September 30, 2015 marked a transformational point in the evolution of the Syrian revolution that began in March 2011, as Russia intervened militarily in Syria to prop up the Assad regime.
On the eve of Russia’s intervention, the Syrian government was just “two or three weeks away from collapsing,” according to the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Since then, Russia’s political and military support has enabled Syrian government forces to recapture the previously opposition-held areas in the northern, central, and southern Syria and Damascus is now seeking to take control of the last Syrian opposition stronghold in the northwest province of Idlib.
As such, the international community has started to consider the idea of negotiating with Bashar al-Assad despite his human rights violations, among them war crimes and the use of chemical weapons against unarmed civilians.
In this series, Syria Direct addresses several dimensions of the Russian military intervention in Syria, including the history of Russia’s political actions in the Syrian revolution, the pretext Moscow provided for the intervention, the tools it used to change the trajectory and outcome of the war, Russia’s conception of a political settlement to the conflict, and the Syrian opposition’s position on Russia.
In February, a train embarked on a months-long 28,000-kilometer tour of Russia’s hinterland, proudly displaying hard-fought trophies the Russian army obtained in Syria.
The train was commemorating four years of Russian involvement in Syria and carried confiscated Islamic State (IS) equipment and army souvenirs which showcased the flashy, high-tech nature of Russia’s forces. It also had an exhibit that allegedly showed how Syrian rebels were responsible for the April 2018 chemical attack in the city of Douma near Damascus.
The eclectic exhibit embodied the strategy Russia used during its military intervention in Syria—hybrid warfare—in which war is not just fought with bullets, but also with tweets, aid packages and mercenaries.
Russian Air Force
On the eve of Russia’s entry into Syria’s civil war, Bashar al-Assad regime’s forces were on the brink of collapse and losing territory. Yet even as opposition factions made territorial gains, Damascus was able to inflict massive casualties due to its air force which dropped bombs on militants and civilians alike, killing 250,000 and injuring one million Syrians.
With severely limited anti-aircraft weaponry and no air force of its own, the Syrian opposition struggled to combat Damascus’ aerial assaults. Still, direct attacks on government air force bases and defections had taken its toll.
According to a US Air Force analysis, by 2013 Damascus retained only a third of its aircraft from pre-revolution levels and was so afraid of pilots defecting that non-Alawite pilots were forced to “stay in the barracks.”
Russia’s intervention reinforced the Syrian air force and quickly changed the pitch of battle. Russia carried out 39,000 airstrikes, leaving 6,686 civilians dead and displacing approximately 3.3 million people to date.
Further, Russia’s air presence in Syria effectively put a halt to the two strategies that opposition factions had previously employed to undermine Damascus’s shelling, as Russian forces prevented further airbase takeovers and its planes flew too high for the opposition’s limited anti-aircraft weaponry to target.
Also, the installation of Russian S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft systems significantly increased the cost of any military intervention in Syria for foreign powers and decreased their appetite for operations within the country.
According to a June 2019 Institute for the Study of War report, the deployment of the anti-aircraft systems “shape American, Turkish and Israeli calculations about military options they might choose,” as the anti-aircraft systems created a “fear of escalation” with Russia in Syria.
Russia wants a “just war”
Russia has employed a sophisticated disinformation campaign through social media, both at home and abroad, to present its intervention in Syria as a “just war,” in addition to obscuring the true extent to which it is involved in the conflict.
“They are having to play to the Russian audience, because … Syria is not a popular war,” Dr. Mark Galeotti, a senior associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, told Syria Direct. “It’s not that Russians care really one way or the other about Bashar al-Assad; there’s a very strong resistance to the idea of their boys fighting and above all, dying in Syria.”
According to a June 2019 survey, the majority of Russians want Russia to halt its involvement in Syria. However, public perception of Russia’s actions is still quite positive; as 72 percent of respondents believe the Russian Air Force has achieved its goals in Syria as of 2018.
“They’re trying to present the picture that they have a very limited footprint and [their intervention] is purely in support of a legitimate government, in a kind of humanitarian role,” Dr. Galeotti added.
Typically, the Russian state and media depict Russian military involvement in Syria as occurring only through its air force, rather than involving actual boots on the ground.
