Putin's Playbook: Syria
Syria stands atop the geopolitical crossroads of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and as such has represented geopolitical opportunity for Russia for decades. Vladimir Putin leapt in to take Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s side in 2015 when his rule started to look deeply vulnerable, and by doing so almost single-handedly tipped the conflict back into Assad’s favour.
The two countries have historic ties through Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad. The late leader received training in the Soviet Union, spoke Russian, and maintained a very close bilateral relationship through frequent meetings with Soviet and Russian officials. While diplomatic ties weakened after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Putin’s entry into the Syrian conflict cemented the reestablishment of that close bilateral relationship.
Military access to the country places Russia in a powerful position, and Syria is one of several keys to the Kremlin’s multipolar foreign policy goals. Reasserting Russia’s role throughout various areas of the world returns Russia to the great power game, and ideally for Putin, gives him a seat at all the major geopolitical decision making tables. Along with many others, Moscow now holds a seat at the table in determining the future of Syria and the wider region. So what is Putin's playbook in Syria, and why was he so ready to throw Russian money, weapons, and lives into Syria?
Play #1: Air and Water
Since the times of Peter the Great, Russia has been searching for warm water ports, and it remains a security vulnerability today. Syria’s geographic location is of significant value to Russia, with its direct access to the Mediterranean Sea through the Syrian port of Tartus, a waterway critical to many of the Kremlin’s geopolitical rivals. Tartus has played an important role in Soviet history, with the USSR using the deep-water port to station submarines from 1971 onward after securing a deal with Damascus to sell arms and supply them through the port.
By the fall of the Soviet Union, Syria had a huge debt to repay, and so in 2005, a deal with the Kremlin saw Russia write off 73% of the Soviet-era multi-billion-dollar debt in exchange for port access and fresh weapon orders. Russia’s focus for decades has been on trying to rebuild some of the global geopolitical presence the USSR had, and access to the Mediterranean is a powerful way to further that goal, particularly in case relations with Turkey decline, as they are a member of NATO and could close access from the Black Sea through the Bosporus.
"The Kremlin used its position of power and access to Air Bases in Syria as a jumping off point to strengthen its role in Libya"
More currently impactful in pursuing this goal is Russian access to air bases in Syria. Russian airpower has been extremely impactful in the Syrian conflict, and the Kremlin used their presence as a jumping-off point to increase their involvement in Libya, furthering their goal of being a global power again. In particular, Russia has operated out of the Khmeimim airbase on the Syrian coast, and in 2017 it was announced that it would be a part of Russia’s permanent military presence in the country.
Play #2: Gatekeeping Orthodox Christianity
The importance of Orthodox Christianity is a crucial factor in understanding Putin’s Syria strategy. He describes himself as a devoted Orthodox, often referencing his faith and religion in public appearances, and has strategically maintained the strong support of the Russian Orthodox Church, uniting his supporters and dividing his opponents. Further, he describes himself as the Christian world’s saviour and says he is dedicated to protecting the religion around the world.
This religious justification was used to support his entry into Syria, as the country has significant cultural and historical importance to Christianity. This includes the fact that some Syrian villages still speak Aramaic, the original language of the bible, and the important role that Damascus played in the development of Christianity, having been the home of the most Christians in the world at one point. His self-proclaimed saviour role has been also promoted by Assad, who declared that Putin is the only true “defender” of Christianity.
"Putin's Orthodox Credentials are critical to his domestic support, but by boosting them in Syria he has committed himself to staying involved in the conflict".
This religious stance isn’t all upside. It has made him irrevocably dedicated to the conflict in Syria, defending Damascus, and fighting Chechen militants and groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra who view Russia’s presence as revenge for the Muslim insurgencies in Chechnya and Afghanistan. With questions surrounding his genuine domestic approval ratings, many experts suggest that Putin is using Syria as a way to boost his Orthodox credentials and receive outside support for his self-proclaimed mission, and so he is willing to bear the cost and lives in order to gain that benefit.
