Five Years After Russia Declared Victory in Syria: What Has Been Won?

Syria Map

(Russia Matters – russiamatters.org – Thomas Schaffner – March 18, 2021)

Thomas Schaffner is a graduate student at Harvard University and a student associate with Russia Matters.

On March 14, 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that the Russian armed forces had achieved their main goals in Syria. Addressing Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Putin said, “I believe the tasks set for the Defense Ministry have, on the whole, been fulfilled. Therefore, I order from tomorrow to begin the withdrawal of the main part of our military grouping from the Syrian Arab Republic.” Shoigu did withdraw some forces per that order. However, five years on — and 10 years since the beginning of the civil war in Syria — thousands of Russian military personnel remain in the country, conducting daily operations, flying sorties and expanding their permanent bases there. It is, therefore, worth asking whether the intervention has paid off or U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2015 prediction that the operation would end in a “quagmire” for Russia has come true.

To answer these questions, this article emulates an approach used to assess the Russian intervention in Ukraine in an earlier RM publication to take stock of some key costs and benefits generated by Russia’s intervention at the following levels: (I) for the Russian state, measured by the impact on vital national interests as seen by Russia’s leadership; (II) for Russia’s ruling elite; (III) for the Russian public; and (IV) for the Russian economy.

I. Impact of Russia’s intervention on national interests

On balance, the Syrian intervention seems to have furthered Russia’s vital national interests—particularly in terms of supporting allies and reducing the threat of extremist insurgency—but may have created future threats, including a heightened risk of miscalculation and inadvertent conflict with NATO. In determining the Syria campaign’s effects on Russian interests as seen from the Kremlin, I have used a metric previously developed for an earlier RM publication (see table below).

Toward the second half of 2015, when Islamic State militants and opposition forces had advanced on some fronts in Syria and stalled government offensives on others, the collapse of the Assad regime seemed to be a distinct possibility. Were such a collapse to occur the Kremlin likely saw several threats emerging—not only to Russia’s strategic position but to its territorial integrity. First, it is reasonable to assume the Kremlin feared that, after defeating Assad and coming to power, international jihadist groups like Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda, which both had followers in Russia’s North Caucasus, would target Russia and attempt to start wars of secession in Muslim-majority provinces of Russia. This fear, in my estimation, presented the immediate impetus to intervene. (When Aliaskhab Kebekov took over the reins of the Caucasus Emirate in 2013, he pledged support for al Qaeda while IS proclaimed a formal presence in Russia’s North Caucasus 2015.) A collapse of Assad’s government—long a strategic partner for Russia and its main ally in the Eastern Mediterranean—also presented longer-term threats. It would contribute to Russia’s physical and geopolitical isolation, which the Kremlin viewed as a policy pursued by the U.S. and its allies. Relatedly, for Russia’s decision-makers, regime change from below in Syria would represent a Middle Eastern instance of the “color revolution” phenomenon, which they saw as destabilizing. (Such a scenario may have also fed into the Russia ruling elite’s fears about U.S.-supported regime-change efforts aimed at Russia itself.) Finally, the collapse of the Assad regime would lead to the loss of a trade partner and long-time buyer of Russian arms and machinery.

Five years later, Assad’s position has greatly improved, and most of the threats posed to Russia by the potential collapse of his regime have been mitigated. Assad loyalists now control 65-70 percent of the republic, including most of its key population and economic centers. IS no longer controls significant amounts of territory, although it does reportedly hold enough land to continue a coordinated military campaign. Russia maintains a firm presence in Syria with about 4,000 soldiers (the rotation of this group has reportedly allowed 70,000 soldiers to gain combat experience), 20-40 airplanes, a similar number of helicopters and fleet facilities for 11 naval vessels. In sum, most of the vital interests the Kremlin likely believed were at stake in Syria appear to have been defended, if not advanced.

Russia’s vital national interests at stake in Syria, as seen from the Kremlin Impact
Prevent, deter and reduce threats of secession from Russia, insurgency within Russia or in areas adjacent to Russia and armed conflicts waged against Russia, its allies or in the vicinity of Russian frontiers; Threat of “export” of insurgency from Syria to Russia diminished.

 

 

Prevent emergence of hostile individual or collective regional hegemonies or failed states in Russia’s vicinity, ensure Russia is surrounded by friendly states among which Russia can play a lead role and in cooperation with which it can thrive; Significant positive impact on survival of the Assad regime.

 

NATO dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean challenged.

