Russia Marks Five Years of Presence in Syria: Challenges vs. Achievements


By Ksenia Svetlova​​ | October 11, 2020

Vladimir Putin


  • Five years of Russian presence in Syria: Political and military achievements versus a tough economic reality with no solution in sight
  • The US scores more points in the Gulf, while Russia looks on but refuses to give up
  • All eyes on Iraq: With the US on its way out, Russia is going in, full steam ahead

Russia marks five years of presence in Syria: Challenges vs. achievements


It's been five years since Russia has deployed forces in Syria, and began to proactively impact the course of the Syrian Civil War. During this time, Russia has effectively saved Bashar Al Assad's regime from total collapse, and has even helped him regain control over most of the land he had lost during the war. Nearly a decade after the Arab Spring erupted there, there is no opposition to speak of in Syria that could threaten Assad with its military force – the Free Syrian Army no longer exists, and ISIS has been defeated by the international allied forces.


Its involvement in Syria has helped Russia to patch up its reputation in the Middle East, and become one of the most influential actors in the region. The Tartus port will be at Russia's disposal for years to come, and the latter plans to invest a fortune in its adaptation for military activity, raising concern in Europe and among various other actors in the Middle East.


Russia has even managed to keep up its trilateral alliance with Iran and Turkey, despite several conflicts of interest, and the contrasting views held by Moscow and Ankara on the Syrian issue.


Nevertheless, while visiting Damascus (for the first time in eight years), Foreign Minister of Russia Sergey Lavrov conveyed the following clear messages to Syria: In the absence of a political solution in Syria, there will be no economic recovery. The sanctions imposed by the US are currently stifling the Syrian economy, deterring investors from contributing of their wealth to its development. Russia cannot rehabilitate Syria on its own, and even if it could, there is no certainty that it would be willing to bury its money in Syrian sand. Nevertheless, Russia also cannot afford to see Syria deteriorate further, since its financial instability could affect its governmental stability, which, in turn, would impact Russia's local interests. It is therefore exerting increased pressure on top Syrian echelons, promoting reforms and anticorruption in an effort to stabilize Damascus as much as possible. Although there is no intention to replace Bashar Al Assad at present (as such a transition is expected to wreak havoc in this divided country), the Russians are facing a challenging reality in Syria: the military victory is not being translated into economic achievements, and Syria's recovery is slipping further away. In the upcoming year, Russia will have to show some creativity, and perhaps harness China, to stabilize Syria, and extract itself from the impasse it currently shares with it.



The US is scoring more points in the Gulf, but Russia loses nothing


News of the agreements recently signed by Israel, the UAE and Bahrain have been received particularly coolly in Moscow. The Russian capital preferred to underscore the importance and centrality of the Palestinian issue, whereas several media outlets have insinuated that this alliance was forged to push Russia out of the Persian Gulf. But can Russia be seen as the loser and the US crowned as the big winner in this round of Middle Eastern Games? Not exactly.


In recent years, Russia has managed to develop good close ties like never before with the Arab Gulf states, but it, nor others, have ever doubted that these countries were US allies. Even when the Arab states show genuine concern over US withdrawal from the Middle East, they would still prefer to collaborate with Washington over Russia, for the latter is perceived as Iran's ally. Nevertheless, the Gulf states cannot ignore Russia and its increasing clout. They will therefore continue to get closer to it, purchasing the advanced weapons it offers, as well as wheat and nuclear technologies. These countries will also use their ties with Russia to exert pressure on the US when necessary.


So even if Russia has not gained much – it has not lost this round either. It is not too deeply involved in mediation attempts between Israel and the Palestinians, and its support of the Palestinian issue remains a theoretical expression of interest for now. The current trend characterizing Russia's relations with the Arab Gulf states has not changed – these relations are becoming more significant and diverse, although neither the Gulf states nor Egypt feel the need to choose between their traditional ally – the US – and Russia, which is making a huge comeback in the Middle East.



All eyes on Iraq: With the US on its way out, Russia is going in, full steam ahead


While the US is reducing its military presence in Iraq yet again, Russia has its eyes on Iraqi oil, and is investing generously in Iraq's energy sector. During 2020, not long after Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force in Baghdad, was assassinated, Russia expressed its willingness to provide Iraq with advanced weaponry systems "to defend itself against American attacks". Iraqi senior officials, among them senior officers in the Popular Mobilization Forces, the influential Shiite organization that fought ISIS in 2014 alongside the US and Iraqi army, have visited Moscow, and discussed closer collaboration between Russia and Iraq in military and energy-related areas. These talks have taken place against the backdrop of President Trump's attempts to continue reducing US military presence in Iraq (the most recent resolution made on this subject in early September aimed to reduce the number of American troops in Iraq to approximately 3000).


It seems Russia, and certainly Iran, are keeping a close eye on American resolutions in preparation for the day after. Russia hopes to reinstate the historical ties Soviet Russia had with Iraq back in the 1970s and 1980s – an impossible endeavor while the US still had a stronghold there.




Authored by Ksenia Svetlova, a Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.



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