Syria Insight: Russia's intervention five years on (Part 1)
While Iran bolstered the Assad regime with thousands of foreign fighters, Turkey secured its borders, and the US was pivotal to defeating the Islamic State group, Russia's intervention - on 30 September 2015 - was to change the course of the war entirely.
Five years ago, the Syrian regime had lost its second provincial capital with the fall of Idlib to the Jaish Al-Fatah alliance, threatening nearby Latakia province.
This also risked Moscow's interests in Syria and within months Russian airstrikes had knocked out key rebel supply routes and bases.
This paved the way for the regime to re-capture East Aleppo in 2016, Eastern Ghouta and Daraa in 2018, while an onslaught on Idlib in late 2019 and early 2020 snipped away at the last opposition territories there. None of this would have been possible without Russia.
In this two-part Syria Insight, we look at the political gains and human losses caused by Russia's military intervention, which began five years ago.
On 30 September 2020, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu gave a sober assessment of his military's role in Syria, as he marked the fifth year of Russia's intervention.
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"With the support of the Russian aviation, Syria's armed forces liberated 1,024 populated areas from terrorists. As a result, the government troops and self-defence forces regained control over 88 percent of the country's territory," he said according to Russian TASS news agency.
"The task set by the supreme commander-in-chief five years ago was successfully fulfilled. The Islamic State international terrorist organisation ceased to exist in Syria, none of the terrorists managed to find his way into Russia."
At the time of the intervention, Russia claimed its decision to enter the war was owing to the threat posed by the Islamic State group.
Yet, practically all Russian airstrikes during the opening days of the campaign were directed at opposition - not IS - areas, and this pattern was to be repeated throughout the war.
From this, we can see that Moscow's primary objectives in the campaign were the survival of the Assad regime, expanding its influence in the region, and eradicating potential Islamist fighters from Russia and former Soviet states.
Despite Russia's role in helping the regime re-capture resource-rich territories from IS in central and eastern Syria, it was opposition areas that endured the bulk of Russia's thousands of airstrikes.
|Russia's intervention - on 30 September 2015 - was to change the course of the war entirely|
This included the targeting of hospitals, civil rescue centres, and schools that only exacerbated the misery of Syrians suffering from regime sieges and barrel bombs.
"The day Russia started its military support for Assad, everything changed for Syria. Assad was losing but Putin's backing has protected him and bolstered the regime militarily and internationally," Ranim Badenjki, a communications officer at The Syria Campaign, told The New Arab.
"During the past five years, Russian warplanes killed people in their homes and schools, destroyed life-saving health infrastructure, and emptied whole cities of its residents. It continues to bomb and kill with impunity."
Owing to critical Russian military assistance, the regime re-took Syria's main urban centres - an artery of ravaged and ransacked towns stretching from Aleppo in the north to Daraa in the south.
"Russia didn't only use its air force against Syrians and to keep Assad in power, but also took every chance to block aid and accountability for war crimes on a diplomatic level," said Badenjki.
"The regime attacks, supported by Russia's air force, have forced civil society, along with civilians, to flee the areas captured such as in Ghouta and Aleppo to Idlib in northern Syria."
Activists say that Russia deliberately targeted civil society infrastructure to ensure that all forms of self-governance outside regime areas were untenable, including during the last offensive on Hama and Idlib in 2019 and early 2020.
"Many local civil society groups in northwest Syria - including the grassroots organization Kesh Malek - had to suspend their work due to continuous bombing and displacement of their workers, after years of leading the peaceful struggle against oppression and extremism," Badenjki said.
"The suspension and later relocation to safer areas have deprived communities of essential services such as education, psychological support, child's protection, women's empowerment and social entrepreneurship."
Haleem Kawa, Advocacy Manager of Kesh Malek Organisation, spoke about the increasing dangers civil society and humanitarian workers faced after Russian intervention began.
"We have also witnessed the direct targeting of… civil organisations' offices, humanitarian centres, and vital facilities," Kawa told The New Arab.
|Assad was losing but Putin's backing has protected him and bolstered the regime militarily and internationally|
"[This] increased the rate of bombing in various areas in Syria, in addition to tightening the siege on cities and countryside… and forcibly displacing civilians. All of this negatively affected civil society in Syria and led to the narrowing and elimination of the civil workspace in some areas."
This returned large parts of Syria back to the conditions before the 2011 uprising, when there was a total absence of free spaces and civil society, Kawa said.