Ensure Russian allies’ survival and their active cooperation with Russia; Significant impact on survival of and relationship with the Assad regime.
Establish and maintain productive relations, consistent with Russian national interests, with the United States, China, core European Union members and key regional actors; Relationship with E.U. and U.S. significantly harmed, but relationship with regional power Turkey eventually stabilized.
Ensure the viability and stability of major flows of Russian exports and imports; Negligible negative impact due to Western sanctions. Assad’s survival likely assures Syria’s position as an importer of Russian goods.
Ensure steady development and diversification of the Russian economy and its integration into the global economy; No direct negative impact due to Western sanctions. Syria remains a trade partner for Russia, and Russian firms acquire access to some Syrian resources.
Prevent large-scale or sustained terrorist attacks on Russia. IS’s territorial gains rolled back as a result of U.S. and Russian intervention, other extremist organizations weakened in Syria, but both IS and other groups continue to operate. At least one major attack against Russian nationals linked directly to Syria intervention.

II. Impact of Russia’s intervention on Russia’s ruling elite

The overarching interest of Russia’s ruling elite, as represented by President Vladimir Putin and his allies, is survival and retention of power, in my view, and in this sense the Syria campaign has surely boosted their confidence. By preventing the collapse of the Assad regime, the Russian military not only ensured the survival of an allied ruler but prevented what the Kremlin may have seen as a foreign-engineered overthrow. Moscow had long expressed concerns about the Arab Spring protests and, less than a year before sending troops into Syria, Putin explicitly stated that he sees so-called color revolutions as a threat and “we should do everything necessary so that nothing similar ever happens in Russia.” In this context, the 2011 NATO-led Libyan intervention, and the death of ex-ruler Muammar Gaddafi, weighed heavily on the minds of Russia’s decision-makers—who themselves faced mass anti-government protests in 2011-2012. Assad’s continued rule shows Russia’s decision-makers that the foreign-backed regime-change campaigns they fear (whether real or imagined) can in fact be resisted, and that the Libyan outcome is avoidable. Russian elites may also perceive that the Syria intervention substantially improved their country’s international standing, having successfully projected power to prevent the fall of a friendly government.

Based on the evidence I was able to find, Syria-related sanctions appear to have had a minimal effect on the ruling elite, with no mass defections from government or huge loss of wealth for targeted individuals. The U.S placed sanctions on Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport and warned that it would penalize any other Russian entity that “transfers or brokers the transfer to, or knowingly manufactures or sells defense articles transferred to, Syria.” But it seems these sanctions mainly targeted small-scale banking operations and import-export organizations. (Moreover, recent research has suggested that the country’s powerful elites have become even more dependent on the Kremlin as the Russian government has tried “to protect economic sectors it considers strategic” from sanctions imposed by the West more broadly, especially for Russian intervention in Ukraine.)

Furthermore, despite public wariness about the war, ordinary Russians have recently seemed to be paying too little attention to Syria for the intervention to have led to any significant loss of popular support for Russia’s ruling elite. In 2015, only 32 percent of Russians believed ground forces should be used in Syria and, in 2018, 57 percent were concerned that the conflict would spark a large-scale war with the West. However, as of 2019, some 51 percent of respondents agreed with Russia’s policy in Syria, while 37 percent believed the operation could turn into a “new Afghanistan” for Russian forces. By 2019 it seemed fewer Russians were paying close attention to the conflict than before, with 87 percent saying that they “do not know anything” or “know little” about the latest events in Syria. Moreover, public opinion polling conducted by the Levada Center in March 2020, showed that 87 percent of respondents did not feel that Western sanctions against Russia—be they over Syria, Ukraine or other issues—had negatively affected their lives or their family. According to Levada sociologist Denis Volkov, “in the absence of a stream of bad news” out of Syria, the mood of the Russian public could be described as “do what you want in Syria, as long as it doesn’t affect us in any major way.”

III. Impact of Russia’s intervention on the Russian public

The Syria intervention seems to have had a minor impact on the life of ordinary Russians in terms of military casualties and economic reverberations, although the effect on terrorism prevention and related security issues is more difficult to assess.