In addition to downplaying the scope of its involvement, Russia has consistently portrayed the Syrian opposition as violent Islamic extremists in order to portray itself as a stabilizing force in the region, in a supposed contrast with the West, particularly the U.S.
“They want to present the entire opposition as essentially being jihadist lunatics,” Dr. Galeotti said. “It is a way of legitimizing the Syrian government. Russia’s key point is that we are not the destabilizing ones, we are the ones who are coming to actually help a legitimate, internationally recognized government.”
Russia is attempting to illustrate that “America comes in and destabilizes situations and brings down regimes and creates chaos, and that’s why American power is actually a dangerous thing for the world,” Dr. Galeotti added.
In addition, Russian disinformation campaigns often target opposition activists who are involved in humanitarian and legal documentation work, linking them to Western governments and terrorist groups to discredit them.
“[Civil society groups] are targeted by Russian trolls and disinformation campaigns, particularly those organizations in charge of documenting the chemical attacks and detainee issues,” Noura al-Jizawi, a Syrian opposition activist who was detained by the regime in 2012 and is currently a Canada-based researcher based focusing on Russian disinformation in Syria, told Syria Direct.
“It’s a war against accountability and about misleading the public,” al-Jizawi said. “Their narrative repeats the same themes: that these groups like the Syrian Network for Human Rights [SNHR], the White Helmets and the Syrian-American Medical Society [SAMS] are affiliated with al-Qaeda, are western-backed [or] funded by the West.”
Russia has alleged on various occasions that specific groups, such as the White Helmets, are al-Qaeda branches who employ actors and stage videos of regime attacks. In a UN panel on December 20, 2018, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, asserted that the group is stealing organs from its patients.
Previously, so-called “troll” accounts circulated these accusations on social media, according to al-Jizawi. However, alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election caused a shift in strategy as “Facebook and Twitter shut down the accounts in charge of these disinformation campaigns,” she said.
A cartoon posted on the Russian Embassy in the UK account on Twitter depicts the White Helmets as both actors and Al-Qaeda, 28/09/2017 (Twitter)
As a result, there was a “significant change” in Russian social media strategy. According to al-Jizawi, the same narratives started to be presented by a handful of “mainly white influencers who speak English fluently,” like Vanessa Beeley, Rania Khalek and Max Blumenthal, on viral videos and online publications.
All three media personalities received money after being awarded “The Serena Shim Award for Uncompromised Integrity in Journalism” from a the Association for Investment in Popular Action Committees, pro-Assad group which operates in the U.S., among other countries.
“As an example, imagine the position of someone in Canada, asking who should I trust? Should I trust the White Helmets, many of who are from Sunni backgrounds and if they [are] women [maybe] they have their headscarf on. Or should I trust the other group of white people who speak my language and have some publication talking about some evidence? Even if these ideas are not true or fake,” al-Jizawi said.
Disinformation campaigns impede the efforts of activists attempting to hold the Syrian government accountable for war crimes committed during the Syrian revolution as Russia finds its reputation intertwined with Damascus.
“So many people think these disinformation campaigns [exist] only to dominate the Syrian narrative. But I do believe it’s beyond that: it’s about accountability and justice, cleaning the evidence,” al-Jizawi said.
Private Military Contractors
Russian Private Military Contractors (PMC) have played a large role in Moscow’s intervention in Syria, providing a flexible force multiplier and plausible deniability for Russia, which legally classified matters related to PMCs as state secrets in 2018—preventing them from being reported on.
The most prominent of such PMCs is the “Wagner Group,” which became the subject of much speculation in 2018 after a deadly clash in Deir e-Zour between US-backed Kurdish forces on one side, and Syrian government forces and Wagner contractors on the other; it left between 80 and 600 Russian dead.
“[Wagner] was a way of basically making [the deployment] of ground forces into Syria politically palatable at home,” Dr. Galeotti said. “[Russians] feel that Wagner [has] the capacity to be deployed both to slightly fog the Russian involvement in terms of the outside world, but also so as not to worry Russians who don’t want to see their kids sent to foreign fields.”
