Russia has arguably achieved most of its set objectives for Syria, though a withdrawal of its troops would jeopardize the stability of the Assad regime.
Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared next to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in front of cameras at the Khmeimim Air Base in Syria to usher in the return of his soldiers to Russia in December 2017. “Friends, the motherland is waiting for you,” Putin told the Russian air force detachment during his visit. “You are coming back home with victory.”
Putin emphasized that his soldiers had already achieved the Kremlin’s aims after a little over two years of officially conducting its operation in Syria. One such goals, according to him and against common knowledge, was the fight against terrorism. With the “terrorists” defeated, Putin instructed his generals to start bringing back home most of the Russian contingent.
It has been four years since Putin’s appearance at the Khmeimim Air Base and the Russian military has remained a steady presence in Syria.
However, it has been four years since Putin’s appearance at the Khmeimim Air Base, and the Russian military has remained a steady presence in Syria. Since the situation in the country remains highly volatile, a Russian withdrawal of troops, as Putin announced in 2017, remains inconceivable. After all, the departure of Russian forces would upset the fragile balance in Syria and rekindle war on various fronts in the country.
As a result, Russia’s troops are destined to remain in Syria for the long term. For one, Assad still depends on Moscow’s support, which Putin is inclined to provide. Not necessarily because Putin shares a deep friendship with Assad, but arguably because there is no alternative to Assad for various reasons, and mostly, the non-existence of a viable Syrian opposition.
If Russia were to remove its troops under the current circumstances, Assad’s position and thus Russia’s influence in Syria and the Middle East, which the Kremlin has continuously gained over these past years, would be in jeopardy, especially since its attempts to curtail Tehran’s influence in Damascus and reform the Syrian army have been unsuccessful.
Perhaps even more problematic is Putin’s plan; the idea that Russia, together with Turkey and Iran, would decide on Syria’s political future, funded by the West’s willingness to reconstruct the country unconditionally.
To this day, Washington and Brussels refuse to provide the necessary funds to reconstruct the destroyed country as long as no political solution exists, or rather, as long as Assad remains in power. Instead, Washington has imposed severe sanctions on Syria, which have devastated its already shaky economy.
And while the Astana talks between Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran that have been conducted since 2017 have led to a series of regional ceasefires, negotiations with the opposition about a new Syrian constitution have not moved one iota, thus making a sudden change of the status quo unlikely.
Moreover, although individual Arab states are cautiously reestablishing relations with Assad, Russia has not successfully rehabilitated the Syrian dictator after ten years of atrocities and various war crimes.
It would be a mistake to believe Syria has become a Russian quagmire
With that being said, it would be a mistake to believe Syria has become a Russian quagmire, Assad’s very own endless war for Putin.
The benefits of the operation in Syria do outweigh the costs. Russia has become an essential regulatory force in the Middle East. It has strengthened its relations with regional actors such as Turkey, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. And even if Syria, unlike Crimea, Ukraine, or Belarus, has no significance for its national identity, the commitment has strengthened the narrative of Russia as a great power—at least within Russia.
Furthermore, Russia has been able to use its engagement in Syria to test new weapons and gain operational experience. It has also expanded its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean. With the naval base in Tartus, Moscow has fulfilled its longstanding wish for a permanent naval base in the region. Perhaps even more pivotal, with the Khmeimim Air Base, the Kremlin has also acquired a critical military airport on NATO’s southern flank.
Even if Russia remains tied to Syria for some time, the price is manageable financially and politically. In Russia, most of the population would like an end to the military operation. Still, there are no protests because, in contrast to the Chechen war, for example, there are few dead Russian soldiers to complain about.
Even if Russia remains tied to Syria for some time, the price is manageable financially and politically.
Even at the height of the fighting, it is estimated that fewer than 5,000 Russian soldiers were deployed. In addition to air force pilots and technicians, these were mainly special forces and Chechen military police. The Kremlin relied on the Syrian army, Iranian militias, and Russian mercenaries for its offensives. These were not only used to secure strategically important facilities but were also involved in combat operations on the front lines.
However, Moscow restricted its use of mercenaries after an offensive by the notorious Wagner Group near Deir al-Zur ended in a bloody debacle in February 2018. 300 to 600 mercenaries and militiamen were allegedly killed in the attack on an oil field controlled by Kurdish militias when the American air force and artillery came to the aid of their Kurdish allies.
The total number of Russians killed remains unknown. Anyone who researches this in Russia risks trouble with the government, which only confirms the death of its own citizens in Syria in exceptional cases. What is clear is that dead mercenaries are far less of a problem for the Kremlin than dead soldiers. Accordingly, the Russian General Staff would instead send mercenaries into combat than their own soldiers.
What the military operation has cost since September 2015 is just as unknown as the number of deaths. The Kremlin put the cost of the first six months at $464 million, and it is unclear whether the figures are correct and how such expenditure developed over the following years. Nonetheless, compared to the billions of dollars that the US spent every month for years on military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the costs for the Kremlin in Syria are manageable.
The low military spending, casualty figures, and geopolitical implications explain why Russia does not have to leave Syria, which remains— at least for the foreseeable future— a winning proposition for the Kremlin.