While not without Russian fatalities, the campaign in Syria has not led to a deluge of “cargo 200” military coffins returning to Russia, nor have Russian losses sparked popular mobilization against the intervention. Moscow has officially confirmed the deaths of 112 servicemen in Syria since the start of the intervention. There are no official estimates of the number of private military contractors killed; however, journalists and other researchers have documented such casualties. The St. Petersburg-based news site Fontanka estimated that over 30 mercenaries were killed in 2016 and 40-60 in the first half of 2017, while in 2018 then-CIA director Mike Pompeo said U.S. forces had killed “a couple hundred” Russian mercenaries in a clash near Deir ez-zor early that year. The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported in December that 264 Russians, both soldiers and mercenaries, had been killed since the intervention began. (SOHR also identifies Russian operations as responsible for the death of over 8,000 Syrian civilians and, while the Russian Defense Ministry claims to have killed 85,000 militants in its air campaign since September 2015, SOHR puts this number around 12,000.)

Although the Syria operation was ostensibly launched in part to prevent terrorist attacks against Russian nationals, it is difficult to gauge its effectiveness in doing so. In at least one major attack for which IS took credit—an October 2015 plane bombing over the Sinai Peninsula, which killed 219 Russian citizens—the group claimed explicitly that it was retaliating for Russia’s intervention in Syria, launched a month earlier. Most terror attacks in Russia since the start of the campaign, however, have not been linked exclusively to the intervention. Shortly after an April 2017 bombing in St. Petersburg’s metro—which killed 16 people, including the suicide bomber—people posting in online IS forums reportedly connected the attack to Russia’s actions in Syria; however, the obscure group that eventually claimed credit for the blast said it had wanted to avenge perceived Russian abuses against Muslims more widely. Furthermore, as noted above, IS formally declared the creation of its outpost in Russia’s North Caucasus a few months before Russia sent troops into Syria, and local commanders had started pledging allegiance to IS even earlier, in late 2014, almost a year before the intervention. This “Caucasus Province” of IS has claimed responsibility for some low-profile attacks in Russia and it cannot be conclusively determined that Russian actions against IS in Syria have at all weakened the organization in the Caucasus. That said, by assuring the survival of the Assad regime, Russia has denied extremist groups the potential of using Syria as a base of operations for attacks against Russia.

In terms of economic impact, the section below demonstrates that the Syria intervention seems not to have cost Russia an exorbitant amount. Similarly, while recent research suggests that the economic burden of Western sanctions does get passed down to ordinary Russians, the sanctions imposed specifically over Syria make up such a small share of sanctions overall that they are not likely to have had a significant economic impact on the general public.

IV. Impact of Russia’s intervention on the Russian economy

The intervention, while not cheap, hardly appears to be a significant drain on the Russian budget. By shoring up the Assad regime, Russian firms have been able to maintain existing trade relationships and gain new access to Syrian resources.

The only official public reference to the total cost of the Syria campaign comes from Putin’s March 2016 statement, merely six months into the intervention, that military operations in Syria had cost approximately 33 billion rubles (then about $462 million).

Unofficial Russian and international estimates for the cost of the campaign vary. At the beginning of the intervention in 2015, IHS Jane’s estimated that Russia was spending between $2.4 million and $4 million per day on the deployment of forces to Syria, based on the military aircraft and munitions being used as well as personnel deployments. In 2016, the RBK news outlet estimated the intervention was costing Russia $2.5 million to $3.3 million a day. In March 2018, the opposition political party Yabloko reportedly estimated the cost of the intervention at the time at between 172.3 billion and 245.1 billion rubles (then about $2.9 billion to $4.2 billion), based on materials used, personnel deployments and payments to families of soldiers.  This estimate, at around $1.2 billion to $2 billion a year, would represent 1.7 percent to 2.9 percent of the roughly $70 billion allocated annually to military spending in the Russian budget for most years since 2015, according to SIPRI data. Other forms of assistance also seem relatively cheap. According to OECD data, Russia spent only $54.1 million in official development assistance to Syria between 2015 and 2018, the last year reported.[1] Russia also reportedly invested larger sums of money into Syrian redevelopment, including $500 million into the port of Tartus, home to a Russian naval facility, and $200 million into modernizing the Syrian fertilizer industry, though it can be presumed that some return is expected on this investment.

Syria, a long-time buyer of Russian arms, has continued to purchase equipment throughout the conflict. However, according to SIPRI’s 2019 report, Russian arms exports to Syria decreased by 87 percent between 2010-2014 and 2015-2019, with Syria accounting for only 3.9 percent of Russian arms exports to the Middle East and 0.7 percent of total Russian arms exports in 2015-2019, despite Russia’s military presence. The explanation may simply be that Russian forces, once deployed, started directly handing over arms to the Syrian government, making the usual export channels redundant or that more discrete transfer methods, not captured by the data, began to be used as Russian support increased to Syria.

