Russian power politics in Syria

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The Syrian civil war has been going on for about 4.5 years and has its roots in the Arab Spring. The population, ruled by Bashar al-Assad with his repressive security forces – which did not recoil even from torturing children – were justified in rebelling. After many long-term rulers, such as the Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi had been toppled in other arab states, respected political scientists, including Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs since 2005, predicted that “the regime of al-Assad had no chance of political survival” and that the beginning of the transitional period might take several weeks or months (“Syrien: Vorbereitungen für eine Zeit nach der Diktatur“, Badische Zeitung, 28.08.2012). With a toll of more than 220,000 deaths, one million injured, 7.6 million internal refugees and 4 million displaced persons, al-Assad still clings tenaciously to power (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Humanitarian Bulletin Syria“, Issue 2, June 2015). The overly optimistic expectations did not materialise: except in the Kurdish territories, moderate or even secular rebellions are no longer discernable. It soon became obvious that they had been crushed between the al-Qaeda offshoot al-Nusra, the terrorist organization Islamic State (IS) and the Syrian armed forces (see David Axe, “Who’s Fighting Whom — And WITH Whom — In Syria?“,, 05.11.2013).

The opposition is not going be able to overthrow the government by force. [..] This is not a repeat of Libya — An unamed U.S. diplomat cited in Ashish Kumar Sen, “Western effort to end Assad’s crackdown fails“, Washington Times, 04.10.2011.

The permanent state power vacuum in Syria allowed the IS to establish themselves in Al-Raqqah and from there to spread like a cancer across the region. Without using ground forces it is unlikely to be possible to put an end to this state power vacuum; however this is necessary for long-term stabilisation and reconstruction. The lack of success stories from the International Alliance against the IS demonstrates that sustained combat against the IS is not possible with air strikes alone. Between August 2014 and the end of August 2015 the US Air Force used 22,478 bombs against targets in Syria and Iraq, without succeeding in pushing IS back. On the contrary, within the last 12 months around 30,000 extremists have joined the IS (4,500 of them from Western countries; Eric Schmitt and Somini Sengupta, “Thousands Enter Syria to join ISIS Despite Global Efforts“, The New York Times, 26.09.2015). A US ground offensive is hardly to be expected under Barack Obama’s presidency. After the failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is more than understandable the US is not eager to be involved in another war, where even the support of the Iraqis is rather questionable in light of the disastrous morale in the Iraqi armed forces. Turkey is not really an ally to be counted on either — its interests lie predominantly in its own regional and domestic politics and not in the International Alliance against the IS (see “Türkei – der halbe Verbündete gegen den IS“,, 03.08.2015). The United States can currently live with the crises in the Middle East quite well — it is the European countries that are having to deal with the increasing flow of refugees which are more directly affected. A sustained military intervention from the European side, however, is almost inconceivable.