"[The] targeting, now, by the Russians and the Syrian regime indicates their intention to adhere to the security system, restrict freedoms, and not allow civil society to work," said the Kesh Malek Organisation worker.
"The Russian intervention was not only military but also included the media and social media… propaganda to distort the image of civil work in Syria and undermine its credibility."
This was perhaps most evident in the continued propaganda efforts by Russian state media and pro-regime personalities against the White Helmets civil rescue team.
The death toll from Russian actions is difficult to determine, given that many operations have been carried out in conjunction with the Syrian regime military.
Airwars, a respected monitor of civilian casualties during the war, has assessed as "fair" between 4,251 and 6,248 civilian deaths from Russian actions in Syria to date, although it says the real number of non-combatant deaths could be over 23,000 based on local claims.
Russia has publicly acknowleged zero civilian casualties during its five-year Syria campaign.
The biggest spikes in civilian deaths came during three key moments in Russian-backed regime campaigns in opposition areas: The East Aleppo campaign in 2016, Eastern Ghouta in 2018, and Idlib this year. These sharp increases in civilian deaths follow a familiar and depressing pattern in Syria.
"We have seen these patterns before when you get these big regime advances, heavily supported by Russian airpower, when we see very, very major spikes in civilian deaths and injuries," Chris Woods, founder and director of Airwars, said.
"Then things will calm down and months later fighting re-starts, and the pattern starts over again."
Northwest Syria has remained relatively calm since Turkey and Russia agreed a ceasefire in March, but not before large parts of Idlib were lain to waste and around 1 million Syrians were made homeless.
|During the past five years, Russian warplanes killed people in their homes and schools, destroyed life-saving health infrastructure, and emptied whole cities of its residents|
"Civilian harm from Russian actions has been very, very low since the Spring of this year when the last major campaign wore down. We are now seeing historically low numbers of civilian harm from Russian actions, and that is to be welcomed," Woods said.
Woods puts the continued cessation in hostilities in part down to a "coronavirus effect", noting a sharp reduction in civilian harm across all conflicts which Airwars monitors.
"Militaries are affected by the coronavirus just as much as everyone else," Woods said.
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"Our concern is that this is also temporary and that the belligerents are using the opportunity to rearm so when fighting breaks out again it could do so with a real ferocity."
While a new offensive on the last opposition areas in northwest Syria remains a very real threat, there are some indications that Russia is seeking a political solution to the crisis.
This would allow Russia to maintain good relations with Turkey and avoid engaging the rebels in a bloody last stand.
Currently, the opposition is contained in northwest Syria, allowing for Russia and the regime to deal with other pressing economic, political, and security issues.
It will also give Russia more time to pressure European states to provide reconstruction funding or normalise relations with the Syrian regime. To achieve this, Russia will likely use humanitarian issues and Syrian refugees as bargaining chips.
"Currently, Russia's military engagement is not as big as it could be [and it] has been hesitant to support the regime efforts when it comes to Idlib. That it has not officially or fully ended the campaign there is because it is much more useful to keep Idlib in a limbo - like a switch," Bente Scheller, head of Middle East and North Africa Department, Heinrich Boll Foundation Berlin, told The New Arab.
|For Russia, the endgame would be that it is part of a peace arrangement in which, not necessarily Assad, but someone close to them is firmly established and internationally recognised|
"Russia can push more, and Europe will immediately feel it because the moral question of how to protect citizens in Idlib resurfaces and the question of what Europe can do to convince Turkey to open its borders. Once Idlib is under regime control, that switch no longer works, so it is keeping that as an option."
There has been some movement in UN-backed constitutional talks between members of the regime, opposition, and civil society, which could provide Russia with an exit from the war.
"For Russia, the endgame would be that it is part of a peace arrangement in which, not necessarily Assad, but someone close to them is firmly established and internationally recognised," Scheller said.
"For them, a minimum level of stability will do, it just needs to hold long enough to gain international recognition for its role in ending the conflict and opens the way to European reconstruction money flowing."
Russia will focus its attention on securing its Hmeimim airbase in Latakia, access to the palace, and accruing other benefits.
"While economic benefits will be Russia's priority, it will certainly not shoulder any responsibilities for security, for example - a particularly sensitive point for Western support," Scheller said.
"If Europe does not want a permanent presence of refugees then stability and security will be the key for this - but how to achieve it? With which forces will it work with in Syria to secure that? Europe's hands will be bound, and Russia can continue to play its strategic game with much less effort."