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 evolution 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.
AMMAN—Although the reasons that led Russia to intervene militarily in Syria, on September 30, 2015, are “plentiful, complex and interrelated,” according to Taha Abdul Wahed, a Syrian journalist who focuses on Russian affairs, Russian officials seldom mention these reasons to justify their intervention.
Among these reasons, Abdul Wahed told Syria Direct, are “aborting public protests and stopping the advance of the Arab Spring before it reaches Central Asian republics and Russia itself.”
They also include fear in Moscow “of the US exploiting the Syrian revolution to strengthen its hegemony by aligning itself with Assad’s opponents,” in addition to economic motives: allowing Russia to control some of Syria’s most important economic sectors, promoting Russian weapons as an important source of national income, and contributing to building and consolidating political alliances.
However, in justifying its intervention in Syria, Russia relies on a different set of pretexts it considers to be universally, regionally and even locally accepted. These pretexts include: fighting terrorism, securing a political settlement to the conflict in Syria that would prevent the collapse of the “state,” as well as protecting Christian Syrians.
On the first day of its military involvement, the Russian Air Force carried out 20 airstrikes in Syria. While the Russian Ministry of Defense claimed to hit the Islamic State (IS) positions, its main targets were the Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated groups, which only the Government of Damascus and its allies identify as terrorists.
Nonetheless, during Moscow’s eighth international security conference in April 2019, General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, said: “Moscow’s military support for Damascus in 2015 prevented the collapse of the Syrian state from terrorist attacks.”
While Moscow insists that the aim of its intervention is to fight terrorist organizations, the director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), Fadl Abdel Ghani, stresses that “Russia’s attacks on IS are less than 20% of its overall strikes, [while] the largest share, or 80%, targeted civilians.”
“By September 30, 2019, Russia alone killed 6,686 civilians, including 1,928 children and 908 women,” Abdul Ghani told Syria Direct. “At least 3.3 million people have been displaced,” with one million of them becoming displaced as a result of the recent Russian-government attack on northwestern Syria, in an alleged confrontation with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an internationally listed terrorist organization present in the region.
Also, while Russia concentrates its military effort on helping the government forces seeking to eliminate the Syrian opposition groups not classified as terrorist organizations, IS is gradually regaining its strength in the Syrian desert following the destruction of its “state” by the US backed-Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Thus, IS has been able to carry out military operations and bombings throughout Syria.
Protecting Syrian Christians
A year after the breakout of the Syrian revolution, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, warned against what he called a “Sunni government” in Damascus.
The Russian Orthodox Church considered Moscow’s intervention in Syria tantamount to a “holy war.” At the time, the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, noted that “the Orthodox people have noticed several violent incidents against Christians in the region.”
However, the director of the Assyrian Observatory for Human Rights, Jamil Diarbakerli, emphasized that “there is no side that supports Syrian Christians, rather it’s the complete opposite.”
“Neither the regime nor the Syrian opposition has ever cared about the threatened Christian population in the country,” he added.
“The more the great powers, such as Russia, talk about Christians, the more the violence and persecution towards them increases. Christians have become a pretext for all the forces in the ongoing conflicts in Syria.”
According to a report published by the SNHR, “no less than 124 acts of aggression against Christian worship sites took place at the hands of major factions in Syria” between March 2011 and September 2019.
Syrian government forces committed 75 acts, IS committed 10, HTS committed two, armed opposition factions committed 33 and various other groups committed four.
Also, Syrian Christian activists were angered by a statement by the spokesman for the Russian Airbase of Khmeimim, in July 2019, who justified the recent Russian bombing operations in Idlib as being “a response to the shelling of Christians in the town of Muhradah,” adding that Russia’s intervention in Syria was for “the protection of Christians only.”
Syrian Christians for Peace, an organization based in California, rejected “these false claims,” and emphasized that “Russia only intervened in Syria to ensure that the Assad regime stays in power, which violated the political rights of Christians and civilians for decades.”
“The regime caused the displacement of [Syrian Christians] and cooperated with extremist factions to threaten their homes and used Christians as a tool to stay in power under the pretense of protecting them,” the organization said.
Diarbakerli further added that: “The Russian intervention occurred for specific geopolitical reasons which were in Russia’s interests. Any speech about supporting Christians is just meant for the media. Russia’s presence in Syria does not change a thing for the original situation of the marginalized Syrian Christians.”
“The massive emigration of Christians is ongoing and is increasing. The [average] Christian does not trust that there will be any true solution to the Syrian enigma in the foreseeable future. In addition, none of the displaced Christians are returning to their villages due to the war. Even more importantly, there is no support for Christian political organizations to enter the country’s political realm.”
Commenting on the recent formation of a constitutional committee to draft a new constitution for Syria, Diarbakerli noted that the membership of the committee does not take the Syrian Christian community into consideration.
“The regime and the opposition have a share in the committee, and we are left out. Why this deliberate exclusion of Syrian Christians, specifically active civil society organizations and figures in the Christian community?”
According to Abdul Wahed, the Russian pretext of protecting Christians in Syria means “to influence some countries’ stances on the Russian intervention.” He clarified that when Moscow “says that it is working to protect Christians in the Middle East, it is addressing western societies, especially right-wing forces that exploit the idea of ‘defending Christians’ as a slogan in their electoral campaigns.”
Protecting the Syrian state
According to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Moscow’s primary goal in intervening in Syria is the defense of “the institutions of the Syrian state and not of President Assad.” He further added that he “does not want to create a situation in Syria similar to what happened in Libya, Somalia, or Afghanistan.”
However, Russia has prevented any attempts at genuine reform in Syria since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, something which became increasingly obvious with its 2015 military intervention.
The perpetuation of the same inhuman practices by the Syrian Government security service, which led to the revolution, prevents millions of Syrian refugees from returning to the country.
Corruption is widespread and has significantly contributed to the deteriorating economic situation and the inability of the state to provide services to areas it controls.
Russia has also hollowed out the political process meant to lead to a political solution to the conflict. Referring to the recently formed constitutional committee, the opposition Syrian activist Anwar al-Bunni said Russia’s goal in forming the body was to “implement its military agenda on the ground and skip over the transitional phase, therefore bypassing the stage where those guilty of [war] crimes could be held accountable.”
“Participation in the constitutional committee is considered a true betrayal of the aspirations and hopes of the Syrian people to build a democratic and free Syria.”
The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Nada Atieh and Will Christou