Because PMCs are not officially Russian soldiers, their deaths are not reported, nor do they drain state coffers as the contracting party, most often Damascus, foots the bill, according to Dr. Galeotti. Further, the opacity of the relationship between the government and Russian PMCs allows forces to be used for operations for which Moscow does not want to claim official involvement.
Accordingly, there is disagreement on the degree to which these groups act independently of the Kremlin. Dr. Galeotti suggests that they best be viewed as “pseudo-mercenary forces,” expected to follow Moscow’s orders when called upon, but otherwise free to pursue their commercial interests, as Wagner and other groups have done in Palmyra by partnering with energy companies to clear local oil fields of IS fighters.
There are probably “between 1,500 and 3,000 actual [PMC] combatants deployed [in Syria] at any one time,” depending on the current military needs of the Syrian government, according to Dr. Galeotti.
Syria Direct repeatedly asked the Russian embassy in Amman for a confirmation of the number, location and purpose of Russian PMCs in Syria, but it declined to comment.
Besides providing political flexibility to Moscow, PMCs have acted as advisors and reinforcements to Syrian government forces throughout the revolution.
“These [PMCs] advise and lead military operations, not the Assad regime” General Ahmad Hamada, a general in the Syrian army who defected during the revolution, told Syria Direct. “They are made up of retired Russian soldiers. They give help and advice, in addition to large amounts of military and logistical support.”
Before the Russian intervention, Syrian government forces were suffering losses at the hands of the opposition and “morale was very poor,” according to Dr. Galeotti. PMCs, alongside other Spetsnaz (Russian special purpose forces), helped support government forces.
Further, those militias with whom PMC and Russian Spetsnaz soldiers were embedded were strengthened specifically to help implement Russia’s agenda in Syria, part of a larger competition between Russia and Iran to carve out zones of influence in Syria, according to General Hamada.
“This is what happened with the creation of the Fifth Armored Division and the Tiger Forces,” General Hamada said.
To date, there have been at least 11 different Russian PMCs involved in Syria, according to Inform Napalm, a Ukrainian Open-Source analysis group that focuses on Russia.
Short-term humanitarian relief
Though Russia’s method of support has primarily focused on consolidating Bashar al-Assad’s rule and take back of cities, it extended beyond the military realm. As cities and towns across Syria were recaptured, Russia simultaneously undertook a quieter form of intervention through humanitarian aid dispersion, according to a report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Since 2016, at least 13 Russian humanitarian organizations have operated in the country; almost all groups beginning their operations soon after Russia’s military involvement.
Western humanitarian organizations are required to go through a complex and time-consuming process to receive permission to work inside government-controlled areas in Syria, in contrast, Russian organizations face relative ease to operate in the same places.
A general requirement for international aid organizations operating in Syria is to work through the local Syrian Arab Red Crescent or Syria Trust for Development, which was founded by Assad’s wife, Asma al-Assad, in 2006. But certain Russian organizations such as the Russian Reconciliation Center and the Armenian Russian Humanitarian Response Center, are able to operate without prior permission at times, according to the report.
The regulatory framework in which Russian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) enter Syria is shrouded in ambiguity and unconstrained by humanitarian frameworks that govern western aid organizations. The Syrian government’s prioritizing of Russia’s image and political goals threatens the value of humanitarian aid in Syria as a whole, as the close connection between Russia’s humanitarian endeavors and the Syrian government go against certain humanitarian principles that are “vital to ensure trust in the aid system and international humanitarian law is maintained...especially neutrality and independence.”
While the Russian government pushes the international community to pay for long-term reconstruction in Syria, Moscow is turning de-escalation zones into humanitarian zones and Russian humanitarian organizations use Russian military aircraft to deliver their aid, Grigory Lukyanov, an expert on Russian foreign policy and conflict at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow told insomnia.ru, a Russian news site.
“Russian aid is distributed mainly through military channels, and this is a limitation. It cannot reach those people who do not have good relations with Russia in Syria,” Lukyanov said.
The activity of such Russian organizations could affect the reputation of aid in Syria as a whole, and the loss of trust among Syrians can take decades to repair.
This article was updated at 9:41 AM 10/3/2019