Preliminary Results of Russia’s Military Campaign in Syria

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Nikolay Pakhomov

Rethinking Russia expert

When Russia’s President Vladimir Putin declared that he was withdrawing the bulk of Russian troops from Syria, he once again – and probably not for the last time – revealed Russia’s flexibility in foreign policies, thereby exerting profound influence on world politics and international relations. Although it is still too early to assess every reason for Putin’s decisive, though unexpected, steps and analyze the long-term consequences, even today it is possible to point out some features providing us with valuable clues to the situation in Syria and Russia’s external affairs.

Foreign military campaigns conducted over the last five decades testify to the fact that timely decisions to end wars play a fundamental role in shaping their outcomes. They are supposedly more important than answers to when- and how-questions. Numerous factors which prevent parties from ending military operations are widely known. They usually range from vague objectives to the intention to protect both political and ideological reputation. What is more, they can also include the temptation to resort to “cakewalks” to pursue political ends at home and failures to differentiate between the national interests and the interests of countries in need.

By announcing the decision to scale down Russian operations, Vladimir Putin made it clear that Russia had made few strategic mistakes. Russian military pilots engaging in the Syrian operation serve in the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces (or VKO), rather than in the Syrian Arab Army. There are some reasons to assume that Syria’s leadership could have counted on the prolonged presence of Russian troops to defend the country’s boundaries and combat terrorism. Yet Moscow adopted another approach.

Obviously, Russia’s pullout raised a question whether the six-month military operation had achieved its objectives. Shortly after the news reports some skepticism was expressed. However, we should not rush into making conclusions. Above all, it is necessary to wonder what tasks Russia has failed to accomplish in Syria. The positions of Syria’s regime which previously asked Russia to launch air strikes on the ground have strengthened. The ceasefire has at last been established and the peace negotiations are underway. Some critics still point to the Islamic State factor. In other words, they maintain that Russia’s armed forces are returning home while the terrorist “proto-state” still holds large swathes of territory under control.

It is noteworthy that skeptics included a sizeable group arguing that Russia has done nothing at all to fight the Islamic State in Syria. According to their innocent-of-thought logic, Russia must be the sole power to confront the terrorist group which presents an immediate threat to international peace and security, as the world community has put it. Naturally, Russia should take it as a compliment. Saving humanity is rather a mundane task for Russians.

Nevertheless, the realities are strikingly different. Carrying out any military operations proves to be extremely costly. Notwithstanding all the dangers posed by IS militants, Russia can allocate rather limited resources to this military campaign. In order to get the upper hand over terrorists, international cooperation, which has been shot full of holes over the recent years even regardless of Russia’s campaign, is absolutely needed. The situation is so desperate that the United States, its European and Arab allies with substantial resources exceeding the Russian ones have failed to land a lethal blow to the Islamic State.

Moreover, western experts’ estimates have been made public. They show the higher efficiency of Russian strikes in comparison with the US-led coalition strikes. Acting unilaterally, Russia has achieved a lot. First, a list of radical Islamic groups in Syria has more than one name on it. Russia has succeeded in dealing a heavy blow on many groups which pose a more serious threat to Syria than ISIS. Second, of all the extremists, foreign fighters from Russia and the former Soviet states represented the gravest threat to Russia. Many of the militants have been killed. Third, apart from hitting the Islamic State, Russia has significantly affected the international debate on fighting extremists. Russian operations have compelled the international community into considering a number of critical issues from a new perspective. To name just a few: How is ISIL funded? What role do oil supplies to Turkey pay in its funding? Russia’s action demonstrated the need for and the effectiveness of cooperation with the Syrian authorities to defeat the Islamic State. Naturally, one can keep on neglecting the need to coordinate efforts and adjust the fire only to bombard the barren desert. However, one needs to send ground troops to conduct military operations. Kurdish troops alone cannot solve the problem…

Thus, to put it mildly, the analysis of the Russian military operation alone convinces us of its efficiency in fighting Islamic terrorism. However, it terms of its foreign policy Russia has achieved a lot more.

Russia has helped its ally. As the result, the position of the latter has strengthened significantly. The Russian military bases in Syria have become entrenched, and no one can prevent Russia from launching air strikes against fundamentalists from these bases. The battle readiness of various Russian military units has been proved in combat and the capacities of these units have been demonstrated to the world.

However, most importantly, Russia has joined the group of states, which proactively shape the political situation in the Middle East. Moreover, US-Russian diplomatic cooperation to determine Syria’s future has started. The relations between Russia and Turkey have become clearer. The Russian-Iranian partnership received a new impetus; cooperation in one more area has strengthened the ties. New issues to discuss with Israel and Arab States have arisen. Stronger links with Kurds have been forged.

We can reiterate that these are just preliminary results of the Russian campaign in Syria, launched on 30 September last year. Shortly, there will be more information available to facilitate the more precise assessment of the final results of Russian engagement. However, even today it is clear that the recent operation has become one more proof that Russia is a full-fledged, active and powerful party to the international relations rather than a cog.

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