Russia’s Multifaceted Policy in Syria

More than six years after Russia began its military intervention in the Syrian civil war, President Vladimir Putin has chalked up some important victories amid ongoing challenges. He has saved Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s teetering regime and built up Russian naval and air bases in the country. Putin has also proven that he can be a reliable partner to an ally, albeit one that is still considered a pariah—although that depiction has been changing of late, particularly among some Arab states. To be sure, Russia has emerged as a key player in the Middle East, with regional leaders visiting Moscow as much as Washington.

On the other hand, with the future of Syria uncertain, several players are pursuing various strategies in the country that are, for the most part, outside of Russia’s control. Despite its stated goal that the Syrian government should reclaim all Syrian territory, Moscow knows that parts of the country will remain outside of its and the Syrian regime’s dominion for some time to come. Nonetheless, this complicated picture still serves Russia’s interests because it has emerged as a key power-broker, compared to the limited and diminishing role of the United States.

Revitalizing a Long Relationship

Russia’s relations with Syria go back many decades. In the mid-1950s, the Syrian government began to receive Soviet weapons as the United States pursued a policy of not arming Arab states situated around Israel. Although leaders of the Syrian Baath Party, which advocated pan-Arab nationalism and socialism, were initially worried about the growing influence of communists in Syria in the late 1950s (prompting them to seek union with Egypt), they nevertheless saw merit in accepting Soviet arms. Later, during the Baath regimes of the 1960s, and especially during the first two decades of the regime of President Hafez al-Assad (1971-2000), the Soviets were the chief weapons supplier to Syria, as a so-called front-line state against Israel. In return, the Soviets were able to establish a naval base in Tartous on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.

Putin was eager to restore Russia’s standing as a “great power” and saw the Syrian civil war as an opportunity to do so.

The fall of the Soviet Union led to a retrenchment of Russia’s influence in Syria and the broader Middle East. This situation changed under Putin, however; he was eager to restore Russia’s standing as a “great power” and saw the Syrian civil war as an opportunity to do so. His September 2015 military intervention, initially by air, allowed him to portray Russian actions as a fight against “terrorists,” even though many of the air strikes were against moderate oppositionists. These actions, plus the support for the Assad regime by Iran, Hezbollah, and other Shia militias, turned the tide in the civil war. Russia was able to establish the Humaymim Air Base in Latakia province while upgrading its naval base in Tartous in the neighboring Tartous province, the only Russian naval base outside of Russian territory. Underscoring the importance of these assets, in 2017 the Russian government signed a 49-year lease with the Assad regime for the use of Tartous.

Relations with Other Outside Players

With the Syrian civil war morphing into other conflicts, the terrain became more complicated. The rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS) brought US military forces into northeastern Syria to partner with the Syrian Kurds against IS. This policy incurred the wrath of Turkey, which saw these Kurds, mostly from the People’s Protection Units, as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, an organization Turkey has deemed terrorist. At the same time, for several years Turkey had allowed Islamist extremists from Europe and elsewhere to traverse its borders to join IS in Syria. Russia was not happy with Turkey’s tacit support for IS because some Islamist extremists from the Russian Federation, particularly from Chechnya, were part of this cabal. But Moscow had other interests, namely to woo Ankara away from the West through the sale of the S-400 missile system.

The most recent UN-led negotiations in Geneva between the Assad government and the Syrian opposition in late October produced little movement forward and were a “big disappointment.”

The demise of IS in eastern Syria did not end Russian-Turkish mutual suspicions because Turkey became the protector of Syrian opposition forces holed up in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, while Russia remained a staunch supporter of the Assad regime. Nevertheless, Russia, Turkey, and Iran have come together from time to time in the so-called Astana process, named after the capital of Kazakhstan where some of the meetings were held, to discuss the future of Syria—even though it was doubtful that Russia and Iran were ever going to support the replacement of the Assad regime, which is what Turkey wanted. The most recent UN-led negotiations in Geneva between the Assad government and the Syrian opposition in late October produced little movement forward and were a “big disappointment,” according to Geir Pedersen, the UN special envoy for Syria.

