Russian Military Involvement in Syria: Muddying the Waters of an Already Murky Conflict

In September of 2015, the Russian Federal Council gave their unanimous approval for the use of military force in Syria. This vote comes years after Russia blocked the Western-backed United Nations Security Council resolutions that would have given military support to the rebel forces fighting against the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Since the vote, a wide variety of military equipment has been sent to Syria by Russia: multiple strike-fighters, bombers, ground-attack aircraft, helicopters, tanks, among others. In just two months, Russia has used these weapons to strike targets in Syria and Iraq at a rate that far surpasses that of the United States and its allies. Reports have shown, ‘U.S.-led air forces have averaged around six strikes per day during the past year, [whereas] the Russians started with eight, were soon up to a couple dozen, and have mounted as many as 94 strikes in a day.’[1] Unfortunately, these airstrikes seem to be at odds with the goals of the United States and other Western countries, which see President Assad as a threat to his own people and the democracy as a whole. Russia, however, views the stability of the Assad regime as the panacea to the current fracturing of the Free Syria Army and the Rise of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Because of this, the current Syrian Civil War is turning into what can be thought of as a quasi-Cold War proxy war.  In the end, this means that what was thought to be a win for the Syrian rebels has become much more complicated, bringing with it the weight of international politics and a Russia trying to assert its dominance in the Middle East.

Image courtesy of Tass/Corbis © 2015, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Tass/Corbis © 2015, some rights reserved.

Historically, Russia has been close allies with the established Syrian Government. In the Cold War, the Syrians supported the Soviet Union in its struggle against the West, which forged strong political ties between the two states. From 1950 onwards, this bond grew into one which included military and economic support from the Soviet Union and with the USSR being granted access to open a naval military base in Tartus. Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, the Russian government has supported the Syrian government with various forms of aid ranging from training to military advisors to weaponry. ‘According to some estimates, 10 per cent of Russia’s global arms sales go to Syria, with current contracts estimated to be worth $1.5 billion.’[2] In addition, this military support is not just in the form of small arms. ‘Besides ammunition, recent sales have included military training aircraft, air defense systems and anti-tank weapons.’[3] These arm sales have propped up the embattled Assad regime and have indeed allowed it to make gains against the rebel forces. Now that Russian troops themselves have entered Syrian borders and carried out airstrikes against Assad government-opposing forces, the future of Syria is even more muddled.

The largest issue posed by Russian involvement in Syria is the creation of a proxy war between an historical ally of the Assad regime and the West, with the Syrian people as the pawns who shed the blood themselves. Both powers are supposedly united in the fight against ISIS, but military video data has shown that Russia is focusing most of their effort on factions dedicated to overthrowing Assad, some of whom are supported by the United States and other Western countries. ‘American official analysis and independent journalists, like the Bellingcat investigative website [say] that more than 90% per cent of the bombs have been dropped in places held by groups other than the so-called Islamic State. Of 60 Russian defense ministry strike videos with geo-location data examined by Bellingcat, only one was in an area where IS operated.’[4]

In addition, U.S. defense secretary Ashton Carter has been quoted as saying that more than 80 per cent of all Russian bombs used are ‘dumb,’ meaning that they are not laser or satellite guided, as most of the U.S. ones are. Reports also state that Russian forces have also used cluster munitions, which ‘Western air forces would shun for their indiscriminate effect.’[5]

 To counteract this Russian aggression, statements gathered from insurgent commanders fighting the Assad government have confirmed since the Russians began air attacks, anti-Assad factions have been receiving powerful American-made anti-tank missiles. The new weapons on both sides have done anything but shorten the foreseeable timespan of the conflict.  The New York Times has reported that, ‘Increased levels of support have raised morale on both sides of the conflict, broadening war aims and hardening political positions, making a diplomatic settlement all the more unlikely.’[6]

These recent developments have shown that with pure self-interest guiding Vladimir Putin and the Russians, the conflict in Syria will only grow more complicated. Unfortunately, with Russia holding veto power in the Security Council, the United Nations seems like a futile instrument in guiding Russian policy. It will take a concerted effort by the Western member states to make it in Russia’s best interest to concentrate their military power on fighting ISIS and not fighting the people the West is supporting. With the coordinated attacks in Paris, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the forefront of the public and political mindset, now it is time to create a definitive strategy to defeat ISIS and provide safety for the millions of people still in Syria. These plans must take into account Russian involvement and acknowledge that Russian efforts have so far been counterproductive in terms of finding a solution to the issues. In addition, humanitarian and comprehensive bottom-up programs allowing for the safety and self-determination of the Syrian non-combatant peoples must be at the forefront of discussions, so that the power vacuum that is left is minimized and will not give rise to another ISIS-like group. Most importantly, Western powers must get to grips with the long-term ramifications of Russian involvement in Syria and understand that ending this conflict peacefully will take many years and include the lessons learned in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan.



[3] Ibid