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Alexey Khlebnikov

Middle East expert and Russian foreign policy analyst, MSc Global Public Policy, Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. PhD candidate, RIAC expert.

A year ago Russia announced the beginning of its military campaign in Syria which has become the first military operation of the Russian Armed Force in the Middle East. Being one of the major external actors in the Syrian conflict Russia has been staying away from direct involvement for four years. Interfering in the Syrian civil war upon the request of Bashar Assad’s government on September 30, 2015 Moscow changed the tide of the war on the ground safeguarding positions of the regime and proving Russia’s global power status.

A year ago Russia announced the beginning of its military campaign in Syria which has become the first military operation of the Russian Armed Force in the Middle East. Being one of the major external actors in the Syrian conflict Russia has been staying away from direct involvement for four years. Interfering in the Syrian civil war upon the request of Bashar Assad’s government on September 30, 2015 Moscow changed the tide of the war on the ground safeguarding positions of the regime and proving Russia’s global power status.

Naturally, Russia’s involvement in Syria inflicted certain costs, brought some benefits and caused repercussions not only on the local and regional levels but also on the global scale.

Costs of Russia’s military campaign in Syria

Losses, casualties and expenses

According to the official data, until today Russia acknowledged the loss of 20 Russian servicemen who perished during the Syria campaign (three of them being non-combat casualties). It also lost three helicopters (two Mi-8 and one Mi-28N) and one Su-24 bomber jet. According to the Russian Defense Ministry the financial part of the military campaign in Syria does not require additional funds from the budget as it is covered by the current Defense budget. In March 2016, Vladimir Putin announced that Russian military campaign in Syria cost Russia about $500 million. In fact, this amount meets the assessments of the independent sources. Russian daily RBC says one year of Syria campaign cost Russia about $892 million (58 billion rubles), while UK’s IHS Jane’s think tank estimated it at the level between $2.3–$4 million daily.

Russian airliner was downed over the Sinai Peninsula on October 31, 2015 killing all 224 passengers and crew. Islamic State took responsibility for the attack. Many view it as a consequence of the Russia’s air campaign in Syria, hence, adding it to the overall costs of the military involvement in the conflict. Thus, this logic implies that by going into Syria and starting its bombing campaign Russia increased chances to be hit by the terrorist attacks at home and elsewhere.

At the first glance Syria is situated quite far from the Russian borders, however, it is relatively easy for terrorists to go through Turkey into the Caucasus and further to Russia, directly projecting the terrorist threat. Russia’s intervention into Syrian conflict sparked an increase in a number of Russian citizens who joined terrorist groups in Syria fighting against Assad. It also led to the amount of ISIS recruiters and cells rising domestically, making more troubles for the security services. Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) and Ministry of the Internal Affairs enhanced its anti-terrorist work since the start of the campaign in Syria as the terrorist threat increased. According to the FSB and Russia’s Interior Ministry there are up to 5,000 Russian citizens involved the terrorist organizations’ activities in Syria. This created quite real threat to Russia’s national security. Besides, in March 2016, Russia’s Prosecutor-General talked about 1,000 criminal cases against those who fought in the ranks of ISIS in Syria. Recently FSB said that terrorist organizations plan to expand their activities in the North Caucasus which increases the terrorist threat.

