At the end of September 2015, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its allies, the Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, were on their last legs trying to prop up the Assad regime and its forces, which were fighting an increasingly losing battle against Islamists of all stripes, supported by various regional players — Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar — plus the formations of Syrian Kurds. The Kremlin gave Assad and the Iranians what they were sorely lacking — massive air cover. The Russian pilots were soon followed by marines, military advisers, and mercenaries from the so-called Wagner private military company.
Today, it doesn’t seem like anyone can dislodge Assad. Vladimir Putin has expanded and modernized Soviet-era Russian naval stations in the Mediterranean towns of Latakia and Tartus, turning them into bases. Though for Russia, which was not, is not and will not be a global naval power, this is probably not the most important acquisition. It is not entirely clear what benefits the Russian regime gained from the exploitation of Syria’s natural resources, but the Wagner group’s protection allegedly extends to natural resources and oil refineries, which speaks volumes.
Putin’s anti-US foreign policy
However, the main reason for the Kremlin’s involvement in Syria has been the same as always — to continue a global pushback against the United States that Putin launched with his belligerent 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference. The Russian elite’s recurring nightmare is that one day the US, with its missionary zeal to democratize the world (somewhat weakened by the disengagement policies, first of Barack Obama and later Donald Trump), is still seen as the main threat by the Kremlin. Keeping the US at bay from the post-Soviet space and supporting anti-Western regimes around the globe are the mainstays of what passes for Russian foreign and security policy under Putin.
In this respect Syria in 2015 is the continuation of Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014, Montenegro in 2016 (where Moscow tried to organize a coup d’etat to prevent the country from joining NATO) and Venezuela in 2019 (where the Kremlin is firmly backing Nicolas Maduro). Belarus in 2020 where the Kremlin has sided with President Alexander Lukashenko against his own people is now in the same category. Putin takes his role as defender of dictatorships around the world very seriously. In his opinion, this makes the US respect, if not fear him.
What has Russia gained?
But for Russia’s long-term national interests, securing Assad’s power is a dubious gain, if a gain at all. Moscow is now firmly tied to the fate of the Syrian regime and, even more precariously, of Assad’s Iranian patrons. This is happening in an era of dramatic changes in the region. The normalization of Israel’s relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, carried out with Washington’s mediation, marks a historical shift in regional politics. This is an extremely unpleasant surprise not only for the mullahs in Tehran, but also for the Kremlin. Premature belief in the decline of American influence in the Middle East and the inevitability of Iranian hegemony has played a bad trick on both.
If Sudan, Oman and eventually Saudi Arabia follow the example of the UAE and Bahrain, the Iranian regime will face tough times — even it’s collapse could be on the cards soon. Without support from Tehran, Assad will be very vulnerable. Moreover, in such circumstances his desire to reach out to Washington and Riyadh may then turn out to be irresistible. Russia cannot prevent this in any way, and its military presence in Syria will easily become a bargaining chip in Assad’s political games.
Putin’s strategic shortsightedness has also manifested itself in relations with another regional player — Turkey. The informal understanding on Syria that he reached in 2015-2016 with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been severely undermined. Five years ago, the Kremlin thought it was “chipping away” at NATO’s southern flank by wooing Ankara. Today, however, Erdogan finances part of the anti-Assad forces in Syria, has joined the fight against the Kremlin’s client Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Libya, and now also supports Azerbaijan in its military operations against Armenia — one of Moscow’s most reliable and closest allies.
Five years since the first Russia MiGs appeared in the skies over Syria, the answer to the question “What did Putin’s war give the Russians?” is simple — “Nothing.” The people feel it and increasingly want the Kremlin to withdraw. Putin’s personal prestige has turned out to be different from Russia’s national interests. Those who come after him will have to redefine them.