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.
AMMAN—Russia inherited the Soviet Union’s support of the successive “Baathist” Governments of Damascus that began in the 1960s. Until its collapse in 1991, the Soviet Union was the main supplier of the Syrian army. It “supplied some $25 billion of military equipment to Syria and trained some 10,000 Syrian officers,” according to Faysal Itani, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
In return, the Soviet Union gained economic and military privileges in Syria, perhaps most notably the 1971 agreement to build a Soviet naval military base in the Mediterranean city of Tartus, which was rehabilitated in September 2008.
Following an era of deep instability in Russia which paved the way for President Vladimir Putin, Moscow wrote off 73% of Syria’s debt, $9.8 billion of $13.4 billion, in 2005, while Damascus granted Russia concessions in important economic sectors in Syria, particularly oil and gas.
Russian veto: International political cover
In an interview with the Russian government-owned Russia Today (RT) on June 11, 2013, Putin acknowledged that: “[Syria] was obviously ripe for some kind of change; drastic change. The country’s leadership should have realized this and started implementing the necessary reforms. It’s obvious that had they done that, what we see now in Syria wouldn’t have happened.”
However, absolute Russian support for the Assad government began in the early days of the peaceful popular demonstrations, when Moscow vetoed a draft resolution calling for “an end to human rights violations… the use of force against civilians” in October 2011.
Russia went on to veto another 12 international resolutions that were aimed at reducing violence in Syria and prosecuting war criminals. In May 2014, Russia vetoed a draft resolution referring the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court on the grounds that the resolution was an attempt at military intervention. Following its direct military intervention, Moscow’s veto use increased, as nine out of its 13 vetoes occurred after it entered Syria.
In October 2016, Russian aircraft provided air cover to government forces and allied militias in an attack on eastern Aleppo neighborhoods while simultaneously blocking a draft resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire. A month before, Russia vetoed a resolution calling for a cessation of hostilities between all parties in Aleppo. As a result, government forces and its allied militias recaptured eastern Aleppo neighborhoods and displaced some 35,000 people.
Additionally, on April 11, 2018, Moscow prevented the passage of a UN resolution calling for the creation of an independent mechanism to investigate the use of chemical weapons in the city of Douma, in eastern Ghouta.
Three days after the chemical attack, Russian Colonel Alexander Zorin visited the location of the chemical weapons attack. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was banned from entering the city.
After that, Jaysh al-Islam, the largest opposition faction in eastern Ghouta, reached a settlement agreement with Russia, which provided for the departure of fighters and civilians who refused to compromise with Damascus, as well as allowed government forces to enter Ghouta.
The most recent Russian veto concerning Syria was on September 19. The veto blocked a draft resolution submitted by Kuwait, Germany and Belgium to stop hostilities in Idlib.
Shaping international discussions on Syria
The Russian Defense Ministry announced the beginning of the its military intervention in Syria as a “fight against terrorism.” However, the very first strikes conducted by Russian military jets targeted Syrian opposition areas held by groups not classified as terrorists, namely the cities of Talbiseh, Rastan and Zafarana in the northern countryside of Homs, with several ’thermobaric’ missiles, killing 42 civilians.
While Russia enabled government forces and allied militias to take control of most of the areas under Syrian opposition, Moscow also succeeded in controlling international efforts to resolve the conflict in Syria, mainly through the Astana Talks launched in partnership with Iran and Turkey at the end of 2016.
Today, the Astana Talks have become an alternative to UN Resolution 2254, which was meant to be the international reference for a political solution in Syria. Consequently, the idea of a political settlement was reduced to an amendment of the Syrian constitution by a committee formed in accordance with the vision of Moscow, Tehran and Damascus.
Reaping the benefits
Under the pretext of preventing external intervention in Syria’s internal affairs, Russia has become Damascus’s patron internationally. It is Russian officers and officials who speak on behalf of the Syrian government in international forums, and declare truces and reconciliations with opposition factions.
Further, the Hmeimim airbase became Russian territory within Syria via a deal signed in 2015. When Russian President Putin visited the base in the countryside of Latakia in December 2017, Assad was invited to meet him there, as Hezbollah’s TV station, al-Manar, reported.
Russian companies continue to acquire contracts in some of Syria’s most important economic sectors, including oil and gas, seaports, airports, chemical industries, phosphates, potash, construction and reconstruction. Such contracts have provided Russian companies new clients in the Middle East and Asia. Russia’s Rosoboronexport signed contracts with 53 countries totaling $15 billion in 2017.
Russia also boasts that it used Syria as a testing field for more than 200 new weapons, the head of the State Duma Defense Committee, Vladimir Shamanov, said in February 2018.
The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Nada Atieh and Will Christou