Russia in Syria – Stated and Unstated Goals
11 April 2016
By Amir Taheri
Anyone focusing on the political scene in the Islamic Republic of Iran would
have noticed a mood of barely subdued embarrassment the other day as Russian
President Vladimir Putin pulled his ''withdrawal from Syria'' rabbit out of
his bag of tricks.
Neither Tehran nor Damascus knew how to cope with the surprise. The damage
limitation that both tried a day later convinced few people. In both cases the
state-controlled media had to wait several hours before reporting Putin's
move, and then only in a doctored way. Suddenly, all the talk about a
Moscow-Tehran axis acting in unison to destroy ''terrorists'' in Syria and
exclude the United States and its allies from the Middle East appeared as a
lot of childish prattle.
However, some of us knew right from the start that Putin had intervened in
Syria neither for Assad nor for the ayatollah but exclusively for himself.
This is what I wrote in a column published in this newspaper on the 30th of
October 2015: ''Right now no one could know where the Russian intervention in
Syria might end. Entering a war is often easy and getting out always
difficult. If the mood music from Moscow is to be trusted, the Russian
objective is to prevent the fall of the beleaguered President Bashar Al-Assad.
Regardless of whether or not that objective is achievable, Assad would do well
not to bank on such speculations.''
The rest of the column was devoted to examples of Russian treachery in dealing
with allies whom Moscow ''saved'' or even imposed and then simply jettisoned.
The list of ditched allies included Communist Afghan leaders such as
Hafizaullah Amin, Babrak Karmal and Muhammad Najibullah, not to mention Kirgiz
presidents Askar Aqayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Need one also include Ukraine
President Viktor Yanukovitch, who was also propped up by Moscow before being
ordered to escape at night?
Putin stated a number of objectives for his high profile intervention in
Syria. His entourage claims that when the sent the Russian Air Force to
carpet-bomb Aleppo, Assad was on the verge of collapse. Thus, preventing
Assad's collapse was cited as one objective.
However, we know that, at the time, Assad was not on the verge of collapse.
Ensconced in his Damascene enclave, he could not regain any lost territory
while his enemies were unable to capture his last redoubt.
Putin's intervention did not give Assad life-long insurance; a fact reflected
in recent Russian statements that they are not necessarily committed to
prolonging his rule. On Tuesday, Alexander Bortnikov, Russia's Federal
Security chief, insisted that Moscow's intervention was not aimed at propping
up Assad but at ''fighting terrorism''.
Putin and his entourage have often cited ''the defeat and destruction of
terrorism'' in Syria as an objective. But, that, too, has not been achieved.
In fact, Russia hardly took any action against the Islamic Caliphate or ISIS,
the principal terrorist force in Syria today, which has retained almost all of
its Syrian possessions, suffering losses only in Iraq.
On Tuesday, Russian Deputy Defence Minister Nikolai Panov admitted that it was
''far too early to speak of victory over terrorism.'' Russia has carried out
exceptionally savage bombing raids against other anti-Assad armed groups,
including those that are supposed to take part in a process of negotiations.
But on that score, too, Russia has merely dented the position of Jibhat Al-Nusra,
Ahrar Al-Shaam and the more than two dozen other armed groups that have turned
Syria into a patchwork of autonomous ''emirates''.
When it became clear that the big objectives couldn't be achieved with empty
boasts, Russia, and to some extent the Islamic Republic in Iran, downgraded
their ambitions by declaring that all they wanted now was to seize control of
the roads between Aleppo, Syria's most populous city, and the Turkish border.
But, despite heavy losses by Assad and his Arab backers who lost at least 134
senior officers in the forlorn hope of a tactical victory, even that objective
was not achieved. The combined forces of Russia, Iran, Assad and the Lebanese
Hezbollah ended up gaining control of three villages on the road to the
Russia's fourth objective, albeit stated sotto voce, was to transform its
mooring rights in Tartus, a Syrian port on the Mediterranean, into a permanent
aeronaval base. Putin has failed to achieve that objective, too. The reason is
that a base constantly exposed to attacks from its hinterland is of little
strategic use. In the context of a major war, presumably involving NATO
powers, the Russian navy would have to negotiate several choke points on its
way from the Sea of Azov and Crimea on the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea before
entering the Mediterranean and touching on Tartus. In the context of
asymmetric wars, presumably involving hostile forces based locally, Tartus
might be hard put to protect itself, let alone pose as a master piece on any
In other words, Putin has failed to achieve any of the three objectives he
stated when he sent his air force to turn parts of Syria into heaps of rubble
reminding one of Grozny or Kabul after Russian bombardments. In the process he
has killed thousands of Syrian civilians and driven over 100,000 others out of
Russia itself has suffered significant losses, including at least 700 dead,
among them all passengers and crew of a jetliner brought down by ISIS
terrorists. Hundreds more have been injured, some seriously.
Putin's intervention has produced no tangible advantages for Russia or anyone
else on the ground.
But what about intangible advantages that Putin's policy may have procured for
Russia? On that score the jury is out. Putin's intervention has certainly
helped consign the Crimean episode to the oblivion, at least for the time
being. Thanks to the art of changing the headlines, world public opinion has
all but forgotten about tricks that Russia is playing against Ukraine's
independence and territorial integrity. Nor does anyone recall that Russia
continues to occupy 25 per cent of Georgia's territory.
The Syrian episode has also helped Putin promote himself as a strong leader
prepared to protect Russia's allies in contrast to the weakling Barack Obama
who specializes in stabbing America's allies in the back. Another unstated
objective of the intervention may have been Putin's desire to slow down if not
totally stop Tehran's march towards normalization with the United States in
the wake of the so-called nuclear deal.
Putin's Syrian move allowed the Iranian ''Supreme Guide'' Ali Khamenei to
market his ''Looking East'' strategy in opposition to the pro-American trend
promoted by the rival Rafsanjani faction. In the context of Syria itself,
Putin's intervention may have had another unstated objective: to renew direct
contact with the Syrian military at middle and higher levels.
Most Syrian military chiefs were trained in the former Soviet Union but had
lost contact with Moscow since the fall of the USSR. The past six months gave
Russia an opportunity to renew contact and thus gain an important voice in
deciding the future shape of Syria, when and if the broken nation is put
Putin has failed in achieving his stated objectives in Syria. But he may have
achieved at least some of his unstated objectives.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran,
London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005,
he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.