"Far from learning from the mistakes of others, they all repeat over and over again." This is what Russian President Vladimir Putin argued in September 2015, two days before he ordered his country's military to Syria to support the desperate efforts of long-ruling dictator Bashar al-Assad to hold onto power. It is just the fifth year since Russia launched its first air strikes in the Syrian war over the city of Homs. What can we say about the conflict in Syria at the beginning of Russia's second half of the decade?
Start with the Kremlin's rationale for war. To justify Russian intervention, Putin pointed a finger at the United States, which was no stranger to the wars in the Middle East, against which most of Russia had spoken out. "How did it turn out?" Asked Putin. “Instead of reforming, aggressive outside interference has led to the bold destruction of national institutions. … Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we have violence, poverty and social disasters. Nobody cares a little about human rights, including the right to life. “To prevent this from happening in Syria, Russia would have to join the fight.
Five years later, Putin's criticism of American interventionism in the Middle East looks somewhat rich. "How did it turn out?" is a question that could well be asked of the Russian war in Syria. The brutal attack on Aleppo in particular resulted in numerous “brazen destruction”. "Violence, poverty and social catastrophe" continue to plague the Syrian people. As for human rights, the government, whose torture of protesters sparked the civil war, remains firmly in power.
In addition, the "political stabilization and social and economic recovery of the Middle East" promised by Putin still looks a long way off. The civil war in Syria is far from over. The fighting over Idlib in northwest Syria continues. And in August, US soldiers were injured in a standoff with Russian troops in northeast Syria. Reconstruction remains a distant dream. Despite ongoing Russian pledges of economic aid, Syrian citizens continue to suffer immensely. And Russia has invested little money in the reconstruction of the country, in the hope that the West would eventually pay the bill to avoid further refugee flows into Europe.
The civil war in Syria has also spread to the region and affects not only neighboring Lebanon and Turkey, but also Libya. There is now an arc of conflict that crosses the eastern Mediterranean. Russia has sent mercenaries to Libya, and Turkey has sent Syrian militias there in response. The Russian intervention has by no means stabilized the region, but has the opposite effect.
From Moscow's point of view, however, such criticisms are irrelevant. The aim of Russia's military intervention was to maintain the Kremlin's presence in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. Putin obviously succeeded. Should the war in Syria ever end, it will only be done with Russian consent. The Kremlin has also made itself a major player in other regional disputes, including over the gas fields of the eastern Mediterranean and Libya.
In addition, Syria has been an exemplary test bed for the Russian military in its first large-scale operations since Russia's war against Georgia in 2008, as shown in a new book I co-edited, Russia's War in Syria, from the Foreign Policy Research Institute. Military operations went more smoothly than most Russian or foreign analysts expected, showing that Russia can intervene beyond its borders with relative ease. There are still serious limits to Russian power projection, but the Kremlin has set its military objectives with those restrictions in mind.
When Russia first entered the war in Syria, some Western observers wondered if it would be Putin's Afghanistan. It doesn't look like that from Moscow. The Russian military sees Syria as its “good war,” as military analyst Michael Kofman puts it. Russian officers must serve in Syria to be promoted. They treat their operations in Syria as case studies for improving future performance. Syria therefore stands out when compared to Russia's recent wars. Russia's ongoing actions in Donbass, Ukraine still cannot be openly discussed, and the 2008 military performance in Georgia has been widely criticized for operational inefficiency. However, Syria is seen as an exemplary success.
What exactly has Russia achieved? Certainly not about forging peace. Peace talks brokered by Russia between the Syrian government and various opposition groups have achieved nothing despite years of efforts. Not even after the fighting, which is particularly ongoing in northeast Syria, is over. Putin has stated very publicly that Russia will withdraw from Syria in 2016 and 2017. However, Russia has shown no signs of withdrawal.
Compare that to the US position in Syria, which, like Russia's, has a small ground contingent but relies on local forces to carry the brunt of the fighting. Washington has been debating its exit strategy since the beginning of the war in Syria, between wanting to withdraw from an eternal war and worrying that this would further destabilize the country.
The Kremlin has no such ambivalence about its war in Syria. "Exit strategy" does not lead to Russian strategic thinking about the Middle East. It was never about winning and leaving. The goal was to stay – make Russia a major player in the region and then defend this new role. The Kremlin sees the fifth anniversary of Russia's intervention in Syria not as a time to reflect on an endless war, but as an opportunity to toast success and hope that it will last well into the second half of a decade.