Clear as Mud; A look beneath the murky waters of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.

As the Russian backed al Assad regime reclaim the fallen city of Aleppo from US backed rebels, what are the national interests behind Russia’s involvement in the ongoing Syrian civil war?

By Miriam Deprez.

The sharp whistle of compacted air reverberates into a deafening blast, as the crashing of falling rocks and screams pierce the ears of onlookers. Civilian rescuers plunge their way through the dense dust and rubble, struggling to find any survivors. One young girl is pulled out alive. Another is found, “Allahu Akbar!” More rescuers flood the building, praying for signs of buried life. And then the second missile hits.

“It’s the Russians,” proclaims search and rescue worker Khalid Farah, in the opening scene from the 2016 documentary about the volunteer humanitarian group; The White Helmets. Sirens continue to blare as Russian warplanes hover over the skies of Syria. Playgrounds are shrinking to accommodate the overflowing graveyards, as Aleppo has run out of places to bury their dead.

This airstrike is one of many that has devastated the Syrian city of Aleppo for the past six years, as the number of Syrian casualties keep mounting. An estimated 400,000 Syrian lives has so far been the price paid for the Russian backed Bashar al-Assad regime to recapture control of the city in December.

Russia began airstrikes over Syria in September 2015, in a ‘so-called’ bid to clear the region of ISIS militants, and support the al-Assad administration from rebels who wished to overturn the government. But the desire fight the Islamic state is far from the main motive of Russia’s first intervention in an armed conflict since the Cold War.

Support for Syria

Russia has had a strategic relationship with Syria that stems back to Soviet days, yet it seems Russia’s support for al Assad has less to do with Syria per se, than with contempt for the West. There are many factors contributing to their ongoing support for Syria and heavy involvement in the civil war.

According to a 2015 article by The Economist, during the Arab Spring of 2011, the Kremlin watched in horror as ‘colour revolutions’ swept the region. Russia understood this to be part of American conspiracies to overturn authoritarian rule in the area, and al Assad stood as a symbol of resistance of these revolutions in the fight against regime change.

With American forces backing rebel fighters and vying for the downfall of al Assad government, Georgy Mirsky of Moscow's Higher School of Economics argues that for Russia, having backed al Assad thus far, allowing him to fall now would mean that Putin is "retreating under American pressure, which is the one thing he cannot do." The more chips Putin places on the region to quell American presence, the less likely he is to fold, as old Cold War atavisms reappear in this new world context. 

Ongoing military presence

Russia has recently signed a long-term agreement with Syria to enlarge their only Mediterranean military port at Tartus, in Syria. Russian news agency TASS, reported on the 20th of January the expansion would provide simultaneous berthing for up to 11 warships, including nuclear-powered vessels – more than doubling their present capacity.

The military agreement came despite Russia’s announcement that they will be lessening forces in Syria after the successes of al Assad government in Aleppo. Motives for which run deeper than simple remuneration from Damascus for assistance in the war, as Gevorg Mirzayan, an associate professor at the Financial University under the Government of the Russian Federation in a 2017 article by Russia Beyond the Headlines explains, "Russia needs to be present not only in the Black Sea, which NATO can close at any moment, but also in the Mediterranean Sea.”

Tarus helps establish Russia’s presence in the Mediterranean, by securing interests in the Middle East and offers a means of offloading arms and personnel. General Phillip Breedlove, a NATO commander in an article published by The Atlantic explained the strategic elements to the base, “Tartus may be part of a Russian effort to establish an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) bubble over Syria, designed to prevent NATO forces from taking offensive action against Russia and its allies in the region.”

It is clear that Russia’s military presence in Syria and expansion of their naval port is a signal to the rest of the world that Russia is still a formidable global contender in the company of world powers. Keeping a foothold at Tartus also means Russia has also increased military potential for not just Syria, but the entire Middle East.

Since December, shaky peace talks have begun between Syria, Turkey and Russia that will work towards political accord to end the war. However, the US, the EU, United Nations and Saudi Arabia are, for the moment, side-lined from these discussions. Russia now faces a new challenge of moving from participant in the conflict, to potential peace broker.

For Khalid Farah and the White Helmets however, the war will never be over. Russia’s indiscriminate panache of bombing campaigns have left Aleppo and Syria in a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. The real question for the civilians on the ground will be, who will be there to pick up the pieces once all is said and done. Will Russia help finish what they started and help the country back on their feet, or continue to use the region as a strategic and symbolic foothold of power to the rest of the world.