Oleg Yegorov, RBTH

Russia in Syria one year on

What has been achieved?
Twelve months after Russia began military operations in Syria, the country is still in turmoil. What has Russia's involvement meant for international efforts to resolve the crisis and for Russia's own position in the world?
"It's not a secret that the Islamic State declared Russia its enemy a long time ago"
On Sept. 30, 2015, Russia's Federation Council unanimously supported President Vladimir Putin's decision to deploy Russia's Aerospace Forces in Syria in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). On that same day, according to the Russian Defense Ministry, Russian planes carried out their first strikes on ISIS in Syrian territory.

"It's not a secret that the Islamic State declared Russia its enemy a long time ago," said Putin, justifying the decision, arguing that it was better to take out the group before they could carry out attacks on Russian soil.
Terrorist group ISIS has repeatedly threated Russia
At Assad's request
The involvement of Russian troops in the Syrian conflict, however, began earlier, with a request from Syrian President Bashar Assad, who asked Putin for military assistance and allowed Russia the use of the Khmeimim airbase near Latakia for its planes. Because of this agreement, the Russian government has often said that it is operating in Syria legally, unlike the coalition headed by the United States. In addition to coordinating its actions with the Syrian government, Moscow is cooperating with Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah in the country.

Since the very beginning of the operation, Putin has stressed that Moscow is open to cooperation with other countries that are fighting terrorism in Syria. In an interview with the television channel Rossiya 1 in October 2015, Putin said that, as a sign of goodwill, Russia had notified the U.S. and other Western coalition countries about the start of its operations in Syria.

Justifications for the operations in Syria
The official objective of the operation is to fight terrorism. However, experts have other theories regarding Moscow's motives — as either alternatives or additions to the official position.
1) Support for Bashar Al-Assad
Throughout Summer 2015, Syrian government forces suffered a series of defeats and loss of territory. Moscow has a vested interest in preserving the Assad regime, as it is one of Russia's few remaining allies in the Middle East. Additionally, the Syrian city of Tartus hosts Russia's only naval base in the Mediterranean Sea.

Alexei Malashenko, a scholar of the Middle East and member of the scientific council of Carnegie Moscow Center says that Russia's operation in Syria is primarily aimed at supporting Assad, and that from the Russian government perspective, this is logical. "(With the operation) we were placing our bet on Bashar, and the bet is not ridiculous because Bashar is better than the madhouse that reigns there now," Malashenko told Echo of Moscow radio in March 2016.

2) Preservation of Syria's territorial integrity
Some Russian experts believe that the Syrian president himself is not that important for Moscow, rather that the Kremlin is supporting him as a way to preserve Syria as a state. This perspective corresponds to Russia's official position: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said on many occasions that in Syria, Russia is not protecting anyone personally, but the state itself as a member of the UN.

Vladimir Akhmedov, a senior scientific researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said: "Sooner or later Assad will have to leave, since after five years of civil war, a substantial part of the population no longer wishes to recognize him as the head of state, and Russia understands this. For us the most important thing is to guarantee the secular character of the government while following our interests."
3) Strengthening Russia's positions on the international stage
By starting the operation in Syria, Russia became one of the key players in the diplomatic regulation of the Syrian crisis, a permanent participant in the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and one of the co-sponsors of the ongoing peace talks in Geneva. By getting involved in Syria, Russia pushed its way back onto the international stage after having been frozen out as a result of its actions in Ukraine.

"The diplomatic task here is to overcome Russia's isolation, which occurred after Crimea, Donbass and the Malaysian flight," Alexander Baunov, editor-in-chief of the Carnegie Moscow Center site, said in an interview with Colta.ru in October 2015. "Russia desires to reconcile with the West. Not by falling on its knees, but by showing its influence and irreplaceability."

Timeline: Milestones in Russia's operations in Syria

The Russian operation in figures
Russia uses various types of forces in Syria. The majority of the operation is carried out by the Aerospace Forces, which are based in Khmeimim. Marines from the Black Sea Fleet and the 7th Airborne Division guard the base. Russian anti-aircraft systems are also located there; S-400 systems were added after an SU-24 bomber was shot down by Turkey. Russian engineer corps also participated in the demining of Palmyra.

Russian military aviation used in Syria in the last year includes Su-30SM fighters, Su-34 and Su-24M bombers, Su-25 attack planes and the Mi-8 and Mi-24P helicopters. Russia also has carried out strikes with Tu-22M3, Tu-95MS and Tu-160 strategic bombers, missile ships from the Caspian Fleet and submarines from the Black Sea Fleet.
Estimates of Russia's expenditures on the military operation in Syria vary, and official numbers have not been released. According to calculations provided by RBC Daily, in Fall 2015, Russia, was spending about $2.5 million a day on the Syrian operation. British analytical center IHS Jane's reported the figure to be between $2.3 and $4 million daily. Both estimates were based on Russian operations up to the time some aircraft were withdrawn in March 2016.

