Who in Syria supports Assad

Putin has been supporting Assad for five years : The consequences of Russia's intervention in the Syrian war

When Russian fighter pilots flew their first missions in Syria five years ago, it became clear on the very first day that Moscow had very different priorities than the West. Only a few of the 20 air strikes on September 30, 2015 were aimed at positions of the terrorist militia “Islamic State”, which at the time was fought from the air by the USA and other western states. The rockets and bombs hit mainly Syrian opposition groups who wanted to overthrow President Bashar al Assad.

Moscow's military intervention saved the Syrian president from certain defeat in the war, changed the balance in the region and marked Russia's return to the Middle East.

The intervention

Russia intervenes in the battles in Syria primarily with fighter planes and helicopters and relies on the Hmeimin air base near Latakia on the Mediterranean and the naval base in Syrian Tartus, the only Russian naval base in the Mediterranean. Both bases are being expanded for long-term use. Moscow also deploys hundreds of military policemen and military advisers.

Russia, on the other hand, hardly offers regular ground troops, although Russian mercenaries are fighting in Syria. In February 2018, more than a dozen of them died in a US air strike east of the Euphrates. The biblical river forms a dividing line between Russia and the United States: to the west of the Euphrates, Russia has air sovereignty, to the east of it the USA.

Moscow's motifs

The fact that Moscow will return to the region in 2015 after decades of absence in the Middle East after the collapse of the Soviet Union is partly due to the aim of preventing Russian extremists from returning to Russia from Syria. In addition, Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin is taking advantage of the disinterest of the USA, which is significantly reducing its involvement in the region after the disastrous Iraq war.

By engaging in Syria, Russia can break out of its international isolation after the war in Ukraine: Putin is building close cooperation with Turkey and Iran. The leadership in Moscow also sees the countries of the Middle East as buyers of weapons and nuclear technology.

Syria's suffering

In the first phase of the civil war from 2011 onwards, the Syrian army was put on the defensive by Assad's opponents and only controlled around 25 percent of the national territory when the Russian intervention began. But the Russian intervention five years ago fundamentally changed the military situation. Thanks to Moscow's strong support, 70 percent of the area is now back under Assad's sphere of influence.

With Idlib, today there is only one province - ruled by Islamists - in the hands of the insurgents. Observers are certain, however, that it is only a matter of time before this region is also recaptured by the regime. Assad has never left any doubt that he regards all of Syria as his territory. To achieve this goal, he does not shy away from committing war crimes. This has resulted in the deaths of thousands upon thousands. Millions of people have been displaced. Much of the country has been destroyed.

The corona pandemic hits Syria all the harder. The health system is unable to respond to the spread of the virus - it barely exists anymore. Hospitals, if they exist at all, can often neither admit nor treat Covid 19 patients, according to the United Nations. Then there is the economic hardship. Food and fuel prices have reached record levels. More than 80 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line.

Power factor in the Middle East

Five years after the intervention began, it is clear that there will be no solution to the Syrian conflict without Russia. Putin is working closely with the Turkish head of state Recep Tayyip Erdogan and can thus accelerate the NATO member's departure from its traditional ties to the West.

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In addition, Russia has been improving its relations with Israel and Egypt since 2015. Putin has long been a sought-after discussion partner for top politicians from the Middle East. In October 2017, King Salman was the first monarch of Saudi Arabia to visit the Russian capital. The Kremlin is now trying to expand its influence in Libya as well.

Putin's strategy

However, Russia is not strong enough to completely oust the US as a Middle East power. Moscow cannot shoulder the cost of rebuilding Syria, which is estimated at at least $ 250 billion, on its own. In military terms, the USA, with its naval and air bases in Turkey and the Gulf and its tens of thousands of soldiers in the region, will remain much stronger than Russia for the time being.

It is therefore an open question whether Moscow can convert the political gains of recent years into a lasting Middle East strategy. Putin may still have to rely on taking advantage of opportunities "created by regional states or by mistakes made by the West," writes Middle East expert Becca Wasser of the US think tank Rand.

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