Monetary value of Russian arms sales to Syria, 2011-2019 (in millions USD)

2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 Total
$410 $496 $496 $2 $16 $3 $25 $181 No data $72 $1699

Source: SIPRI Arms Transfers Database

Also difficult to fully account for, Syrian assets have the potential to be a source of revenue for Russian firms. In December 2019, Syria’s parliament advanced legislation to award natural gas contracts to two little-known Russian companies, Velada and Mercury, which the Novaya Gazeta newspaper linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin—a man believed to have a leadership role at one of the best-known Russian private military contractors, informally known as the Wagner group. (Prigozhin has denied ties to all three companies.) According to the Syrian oil minister, the companies were given access to three sites with a total of at least 750 billion cubic meters of natural gas.2 In late 2017, the AP reported that it had obtained leaked documents suggesting that Evro Polis—a Moscow-based firm “linked to Prigozhin” that had apparently switched focus from food sales in 2016 to mining, oil and gas the following year—had received rights to 25 percent of oil and gas revenues from Syrian wells its contractors capture from IS. It is not publicly known how many wells Evro Polis secured, and therefore difficult to estimate a monetary value on this deal. (Novaya Gazeta estimated that the value of “resources” received by Prigozhin-linked groups in Syria in 2018 could have been about $20 million per month, but the authors did not provide substantiation or details of their calculations.)

Russian companies have also received exclusive contracts in potentially profitable sectors of Syrian reconstruction, such as infrastructure, power generation and industrial reconstruction, in addition to resource extraction; however, the exact potential profits from these enterprises remain unclear.

There is little to suggest that Western sanctions placed on Russian companies due to the intervention have had a significant direct negative effect on the Russian economy. U.S. sanctions have mainly targeted entities engaged in the material assistance of the Assad regime. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act has been used to sanction Russia’s sole state arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, and the related Russian Financial Corporation Bank for “having materially assisted, sponsored or provided financial, material or technological support for, or goods or services in support of, the Government of Syria.” Despite these sanctions, the Russian arms-export industry reported to have exported $15.2 billion worth of arms in 2019 and $13 billion worth of arms in 2020. While not a direct contributor to major sanctions, the intervention in Syria contributes to hostility between Russia and the U.S. and EU, which likely plays a role in EU and U.S legislators’ decisions to extend larger sanctions, initially placed for Russian involvement in Ukraine, which the IMF estimated to reduce Russia’s growth rate by an average of 0.2 percent every year.

Conclusion

Contrary to predictions that Russia’s intervention in Syria would become a “quagmire” or “new Afghanistan” for Russian forces, Moscow’s military campaign in Syria has had a mostly positive impact on the country’s vital interests as seen from the Kremlin. The intervention has significantly increased the chance of survival for the Assad regime, which remains one of Russia’s few staunch allies, while not proving overly costly for Russia. The intervention, alongside the U.S. anti-IS campaign, has degraded IS’s and other jihadists groups’ ability not only to conduct operations in Syria but to establish a base for striking Russia. At the same time, Russia’s relationship with Western powers has become increasingly strained because of the intervention, not improving as Putin had hoped.

It remains unclear whether Russia can convert its military successes in Syria into a favorable political resolution of the conflict. Large pockets of resistance to Assad remain in Idlib and other northern parts of Syria, where Turkish forces have been deployed alongside the local opposition, as well as in the southeast, where Kurdish-led groups control swathes of land. American forces also remain with their Kurdish allies in northern Syria. Stabilizing Syria to the point that it can rebuild its economy—which has shrunk by more than 60 percent in terms of GDP since the start of conflict, placing over half of all Syrians into extreme poverty—may require Russia to make a deal with Turkey and the United States; however, at this point, it seems more likely that Syria will remain in a state of de facto partition, and the Russian operation may become an indefinite deployment.

Footnotes

  1. Total official development flows by country and region (ODF).
  2. As the feasibility of extracting from these wells is unknown, it is difficult to determine the value of this acquisition. According to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, Syria’s total proven natural gas reserve is only 300 billion cubic meters, less than half the Syrian oil minister’s estimation of the size of the sites.

Article also appeared, at russiamatters.org/analysis/five-years-after-russia-declared-victory-syria-what-has-been-won, with different images, bearing the notice: “© Russia Matters 2018 … This project has been made possible with support from Carnegie Corporation of New York,” with a footer heading entitled “Republication Guidelines” linking to: russiamatters.org/node/7406, which bears the notice, in part: