian promises of economic help, Syrian citizens continue to suffer immensely. And Russia has put little money toward rebuilding the country, hoping that the West would eventually foot the bill to avoid further refugee flows to Europe.
Syria’s civil war has spilled across the region, too, affecting not only neighboring Lebanon and Turkey but also Libya. There is now an arc of conflict crossing the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia has deployed mercenaries to Libya, and Turkey has shipped Syrian militias there in response. Far from stabilizing the region, Russia’s intervention has had the opposite effect.
From Moscow’s perspective, though, such critiques matter little. The point of Russia’s military intervention was to assert the Kremlin’s presence in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. In that, Putin has obviously succeeded. If the war in Syria ever ends, it will only happen with Russian assent. The Kremlin has made itself a key player in other regional disputes, too, including over the gas fields of the Eastern Mediterranean and in Libya.
Moreover, Syria was an exemplary proving ground for Russia’s military in its first large-scale operations since Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008, as a new book that I co-edited, Russia’s War in Syria from the Foreign Policy Research Institute, shows. The military operations went more smoothly than most analysts, Russian or foreign, expected, demonstrating that Russia can intervene beyond its borders with relative ease. There are still serious limits to Russian power projection, but the Kremlin devised its military aims with these constraints in mind.
When Russia first entered the war in Syria, some Western observers wondered if it would be Putin’s Afghanistan. It doesn’t look that way from Moscow. The Russian military sees Syria as its “good war,” as the military analyst Michael Kofman puts it. Russian officers must serve in Syria to get promoted. They treat their operations in Syria as case studies for improving future performance. Syria therefore stands out in comparison to Russia’s recent wars. Russia’s ongoing actions in Ukraine’s Donbass still can’t be openly discussed, and the military’s performance in Georgia in 2008 was widely criticized for operational inefficiency. Syria, however, is considered an exemplary success.
What, exactly, has Russia succeeded at? Certainly not at forging peace. Russian-brokered peace talks between the Syrian government and various opposition groups have gone nowhere, despite years of effort. Nor even at ending the fighting, which continues—notably in Syria’s northeast. Putin has very publicly declared that Russia was withdrawing from Syria, first in 2016 and again in 2017. But Russia has made no signs of departing.
Compare that to the U.S. position in Syria, which like Russia’s involves a small ground contingent but relies on local forces to bear the brunt of the fighting. Washington has been debating its exit strategy since the day the Syrian war began, stuck between a desire to draw down from a forever war and concern that doing so would further destabilize the country.
The Kremlin has no such ambivalence about its war in Syria. “Exit strategy” doesn’t translate into Russian strategic thinking about the Middle East. The point was never to win and to leave. The goal was to stay—to make Russia a major player in the region, and then to defend this new role. The Kremlin sees the fifth anniversary of Russia’s intervention in Syria not as time for reflection about a war without end but as an opportunity to toast success, and to hope that it continues well into its second half-decade.