De-confliction Politics

With Russia and the United States conducting air surveillance and strikes in Syria, both countries agreed to a de-confliction process aimed at avoiding each other in the skies. This process worked to Russia’s advantage in that its air strikes gained some international legitimacy. At the same time, Israel and Russia also engaged in a de-confliction process of their own, as Israel launched many air and missile strikes against Iranian and pro-Iranian militia targets in Syria, generally notifying the Russian military in advance of such strikes. The Assad regime was clearly unhappy about this level of Russian-Israeli cooperation, but it could do little about it. For Putin, such cooperation was part of a plan aimed at cultivating improved relations with Israel (former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited him many times) and to regain Russia’s role as a player in the Arab-Israeli arena once again and, perhaps, to weaken Iran’s role in Syria.

Syria between Russia and Iran

There has been much speculation that even though both Russia and Iran have cooperated in shoring up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, they are rivals in Syria and want each other’s influence there to wane. Although some of this speculation is probably true, and elements within the Assad regime are believed to favor a diminished Iranian role, this alleged rift is likely overblown. Putin knows that Iran sees a friendly Syria as a gateway to the Mediterranean and the Levant in general. Given these Iranian equities, he does not want a breach with Tehran over Syria because that could hurt lucrative Russian arms sales to Iran as well as the tacit political alliance he has cultivated with the Islamic Republic, one that annoys Washington.

Helping to fuel this speculation of a Russian-Iranian rift are some Arab leaders who are eager to weaken Iran’s role in Syria. The recent efforts of Jordan, the UAE, and Egypt to bring Syria back to the Arab fold are geared in part to diminish Iran’s standing there. In addition to the reasons for Russian reticence mentioned earlier, these Arab states are not in a position to challenge the Syrian-Iranian alliance.

Russia’s Relations with Syrian Kurds 

The abrupt October 2019 US military departure from a land corridor in northeastern Syria that facilitated a Turkish military incursion against the Syrian Kurds brought more opportunities for Russia with this ethnic minority. Although Russia has had a long relationship with the Kurds in the Middle East, it is now seen by some prominent Syrian Kurdish leaders as a kind of a protector. While the United States has maintained about 900 troops in northeastern Syria—south of the abovementioned corridor—who continue to partner with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) against IS remnants, the Kurds probably believe that after the US October 2019 disastrous withdrawal, they cannot put all of their eggs in Washington’s basket. Hence, they have pursued outreach to Russia both to explore ways to preserve their autonomy with the Assad regime and to prevent another major Turkish military incursion, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened. In addition, forces loyal to Turkey in Syria have periodically attacked Kurdish positions in and near the town of Ayn Issa and have hindered the flow of water from the Euphrates to dry up agricultural lands protected by the SDF.

The Kurds probably believe that after the US October 2019 disastrous withdrawal, they cannot put all of their eggs in Washington’s basket.

In a recent interview, Mazlum Kobane, the military commander of the SDF, said the following: “the Russians told us that they had told the Turks that they would not accept an attack against us.” Whether this alleged Russian warning to the Turks or a similar reported warning from the Biden Administration was determinative in putting off Erdoğan’s recent threats is unclear, but such optimism by the Kurds about Russia’s role may be misplaced. Assad is strongly opposed to any territorial autonomy for the Syrian Kurds, which Moscow also does not support. In addition, Russia may be using the Kurds at this point simply as a pressure point against the Turks (Moscow is angry that the Turks have sold drones to Ukraine, for example) but could easily reverse its position. The fact that there are joint Turkish-Russian military patrols in the corridor that the United States abandoned, which prevents the SDF from returning to the area, suggests that Russia believes that it is still important to show cooperation with Turkey in Syria. And the fact that Moscow put pressure on the SDF in early 2021 by temporarily leaving Ayn Issa over a wheat sale dispute with the Assad government, only to return shortly thereafter, should give the Kurds pause about seeing Russia as a dependable ally.