The only actor with sufficient capacity and motivation for a large-scale ground offensive are al-Assad’s armed forces. They, however, are showing signs of fatigue: in the course of one year the area controlled by the Syrian armed forces has halved, so now, according to a statement by Vladimir Putin, they are only able to control around 40% of Syrian territory anymore. These areas are concentrated on the area LatakiaTartus (with the entire Mediterranean coast) – HomsDamascus. As time goes by, more conscripts are evading service and the central leadership structure appears to be slowly falling apart. Nevertheless the Syrian forces still have around 125,000 active soldiers (Anne Barnerd, Hwaida Saad and Eric Schmitt, “An Eroding Syrian Army Points to Strain“, The New York Times, 28.04.2015). But who wants to work with someone who indiscriminately throws barrel bombs at the civilian population? Correct: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The fall of the Assad regime is unacceptable for Russia. Syria is the last direct sphere of Russian influence in the Middle East. Russia has access to the Mediterranean with its naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus which is, despite its modest size, of great political importance. Before the Syrian conflict, Russian companies Stroytransgaz and Tatneft invested in the Syrian infrastructure in order to extract natural gas and oil. The collapse of the Assad regime would not mean that the moderates will prevail in Syria. The current Libyan example shows how helplessly the international community behaves in such situation. With 20 million Muslims in Russia, Putin has no interest in a further strengthening of the Islamists in Syria, because in the long-term this might result in another war in the North Caucasus. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence maintained at the beginning of 2015 that between 800 and 1,500 IS fighters come from Russia. The number is probably significantly higher (according to Putin there are more than 2,000 fighters from Russia and the other former Soviet states on Syrian territory). Instead of waiting for a third Chechen war on Russian territory, it seems to be more advantageous to proactively combat the growing Islamist threat in one of its countries of origin. The Obama administration’s policy of restraint on foreign affairs has served Syria to Putin on a silver platter: here Russia can blatantly demonstrate that it is equal with the US internationally and must undoubtedly rank among the major powers. If Russia should succeed in supporting the Syrian forces to such an extent that a medium-term stabilisation of Syria and sustained combat against the IS might be possible, then Russia would be able to build a reputation as a protecting power in the Middle East at the expense of the USA (see also Anthony H. Cordesman, “Russia in Syria: Hybrid Political Warfare“, Centre for Strategy and International Studies, 22.09.2015; Dan De Luce, “With Putin in Syria, Allies Question Obama’s Resolve“, Foreign Policy, 16.10.2015).

The Russian "PM-56" or "PM-138" - Amur class floating workshop in the Russian naval facility in Tartus, June 04, 2014 (identified by Chris B. - thanks!).

The Russian “PM-56” or “PM-138” – Amur class floating workshop in the Russian naval facility in Tartus, June 04, 2014 (identified by Chris B. – thanks!).

In an interview with 60 Minutes, Putin made clear that Russia has no interest to wage a territorial war in Syria, but to bolster up the Syrian forces with veritable combat support. That Russia is however not in Syria simply for show, is demonstrated by the Russian capacity to be found in the region, which clearly indicates a combat supporting mission (for a comprehensive infographic see here):


More information

  • CBS 60 Minutes interview with Vladimir Putin on Sunday 27.09.2015 (complete with “overtime” segments)
  • “For years, I helped advise President Obama on Syria. It’s now clearer than ever that a new strategy is needed.” –> Philip Gordon, “It’s Time to Rethink Syria“, Politico Magazin, 25.09.2015
  • According to Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “the Russian Air Force today lacks the breadth of precision weapons and targeting systems fielded by the most capable of its Western counterparts. This is not a new problem for the air force, since this issue was exposed during the Georgian war in 2008“. While the Russians do have semi-active laser and electro-optically guided bombs and missiles, and laser target marker systems on the Su-25 Frogfoot and Su-24 Fencer, they do not deploy the kind of targeting pods carried by western aircraft which help both to acquire a target and to guide weapons to it. There are some other notable differences in technology. Though some drones have been deployed to Syria, Barrie notes that the Russians “also lack the level of unmanned aerial systems for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance that the US and it allies used widely in Afghanistan. Nor has it had the same level of experience of air-ground integration in recent years.” — Jonathan Marcus, “Syria: What can Russia’s air force do?“, BBC News, 01.10.2015.
  • There is a video of the first Russian air strikes, which was released by the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation. Elliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, informed the French news magazine L’Obs by email how the exact position of air strikes can be pinpointed, and that there would be no IS fighters within a wide radius. -> Andréa Fradin, “En fouillant Internet, ils assurent que les Russes visent des rebelles syriens“, L’Obs, 01.10.2015.
  • Figures by IHS Jane’s show that bombing raids, supply runs, infrastructure and ground personnel — along with a salvo of cruise missiles fired into the conflict zone — have cost Russia $80 million to $115 million ($4 million per day) since strikes began on Sept. 30. Compared to Russia’s $50 billion defense budget this year, that is small change. — Peter Hobson, “The Cost of Russia’s War in Syria“, The Moscow Times, 20.10.2015.
This entry was posted in Armed Forces, English, International, Russia, Security Policy, Syria, Terrorism.

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