By Manish Rai
With a formal end to five and half months of a brief Russian military intervention in Syria, many analysts are busy drawing up Russia’s Profit and Loss account from the conflict.
From the start, Russia has maintained that its operation is only designed to last for limited time. It has said that an extensive military presence was never in the cards. Moscow was determined to avoid a protracted military operation that might compel it to deploy ground troops.
Memories of the Soviet Union’s bloody war in Afghanistan are still strong. Russia did not want Syria to be a second Afghanistan. This is why the Kremlin had a minimal set of aims for Syria. Its immediate objective was to stabilize the Assad regime which was on the ropes. The Russians, and President Assad’s Iranian allies, both risked losing their strategic investment in Damascus.
So both stepped up their involvement. The Kremlin may have calculated that with the cessation of hostilities and a peace process in place, that now was the time to reduce its military contingent and cut the risk of getting sucked into a longer conflict.
When you assess the current political/military situation, it clearly shows that Moscow got quite a lot. The list of gains includes the following:
Eased international isolation: Both the initial deployment of Russia’s forces and the announcement of their partial withdrawal caught the West entirely by surprise. The Assad regime, which had been on the defensive and even facing potential fragmentation, has been stabilized and revived.
Moscow’s claim for a say in Syria’s future now cannot be meaningfully challenged. Western attempts to isolate Russia have also nearly been abandoned. Russia is now a dominant stakeholder among those who will chart the future of Syria.
Washington has switched from precluding compromise and discouraging militants to lay down their arms before Assad steps down, to conceding that Assad will retain some presence. Moscow has demonstrated, both to the region and the West, the value of accommodating Russia as an ally, and the costs it can inflict if its security interests are ignored.
New allies: Russia’s intervention in Syria has allowed it make new allies in the Middle East — especially Iran and Israel. Iran and Russia have reinforced their military and nuclear cooperation. Russia has authorized the delivery of S-300 anti-aircraft batteries to Iran over the strong opposition of the Western powers.
Putin is in constant communication with Israel, assuring Netanyahu that the security of Israel is a priority. Israeli President Rivlin has visited Moscow to discuss Russia’s agenda and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was invited to Moscow to continue the conversation.
Russia also won new friends in the region — the Kurds. Putin has expanded ties to Kurdish groups in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) opened its first foreign office in Moscow in a major a step forward in the group’s campaign for international legitimacy. Russia also has been a consistent advocate on behalf of the Kurds at the Geneva peace talks. Kremlin has also grasped the importance of the Kurds in the ethnic politics just south of Russia’s borders.
Expansion of military presence: Russia has maintained a long-term naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus. They have now significantly increased their presence at this port. In addition, they have added a new air base of Khmeimim to their list of bases in Middle East.
Tartus is a huge strategic asset for Russia. It serves as Russia’s naval headquarters in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. From Tartus, Moscow can monitor and control all their assets and forces in the region. They can listen to almost everything that happens in the entire Middle East, including the activities of rival like the US. Creating the port was one of the major objectives of Putin’s Syrian operation. Putin will also be keeping the newly Russian-built air force bases in Latakia and Khmeimim. Each of these bases houses dozens of fighter jets. When you add those jets to the 30 to 40 jets on the Russian aircraft carrier off the coast of Tartus, the number of Russian fighter jets around Syria reaches about 70 to75.
Promotion of Russian weaponry: By carrying out successful air campaigns in Syria, Russia has demonstrated its weapons capability. It showcased the best it had in its arsenal in a splendid advertisement for prospective buyers of Russian arms.
There’s been widespread confusion among analysts about Russian motives in Syria, confusion that has led to flawed expectations. Russia never sought a “winner-takes-all” victory. Rather, its entry into the conflict reflected its view that the West was a key obstacle in the way of a political settlement in Syria. Hence, its aim was to weaken all armed groups and coerce a compromise.
Russia still has a number of long-term objectives to pursue in Syria. These include the formation of a coalition government free from extremist organizations, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, guaranteeing Syria’s territorial integrity, and ensuring Russia’s leading role in the country’s future. Moscow should work to put pressure on the opposition and Assad to negotiate the transition to a coalition government, which could then take on ISIS and al-Nusra.
Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geo-political news agency ViewsAround can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org