On November 24, 2015 Russian bomber jet Su-24 was shot down with an air-to-air missile fired by a Turkish F-16 over the Turkey-Syria border and crashed in Syrian territory. As a result, one pilot was killed, another one was rescued. This incident threw Russia-Turkey relations to the new low, although changing the situation on the ground in Syria. After the incident Moscow basically set up a non-fly zone by deploying its state of the art S-400 missile defense system which buried Turkish long-awaited plans for creating a non-fly zone in northern Syria and cut all military contacts with Turkey as well. Being an important player in Syria, Turkey is a necessary vis-à-vis in order to cooperate with if one wants to achieve its goals in Syria. Fortunately, the rift in Russia-Turkey relations is almost over now and countries are in the process of resuming their cooperation including the case of Syria. The restoration of Russia-Turkey ties and especially their coordination on Syria gives a hope for more effective struggle against ISIS in the region, especially in northern Syria. However, a big progress on Syria is quite unlikely as both Russia and Turkey have already invested too much to change their positions substantially. But still, such technical aspects as pilots’ code of conduct and military and air force cooperation to avoid incidents like the one with Russia’s Su-24 in November of 2015 are relatively easy to agree on and it seems that military-intelligence ties between the two have intensified. When Turkish Army launched its offensive Euphrates Shield in northern Syria many saw it going against Russia’s interests. In fact, by entering Syria Turkey took the border under its control, something that Russia called for a long time. It actually helps to prevent jihadists from the free passage of the Syria-Turkey border and to distract some of the terrorist forces from Aleppo. Participation of the Turkish jets in the Syria offensive has become the first time since Russia had deployed the S-400 in November, 2015. It essentially indicates that Russia granted Turkey an exemption from its no-fly zone in certain areas which means Putin and Erdogan agreed on some trade-offs in Syria and Moscow gave a green light to Ankara.

On the other hand, Turkey’s military operation in Syria is also against Kurdish militia (apart from being against ISIS), whom Ankara views as a branch of Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) which is labeled as a terrorist organization in Turkey. Although Russia supports Syrian Kurds to a certain degree, it maintains ties with both Turkey and Syrian Kurds and unlike the U.S., did not invest that much in Kurds which allowing itself more room for maneuver.

Public image costs and controversies

Russia’s intervention into Syrian conflict sparked an increase in a number of Russian citizens who joined terrorist groups in Syria fighting against Assad.

Russia’s support for Assad regime, which is also backed by Shia Iran, makes Moscow a backer of Shias (Assad belongs to the Alawi minority which is considered to be a part of the Shia Islam) in the eyes of the majority of Sunnis who are against Assad regime. Hence, it may precipitate an anti-Sunni image of Russia contributing to the loss of its image among Sunnis in the region. Although it is quite a questionable argument which is aimed at exploiting the sectarian issues in the region, there is a certain narrative in media which frames the entire conflict in Syria as part of the greater Sunni-Shia confrontation. Therefore, there is a certain risk of growing pro-Shia perception of Russia which may change its image into that of a public enemy in the region.

According to the Zogby Research Services survey on the current crisis in the Middle East the majority of people residing in Sunni-dominated countries believe that Russian support for Assad regime is a significant factor in causing the Syrian conflict. Even in Egypt with whom Russia enjoys quite good relations 90 percent of population believe that Moscow is responsibility for the civil war. Contrary to that 68 percent of Iranians disagree with that. Moreover, given the fact that Russia’s own Muslim population is predominantly Sunni, it might contribute to increase of those among the Muslims who does not support Russia’s actions in Syria. Although it is unlikely to become an mass trend, it is certainly a cause for concern.

By interfering in the conflict, although at the request of the legitimate Syrian government, Russia has officially become a part of the conflict, which degrades its role as a moderator significantly. It alienates certain part of the Syrians and many of the Arab states as they do not see Russia as a moderator when it simultaneously bombs Syrian cities.

Russia’s air campaign in Syria quite predictably led to the numerous accusations of the attacking civilians and “moderate opposition.” Although Russia insists that no hard evidence has been provided, it is hard to avoid casualties among civilians especially when the civil war is ongoing. As a result, it inflicts quite serious image losses as well.