A Very Complicated Situation in Idlib

On the other hand, Syria’s Idlib province is a maze of competing and interlocking interests. Much of the region is controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, a radical Islamist group and former al-Qaeda affiliate, and hosts two million internally displaced Syrian refugees living mostly on humanitarian aid. It also includes many Turkish military “observer” posts plus militias controlled by Turkey. In 2018, the province was supposed to be a “de-confliction zone” between the Assad government and Turkey but fighting broke out in late 2019 between the Syrian regime, backed by Russia, and Turkish forces and their allies, resulting in scores of deaths over subsequent weeks. In March 2020, a cease-fire agreement was reached between Putin and Erdoğan in which Turkey and Russia agreed to a security corridor and joint military patrols along a seven-mile stretch of the strategic M4 highway that runs through the province.

In September 2021, Erdoğan and Putin met again to discuss Idlib, among other issues. Before their meeting, a Russian official accused rebel fighters of “heavy shelling,” while rebels accused Russia of conducting air strikes, and the Turkish defense minister said he expected the Russians and the Assad regime to “abide by their responsibilities” under the March 2020 agreement.  Although Russian and Turkish leaders put their best face forward after the meeting, it was clear that the summit was not a warm one. In November 2021, according to Syrian Civil Defense (a group of volunteer rescue operators in Idlib province), Russian air strikes killed a family of five who were agricultural workers.

Looking Ahead

Russia is likely to hold its strong position in Syria for the foreseeable future. In addition to maintaining its naval and air bases in the country, which help it project strategic depth, the Syrian situation has allowed Russia to test its numerous weapons. In addition, its staunch support for the Assad regime showed that it can come to the aid of an ally, albeit one with a very tarnished reputation. This was a risk because Assad was initially seen in the region as targeting Sunni Muslims and helping Iran and its Shia allies become even more entrenched in the Levant. Putin likely calculated that, eventually, the Arab states would come around and accept the Assad regime once again—a process that is already underway.

Russia’s intervention in Syria has come with minimal domestic costs. Unlike its misadventure in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Russia’s casualties in Syria have been relatively low, probably no more than a few hundred.

Moreover, Russia’s intervention in Syria has come with minimal domestic costs. Unlike its misadventure in Afghanistan in the 1980s, Russia’s casualties in Syria have been relatively low, probably no more than a few hundred, and its economic expenses have been geared to enhancing its own assets like the naval base in Tartous. Russia is unlikely to spend substantially on Syrian reconstruction, probably preferring that other countries, like the United Arab Emirates, assume these costs. As an example, it is portraying itself now as a savior of Syrian antiquities by starting to rebuild the monuments in Palmyra that were destroyed by IS, but it wants the international community to pay for it.

Although it publicly supports the Assad government’s desire to retake all of Syrian territory, Russia is realistic in knowing this goal is unattainable in the near future as that would involve clashes with Turkish troops in Idlib, which would endanger Moscow’s larger goal of distancing Turkey from the West. Putin seems content on putting enough pressure on Turkey (through the Kurds and the Assad government) to show that Russia will remain the dominant player in Syria—but not so much as to break his friendship with Erdoğan. As for Iran, Putin will likely lend a sympathetic ear to Israeli and Arab leaders who will continue to complain about Tehran’s influence in Syria; however, he is unlikely to move against Iranian assets in the country, let alone cause a major break with the Islamic Republic.

As for the United States, Putin is probably hoping that Washington will tire of its role in northeastern Syria and will eventually withdraw its forces, even at the expense of endangering the Syrian Kurds and perhaps emboldening the remnants IS still has in the area. That would be a mistake, as it would diminish whatever limited influence Washington has in Syria. Although Washington has provided substantial funds to help Syrian refugees, it does not seem interested in becoming a major player in a settlement of the Syrian crisis. In the process, the United States has ceded ground to Russia, Turkey, and Iran, all of whose interests are not in congruence with the aspirations of most Syrians.