The Russian operation of intervention in Syria was launched on 30 September, which means it has now been going on for more than two months.
Moscow said at the outset that its purpose was to fight the Islamic State and other organisations that it designated as terrorist. But that is not what happened. It turned out that the objective was in fact to target all Syrian opposition forces and to tilt the balance in favour of the Assad regime.
In the beginning Moscow said that the operation would continue for three months. Yet, it soon retracted its deadline and confirmed that it would be open ended. Furthermore, the operation that started with the deployment of the most modern Russian planes and bombs in one Syrian military base close to Latakia seems to have been extended since then to another air base near Homs.
Irrespective of the reasons behind this early flurry in the horizon of the operation, it is perhaps about time to ask what it has effectively accomplished.
The downing of the Russian passenger aircraft over the Sinai Peninsula was one of the early consequences of the intervention in Syria. Of course, Russia is not a stranger to terrorism. Several Russian targets were subjected to bloody terrorist operations in the 1990s and during the first decade of this century.
However, that wave of terrorism was closely associated with Moscow’s conflict with the peoples of the North Caucuses. They were also confined to targets within the Russian Federation. Now, it would seem, Russia has been placed on the radar of international terrorism. This would indeed threaten Russian interests within the Russian Federation as well as outside it. The regime of President Putin is to a large extent a totalitarian one. Yet, no matter how totalitarian it is, it does still care about Russian public opinion.
With the backdrop of a series of failures in Russia’s neighbourhood and at the level of relations with the West, not to mention the tangible decline in the economic situation of the country, it is not a hidden fact that Putin sought to present his intervention in Syria as a clean operation.
The Putin administration wanted to tell the Russian peoples that Syria would not be another Afghanistan and that it would accomplish the strategic objectives of the operation without incurring tangible losses. The terrorist operation in the Sinai air space was the first dent in the discourse Moscow endeavoured to employ in order to justify the operation and in order to gain the support of Russian public opinion for it.
However, matters did not remain confined to the downing of the plane over the Sinai Peninsula. In an escalation that was not wholly unexpected, a Turkish fighter plane shot down a Russian fighter jet that failed to respond to warning messages and violated Turkish air space in the Hatay border area.
What the Turks say is that the violation of Turkish air space by Russian planes occurred repeatedly during the past few months and that Turkish officials did raise the matter with their Russian counterparts, stressing to them that the Turkish army would apply strict engagement rules against any plane that violated the country’s air space.
The Turkish officials also maintain that their forces were not in any way targeting the Russian plane per se since they did not know the identity of the plane before it was shot down.
The Russians, on the other hand, considered the downing of the Sukhoi Su-24 fighter jet and the death of one of its pilots to be a stab in the back by Turkey. In any case, the downing of the plane has poisoned relations between the two countries especially after Russia started implementing its threats to impose sanctions on Turkish agricultural imports into Russia as well as on Turkish construction companies working in Russia.
Undoubtedly, these sanctions will have a negative impact on the Turkish economy, even if a limited one. The suddenly evolving crisis in the relations between the two countries will also have an impact that is no less negative on Russia itself. Those relations improved markedly during the last 10 years leaving behind long decades of mutual concerns and suspicions that lasted throughout the period of the cold war.
The improvement was in particular the outcome of the determination by the two parties to keep bilateral relations separate from other points of disagreement. Such development gave way to a tangible progress in Russia’s strategic milieu as well as in its economic condition. Turkey had become one of Russia’s main and permanent energy markets.
In the meantime, Ankara adopted a distinct stance vis-a-vis the Georgian and Ukrainian crises that distinguished it from its NATO partners. It did not even hesitate to step in and compensate Russia’s needs for agricultural products, which Russia had in the past imported from Europe but were discontinued due to the heavy European sanctions imposed on Russia.
Should Russia continue to escalate actions against Turkey, it might end up losing, one by one, all these economic and geopolitical gains made as a result of the significant improvement in relations between the two countries.
The most important issue in all of this has to do with what the direct Russian military intervention has accomplished on the ground in Syrian itself. The answer, in fact, is: not much.
Russian fighter jets have so far performed thousands of sorties and bombed lots of Syrian opposition targets in the countrysides of Idlib, Aleppo and Latakia as well as in the countrysides of Damascus and Daraa. Neither ISIS nor Al-Nusrah Front have in any way been affected by such intervention simply because the Russian jets only marginally targeted them.
At the level of the fighting taking place between the other resistance forces – whether the Free Syrian Army or the other armed groups – on the one hand and regime’s forces on the other, clearly there has been no tangible change along the front lines so far. The balance of power between the two sides is still the same, despite the support provided by the Russian air force and in spite of the sizeable increase in the number of Iranian troops, of Hezbollah forces and of the Shiite militias that fight alongside the Assad regime.
There are those who say, just as the Syrian president himself says, that the failure of the regime troops to effect a tangible change in the war fronts is attributed to the rise in the levels of support provided by countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to the opposition forces.
This may indeed be true, of course. However, the correctness of such an opinion should not preclude the more significant outcome: more than two months of intensive Russian bombardment of opposition forces has changed very little in the conflict over Syria.
What needs to be always remembered is the truth about the Russian objectives of intervening in Syria. Of course, Russia has important interests in Syria, such as the naval base on the Syrian coast and the eavesdropping centres within the Latakia mountains. Yet, such interests, no matter how important they happen to be, justify neither the nature of the Russian stance toward Syria since the start of the Syrian crisis nor the size of the recent military intervention.
It is more probable, therefore, that Putin has seen in Syria an opportunity. It is an opportunity to reassert Russia’s role in the international arena and to respond to the continuing NATO advance toward Eastern and Central Europe and to what Putin regards to be a Western adoption of the democratic notion in order to bring down regimes that are friendly to Russia, and even to unsettle the Russian regime itself.
What matters is that whichever of the two viewpoints is accurate, whether the priority is for the Syrian objectives or for the wider geopolitical goals, it does not seem that Putin has accomplished any of these. Nothing much has so far changed in Syria.
At the same time, the West does not seem ready to talk with the Russian president about the Ukraine or about Georgia or about any bigger Russian role at the international level. It is possible that NATO’s early invitation to Montenegro to join the alliance is another pointer to the nature of the Western vision of Putin’s Russia.