Lack of control over the Syrian government

Contrary to the belief of many, Russia, as well as the U.S., has a limited influence on the Syrian regime. It is important to note that priorities for Moscow and Damascus in the conflict are different. Russia wants to save state institution and the figure of Assad is not its top priority. Moscow can compromise on the figure of the future Syrian leader on the condition that its interests won’t be harmed. Moreover, Moscow is also not ready to “go all-in” for Assad: its involvement in the conflict is limited and it won’t transform into a full-scale ground military operation which could provoke uncontrolled escalation of the conflict and lead to unpredictable consequences. So, Russia is ready to make certain concessions which go in contrast with the Syrian approach. Assad strives for keeping his power and reclaiming the entire Syria and is very reluctant to compromise. In addition, Iran-Syria alliance also should not be ignored. Tehran is interested in preserving Assad in power as the representative of the Shia minority in the country. If Assad is deposed there is no guarantee that Iran’s interests in future Syria will be taken into account. Thus, the situation for Russia is becoming quite challenging with no guarantee that Assad and its Army will follow its instructions. As a result, everyone pursues their own, often diverging interests, which hinders any attempt to settle the conflict. As the recent Russia-U.S. Syria ceasefire agreement demonstrated, lack of control of patrons over their clients is one of the major obstacles.

Benefits

Preservation of the Syrian Army and other state institutions

Moscow is also not ready to “go all-in” for Assad: its involvement in the conflict is limited and it won’t transform into a full-scale ground military operation which could provoke uncontrolled escalation of the conflict and lead to unpredictable consequences.

The Russian air campaign stabilized the Assad regime and reinforced the Syrian Arab Army as it was quickly losing the ground during spring–summer of 2015. About 70 per cent of the Syrian territory was controlled by ISIS according to the Russian Defense Ministry. One of the Moscow’s primary goals in Syria is to preserve its state institutions, in particular its government and the army that can function, maintain relative order and fight terrorists. Preserving existing state structures is of the crucial importance because it does not let the country slip into chaos like it happened with Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Yemen at various times. Given the chaos which might appear should the existing state structures collapse, Syria will turn into another terrorist hub. This creates quite real threat to Russia’s national security.

At the moment, on the territories controlled by the Syrian Arab Army state institutions (educational, medical, banking, etc.) continue to function and provide services, which saves the country from collapsing. This is what makes it important to preserve functioning (more or less) state institutions.

Although it cannot be said that Assad has gained a decisive advantage over its enemies, one can claim that his positions now are more stable and reinforced than they were before September 30, 2015.

Global power status and inter-power relations

Russia has proved to be indispensable actor in the Middle East. Fighting ISIS and playing a major role in conflict resolution in Syria raises Russia’s global and regional status, refutes a myth about Russia’s global isolation and gives it an upper hand in negotiating other issues with the West, such as the Ukraine crisis and lifting the sanctions imposed after the incorporation of Crimea.

Over the last year Moscow came much closer to the real military coordination with global actors like Washington and Paris in Syria. As Syrian skies got more crowded with U.S.-led coalition, Syrian and Russian jets, it required coordination to ensure the safety of flights. Russia has long been calling for exchange of intelligence and coordinates to fight terrorists more effectively and to avoid hitting “wrong targets” which usually spark a large wave of criticism and threaten to back roll all diplomatic efforts. However, it did not happen so far, although certain exchange of the information between Russian and the U.S. military is present. First, there is a Russia-U.S. Memorandum of Understanding on safety of flights, and second, as recently was stated by CENTCOM, exchange of information between the two militaries “is not uncommon.”

Russia set up military coordination with regional states like Jordan and Israel (the first from the U.S. allies in the region who agreed to coordinate with Russia after Kremlin’s decision to enter Syria on September 30, 2015), Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Such coordination underlines Russia’s important role in the Syrian crisis and in regional dynamics in general.

Contrary to some forecasts Russia managed to save and even improve its relations with the Gulf States, especially with Saudi Arabia which plays an important role in the Syrian crisis supporting various opposition militias like Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam famous for being extremist.

Demonstration of the Russian military power

For the first time after the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia is using military force far from its borders. What is even more significant is that it is the first combat experience of the Russian Army, in particular its Aerospace Forces, after the major military reform which started in 2008. It proved significantly increased mobility and coordination between different branches of military. It demonstrated Russia’s ability to quickly deploy quite significant amount of the military units abroad, thus showcasing its capacity to effectively project power beyond its borders.

