Russia in Syria:
Spotlight on the Kremlin’s Intervention
by Antonino Occhiuto
Media polarisation has been a key feature throughout Syria’s civil war. Many broadcasters in the West are deeply critical of Moscow’s intervention while the Russian media routinely denounces US and European interference. Information wars often undermine public understandings of key issues that shape the situation on the ground. In the case of Syria it is a fact that Russia’s military intervention was decisive in tipping the balance in favour of Syria’s President, Bashar Al-Assad. At the same time, Russia’s economic, military and political commitments to support the Syrian government made Moscow the most powerful stakeholder in the country.
To better understand the logic behind Russia’s intervention and Moscow’s vision for the future of Syria, the Euro-Gulf Information Centre (EGIC), hosted Marija Chodynskaja Goleniščeva, author of the book Syria: The Tormented Path Towards Peace. Chodynskaja Goleniščeva served for seven years as a member of the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations and currently works as a Middle East expert for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
According to Chodynskaja Goleniščeva, there are two main reason which prompted Moscow’s military intervention. The first is related to the government’s fears. Having recently experienced the jihadi threat ‘Moscow decided to intervene in Syria because it had 5000-6000 Russian speaking foreign fighter who had joined Daesh and other Islamist organisations inside the country. Russia’s government believed that the threat of their return was serious and high.’ Second public opinion was acute following the US-led Western military interventions in the Middle East which toppled regimes in Iraq and Libya. Significant segments of Russia’s population favoured a more interventionist approach to ensure regime—ally—stability in Syria—a country strategically vital to Russia since the 1971 opening, in Tartus, of Moscow’s only military naval base outside the former Soviet Union.
Chodynskaja Goleniščeva noted that, together with Moscow’s large-scale military intervention, it was also Russia’s pragmatic diplomatic approach that ensured its dominant position within Syria. For instance, ‘Russia and the US formed a de-facto coalition against Daesh while constant coordination avoided incidents between Moscow and Washington inside Syria.’ As another example ‘Russia's pragmatism made cooperation with Turkey and Iran possible and is ensuring the continuation of the Astana Process despite difficulties in accommodating the often non-compatible objectives that Ankara, Moscow and Tehran have on the ground.’ This was most evident during Turkey’s latest military operation in Northern Syria. Turkey’s latest military push demonstrated how problematic it is for Russia to deal with a country that aims to expand its influence in Northern Syria and that can rely on the affiliation on an array of Islamist militias already inside the country. For Russia dealing with Iran is, arguably, even more difficult. Despite that Moscow and Tehran have both been supporting government forces throughout the war, Iranian and Russians are now fiercely competing for influence in Syria. Russia fears that Iran’s ability to infiltrate the state will lead to an increasingly weak and Tehran-dependent Syrian government while the Ayatollahs’ sectarian agenda continues to keep the entire Levant on the brink of another major escalation of violence.
Moscow is fully aware that sectarianism undermines stability and Russia’s success in Syria is also related to keeping the peace in areas previously hit by heavy fighting. As Marija Chodynskaja Goleniščeva remarked ‘the experience gained by Moscow’s troops in Chechnya was key to establish a framework by which some rebel armed groups dropped weapons in exchange for patrol by the Russian military police of those areas that surrendered to the government peacefully.’ This largely avoided revenge attacks by government and Iran-affiliated militias against civilians in areas previously held by rebels.
EGIC will continue to monitor Russia’s role on the security and geopolitical situation inside Syria with a particular focus on the situation on the ground in Syria’s Idlib province—the country’s region were currently most of the fighting is concentrated. A Russian-backed Syrian government offensive in Idlib is likely to produce major collateral effects. These include increased instability throughout the Middle East and, potentially, a new wave of refugees towards the borders of the European Union.
* This article is a reflection on EGIC’s latest event, held on 17 December 2019 in Via Gregoriana 12, Rome in which the centre hosted Marija Chodynskaja Goleniščeva—Middle East expert for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
20 December 2019