Combat flights
On May 10, 2016, Vladimir Putin said that since the beginning of the operation in Syria, the Russian Aerospace Forces had conducted more than 10,000 combat flights and destroyed more than 30,000 ISIS targets, including 200 objects related to oil production and processing. The Russian Defense Ministry has not provided any other information. According to Vladimir Yevseyev, a military expert and deputy director of the Institute of CIS Countries, the total number of combat flights before the ceasefire declaration on Sept. 10 was about 13,000.
At the time of publication, Russia had admitted officially the deaths of 19 of its citizens in the military campaign in Syria. Two of these were employees of the Center for the Reconciliation of Opposiing Sides; the rest were military personnel. Of these only three did not die in combat.
Video: Russia strikes ISIS positions with Caliber missiles from a ship in the Caspian Sea

Map: The internal borders of Syria before and after the Russian operation
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Who is Russia bombing in Syria?
On the first day of Russia's operations in Syria, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter accused Moscow of targeting moderate opposition forces as well as ISIS. "[Russia is] seemingly taking on everybody fighting Assad," Carter said. He was only the first of many Western politicians to make this claim. In response, Russia has accused the U.S. and its allies of flirting with the Nusra Front, an organization banned by the UN because of its affiliation with Al Qaeda, but cooperates with the Syrian opposition.

Throughout its yearlong operation, Russia has often been accused of causing the deaths of Syrian civilians. In its December report, Amnesty International (AI) accused Russia of violating international humanitarian rights. According to AI, Russia bombed areas with civilian objects using unguided missiles, which led to deaths among the civilian population. The Russian Defense Ministry denied the accusation and underlined that Russia does not bomb civilian objects.

"There is a very broad information campaign going on, one that is showing Russia's role not as a fighter against terrorism, but as a force that is bombing the civilian population," said Grigory Kosach, a scholar of the Middle East and professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities. Kosach says that Russia's involvement in scandals related to the death of civilians does serious damage to its image.

Constructing dialogue and destroying terrorists
"Today there is no longer any talk of an ISIS blitzkrieg"
Irina Zvyagelskaya, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and a senior scientific researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, says that while the Russian operation strengthened Assad's position, it also spurred the international community to engage in negotiations. "Russia's involvement helped change the balance of power and, thanks to this, the road to negotiations was opened. The negotiations are difficult, but only after Russia's involvement, they became possible," Zvyagelskaya said.

Zvyagelskaya added that Russia's involvement in the Syrian conflict showed that Russia and the U.S., despite their complex relationship, can cooperate when necessary. UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which was developed with the active participation of diplomats from both countries, is an example of this. In Zvagelskaya's opinion, Russia's intervention prevented a violent overthrow of the Syrian regime, which could have resulted in total chaos in the country, as happened in Libya.

Leonid Isaev, an scholar of the Middle East and a senior professor in the Department of Political Sciences at the Higher School of Economics agrees with Zvyagelskaya's assessment, and added one more result of the Russian operation in Syria. "Today there is no longer any talk of an ISIS blitzkrieg in Syria or in Iraq. Most likely, ISIS is just trying to defend the territories it occupied earlier.

Still looking for peace
"We are still a side to the conflict and not a moderator"
But Russia's involvement in Syria's civil war has not been all positive. By working so closely with the Assad government, Russia has become almost a party to the conflict. "We are still a side to the conflict and not a moderator," said Isaev. In his view, Russia's lack of contact with the Syrian opposition prohibits the country from playing a real leadership role. Such one-sided involvement undermines the opposition's trust and complicates Russia's peacekeeping activities.

Under the current circumstances, neither Russia nor the U.S. is able to launch a large-scale plan for peaceful regulation of the Syrian crisis on a bilateral level. "All parties to the conflict are behaving as they wish, and we can't say that Russia and the U.S. are controlling their partners," said Irina Zvyagelskaya. "There is a rather broad sphere in which neither Russia nor the U.S. can change much."

Added Leonid Isaev: "Russian-American agreements will function only when, for Russia and for the U.S., the implementation of the Geneva Agreements takes priority over obligations before their allies. I think that in some time we will return to the negotiating table."
Text: Oleg Yegorov
Editor: Maxim Korshunov
Photos: Getty Images, AP, EPA, RIA Novosti, TASS, Alena Repkina
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