Russia demonstrated its cutting-edge weapons and successfully tested them in combat for the first time. It allows Russia to uncover the shortfalls and glitches of the weapons at relatively low cost and to improve them for the future. The operation also greatly helped Russia to advertise its new weapons, such as advanced bombers and fighter jets Su-34 and Su-35, Kalibr cruise missiles, S-400 air defense system and Pantsir-S1 air defense artillery system, for prospective customers.

According to some estimates, Russian weapons exports are expected to receive a boost from $6 to $7 billion as a result of “marketing effect” of military campaign in Syria. Algeria, Indonesia, Vietnam and even Pakistan, which has long been buyers of the U.S. and Chinese military aircraft, expressed its interests in purchasing Sukhoi fighter and bomber jets. This can potentially expand Russia’s share of the arms market and increase the revenue.

Russia has set up its first and only permanent military base in the Middle East which now guarantees its military presence in the region. Hmeymim base is located in the eastern Mediterranean cost of Syria near the city of Latakia. While the U.S., UK, France and Turkey already do have their military bases in the region it puts Russia on par with them in terms of the power presence.

Russia’s Defense Ministry regularly released reports with video and photo footage of the airstrikes in Syria, together with regular press briefings and press tours for foreign journalists to the Russian airbase Hmeymim in Latakia and Russia’s warships off the Syria coast. This attempt to increase transparency of the Russian military actions in Syria and in general to make Defense Ministry more opened and media-friendly is quite successful. It makes it harder for opponents of the Russia’s involvement in Syria to disseminate false info or accuse it of various violations.

Degrading ISIS capabilities

It would be too hasty to conclude that Russia has achieved its declared goal of defeating ISIS and other terrorists in Syria. Rather, Russia degraded their capabilities. In mid-July 2016, Russian Defense Ministry wrapped up the results of the Russian military involvement in Syria stating that termination of the terrorists’ expansion is the most important achievement. According to the Ministry over 2,000 terrorists from Russia were killed in Syria including 17 field-commanders, with Russian artillery and air support 568 inhabited areas were liberated including 150 towns (including symbolic liberation of Palmyra in March 2016) and over 12,000 square kilometers which allowed to return 264,000 refugees. Certainly, terrorists are still far from the defeat but their capabilities were largely decreased. Rather than expanding their territories, they are but trying to keep under control what is left.

Pushing the political process forward

Russia demonstrated its cutting-edge weapons and successfully tested them in combat for the first time. It allows Russia to uncover the shortfalls and glitches of the weapons at relatively low cost and to improve them for the future.

After Russia started its military campaign in Syria the political process has been intensified. “Moscow found a way to translate the use of military power into desired political ends in the Middle East, something we have struggled with repeatedly in the US. I think looking a year on it is both remarkable how much Russia has achieved on the ground with the little military power they committed,” says Michael Kofman from the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute.

It created conditions for the ceasefire agreement with the U.S. and launch of the intra-Syrian talks under the auspices of the UN Syria Envoy Stefan de Mistura. Although the political process is moving very slow and hard, and the ceasefire agreement is difficult to implement, it shows that Russia and the U.S. can discuss Syria issue and possible ways of their military cooperation, which in general contributes to the dialog.

Contrary to concerns of many, Syria did not become Russia’s second Afghanistan, although it did not achieve a decisive victory there. Certainly Russia gained invaluable combat experience, increased its global military stature, and enhanced cooperation with regional and global powers on Syria. However, the major problem is still at place — to translate its political-military gains into a political solution of the Syrian crisis. Despite Russia’s involvement in the conflict it’s pacification or at least a freeze is still very distant.

So, now, with the Russia–U.S. Syria ceasefire agreement collapsing and no clear alternative for the resolution on the horizon, Moscow will have to adjust its tactics in Syria (as well as the U.S.). Russia will eventually need to increase its military presence in the country to get more leverage over Assad. That would ensure more control over Assad’s actions which will require the U.S. to act symmetrically. The apparent risk here is to be stuck in Syria for years. So, the second year will show whether Russia is able to learn from its and others mistakes and adjust its Syria policy accordingly.

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