Play #3: A Proxy Playground
Russia is also fighting their own enemies in Syria, with many Chechen militants waging their jihad there. The rise of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who portrays himself as a protector of Islam, was supported by Putin in exchange for him ensuring that Salafist groups were excluded from power in Chechnya. Although the Second Chechen War theoretically ended in 2009, the deal between Putin and Kadyrov meant that in reality, the battlefield shifted to Syria. Kadyrov’s opposition to Salafist groups led him to open the southern border to enable Chechen to travel to Syria, resulting in many Salafist militants joining ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups to wage their Jihad in Syria instead of within Russia. Many of these groups would go on to fight Russian forces and face a torrent of Russian airstrikes. This gave Putin a powerful opportunity to wage a war within a war, crippling much of the Chechen Salafist military capacity and thereby helping his aim of stopping the return of jihadism to the Caucasus and Central Asia - a fear that has heightened with the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the rise in attacks from ISKP.
"For Russia, the use of PMCs allows them to undertake military actions that would normally be off-limits for officially sanctioned troops, to test new military hardware, and to hide casualties from the public record, as they are not government soldiers but private contractors."
Another key aspect of Putin’s Syria Playbook is Private Military Companies (PMCs). Syria is crawling with PMCs, key amongst which is the infamous Wagner Group. Names can be deceiving, and grouping together so many disparate Russian PMCs under one group name is misleading, however, the most important link between them is their very close relationship with the Kremlin and Russian Special Forces. For Russia, the use of PMCs allows them to undertake military actions that would normally be off-limits for officially sanctioned troops, to test new military hardware, and to hide casualties from the public record, as they are not government soldiers but private contractors.
Additionally, while Russian PMCs have been deployed to conflict zones around the world, not all of them are real. In April 2018, reports of a new private military company called The Turan Group emerged. Pro-Kremlin blogs stated that members of the new group were mostly from the Caucasus and Central Asian states and worked to create a facade of a very well-armed unit called the Turan Group. While this narrative was extremely seductive and was reported in many outlets around the world, in reality, the PMC was a misinformation campaign run almost entirely by ANNA News reporter Oleg Blokhin. This suggests that Syria serves also as a way for Russia to test its disinformation prowess and muddy the reporting waters for those seeking to get a picture of what is really happening on the ground.
Is Russia the Real Winner of the Syrian Civil War?
Despite the intervention in Syria being one of the Kremlin’s riskiest moves in recent years, they have found significant success. To what extent this success is due to being on the side of the last man standing is debatable, but by striding in the footsteps of western hesitancy the Kremlin has actively pursued and achieved many of its geopolitical aims in the region. Additionally, Moscow’s early success in the Syrian war initiated a diplomatic shift in the Arab world with leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar seeking to improve relations as the United States began turning away from the region, which in turn helped Russia creep its way into Libya and establish a presence in the conflict.
Economically, on the other hand, there has been no real gain for Russia despite a few Moscow-Damascus oil and gas deals and a boosted mercenary business with the Wagner Group’s presence. With the international community's heavy sanctions on Syria, Moscow has avoided any significant development or wider increases in trade opportunities, and have certainly stayed far away from anything resembling reconstruction of the war-torn country.
The military leadership in Moscow, many of whom were junior officers during the USSR’s high water mark, would like to see Russia reclaim its place as a world superpower, to put Moscow forward once again as a viable alternative to Washington and Beijing. Leaders in nations like Mozambique and the CAR have been watching Russia’s dogged defence of Assad and are taking close notes, observing that Russia can offer military support to these regimes without the pesky prerequisites of human rights reforms. This is in stark comparison to the US who are becoming increasingly susceptible to early military withdrawals due to domestic political pressure, an encumbrance Moscow does not suffer. With Putin's long running operations inside Syria he has signalled to all other autocratic regimes that, for a price, Moscow will back you, Moscow will defend you, and most importantly Moscow will stay with you for the long haul.
As we enter this crescendoing phase in the Syrian civil war, one where set courses just seem to be worsening, there are few signs of hope left for the people of Syria. The US continues to have one foot out of the door, and with the Syrian opposition beginning to succumb to infighting and attrition, all sides are now taking stock. By the simple metric of “Is Assad in Power?” Russia would proclaim its adventures in Syria to be a success, but given the great economic cost, it has been a mixed bag of strategic wins and losses. Final conclusions about the operation's success likely cannot be drawn for years to come, but for the people of Syria, and the increasingly dire path they face, this intervention by Moscow would be hard to categorise as anything but a loss.
Written by Perri Grace
Edited by Owen Swift