Is the Russian intervention in Syria good

Five years of Russian military operations in SyriaNo one can ignore Russia in the Middle East

TV pictures from autumn 2015: Russian fighter jets fly against a blue sky, bombs slide out of the picture. The sound of the explosions is cut to the beat of the music. Russian state television prepared the attack by Russian fighter-bombers in Syria in such a way that it looked like a computer game.

On September 30, 2015, at the request of President Vladimir Putin, the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, gave the green light for a military operation abroad. The head of the presidential administration, Sergei Ivanov, announced the result of the vote: "The Federation Council unanimously approved the President's request - with 162 votes in favor, with no abstentions or dissenting votes."

The fight against IS was not the only motive

On the same day, the first Russian fighter planes took off from the Russian air base in Hmeimim near the Syrian town of Latakia. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, they flew targeted attacks on military objects, means of transport and ammunition dumps of the so-called Islamic State, IS. Ground troops were not provided.

The IS terrorists were on the advance in Syria at the time. Russia went to fight them. President Putin explained to the then hastily assembled Russian government: "The only way to fight international terrorism is prevention. It is about fighting and destroying the terrorists in the territories they have already occupied. We are not waiting for them come to us."

Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad in Sochi (picture alliance / Mikhael Klimentyev / Sputnik / dpa)

The fight against IS was not the most important motive for the Russian operation, says Markus Kaim, security expert at the Science and Politics Foundation in Berlin: "If we look at what the operations in Russia looked like, then I think you can not to prove that Russia limited itself exclusively to taking action against IS in Syria, but instead there were often military strikes, i.e. air strikes as a rule, against the Islamic State when the Assad government's troops came under pressure at the same time. "

Support for Assad

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has ruled the country in an authoritarian manner since 2000 - just like his father had before. In 2011 peaceful demonstrators, inspired by the Arab Spring, called for change. The protests grew into an armed civil war. In the fall of 2015, Assad had his back to the wall. Russia initially wanted to support Assad. Putin also wanted to send a military signal.

The Russian military tested new weapon systems in Syria. It fired cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea. Missiles were also launched from a submarine cruising the Mediterranean Sea. Russia later installed its state-of-the-art S-400 missile defense system in Syria.

Markus Kaim explains: "So far, with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Russian leadership had proven that the Russian military reforms of the decade were suitable and enabled the Russian armed forces to carry out more conventional operations in their own neighborhood But now there was an opportunity to prove to the world that Russia was capable of expanded foreign interventions outside of its own neighborhood. "

President Putin openly admitted at his annual press conference at the end of 2015: "It is difficult to imagine a better maneuver. We can train for a long time in Syria without significant losses to our budget."

Russia made an impression

The third and most important signal, however, was a foreign policy, according to security expert Kaim from the Science and Politics Foundation in Berlin: "After the end of the East-West conflict, Russia, as the Soviet Union, had largely withdrawn from the Near and Middle East only very few bases left, including one in Syria. Politically, Russia only played a subordinate role, if not to say no role at all, so that all regional actors aligned themselves with the USA. That was now over. "

Russia's attack in Syria made an impression. The then EU foreign affairs representative Mogherini said at the meeting of EU foreign ministers in mid-October that the cards in the Syria conflict had been completely reshuffled. Russia's intervention is a "game changer".

President Vladimir Putin had been preparing the deployment for weeks, militarily and diplomatically. Russia had massively expanded its military presence in Syria and also relocated warplanes there. At the same time, Putin sought talks with the heads of state and government in the region. In September 2015 they literally stepped in to hand in Moscow: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, Turkey’s head of state, Tayyip Erdogan, Iran’s deputy foreign minister.

The Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile is said to be able to intercept even hypersonic targets (www.imago-images.de)

Details were little known, but the Kremlin spread that Putin was working on a plan for an international coalition against terrorism. At the end of September, two days before the order to deploy in Syria, he presented it to the world public at the UN General Assembly in New York: "We propose to be guided not by ambition, but by shared values ​​and interests based on international law to pool efforts to solve the new problems we are facing and to form a really broad international coalition against terrorism. Like the anti-Hitler coalition, it could bring together the most diverse forces that are ready to to take decisive action against those who, like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred. "

Putin accused the US of supporting terrorist groups in Syria; instead, the world should rather work with the Syrian government and army, which, he said, are "bravely" fighting terrorism. Putin was not heard.

The Russian Defense Ministry announced successes

US President Barack Obama made it clear that it was Assad's brutal crackdown on its own population that made ISIS grow. According to Markus Kaim from the Science and Politics Foundation, Putin's idea of ​​an international coalition against terror could not work in 2015: "A good year after the annexation of Crimea and Russia's destabilization policy in eastern Ukraine, there was the tablecloth for international cooperation between the West and Russia, and specifically between the USA and Russia, largely cut up. "

In addition, according to Kaim, central questions such as how to deal with the Syrian opposition stood in the way. After just a few weeks, Russian state television reported that the terrorists would flee the country in massive numbers, demoralized, under the pressure of the Russian-Syrian offensive. The war reporter on the state channel Rossija 24 reported: "The Russian air force continues to launch attacks on the command centers of the Islamists, destroying weapons and fuel supplies."

According to official figures, 69 Russian fighter planes were in action in Syria in November 2015. There were also ten military ships in the Caspian and Mediterranean. The Department of Defense reported successes on a daily basis.

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It was extremely important for the Russian leadership that the operation took place at the request of the Syrian government. From a Russian point of view, this gave him legitimacy under international law. In previous years, the Russian leadership had repeatedly pointed out that military operations abroad were only permitted if they were backed by a resolution by the United Nations Security Council or if the government of the country concerned asked for it.

Accordingly, Russia regards the actions of NATO in Serbia or the international intervention in Libya as illegal. Five years ago, the head of the presidential administration, Sergej Ivanov, explained to journalists: "There is a fundamental difference between our approach and that of our western partners: You don't comply with international law, we do it."

Western governments argued that if a dictator - to quote Obama - "slaughter tens of thousands of his own people", one had to interfere. But Putin continued to support Assad.

Propaganda in full swing

International criticism of the Syrian dictator led to increasing demonstrations of loyalty from Moscow. In autumn 2015, Assad made a state visit to the Russian capital. Thin and pale, he stepped in front of the cameras: "I would like to express my great thanks to the entire leadership of the Russian Federation and the Russian people for their help for Syria. Thank you for standing up for the unity and independence of Syria terrorism would have spread to other areas and states. "

Putin held out the prospect of a political solution - with Assad's participation: "We assume that, based on the positive dynamics of the fighting, a long-term solution can be achieved in Syria in the end. We need a political process in which all political, ethnic and religious groups participate. "

The Russian leadership even stood by Assad when he was accused of using internationally banned chemical weapons against his own people. Assad had already done that in 2013. At that time, the US was on the brink of a military strike against the Syrian regime. Russia brokered at the last minute, suggesting that Assad should have its chemical weapons arsenal checked, and thereby persuading the US to give in.

A commission of inquiry set up by the UN Security Council followed up on indications that the Assad government continued to use chemical weapons afterwards. When the Commission's mandate ended in 2016, Russia prevented it from being extended. Russia has held its protective hand over Assad, says Markus Kaim: "And accordingly, I believe there is no declared position of the United Nations on this issue."

The situation is somewhat different with attacks on civilian targets, which would be a war crime. These allegations were repeated several times, and they were directed not only against the Syrian air force, but also against the Russian one.

In July of this year, the UN Human Rights Council published a report listing 52 attacks on civil infrastructure between November 2019 and June 2020. The Russian Air Force is said to be responsible in at least two cases. For example, the report states: "On January 29th, following the takeover of Ma'arrat al-Nu'man and Kafr Nubl, three consecutive air strikes on residential areas in northern Ariha hit the last medical facility serving southern Idlib, The commission has reasonable grounds to believe that the attacks were carried out by Russian planes. At least 14 civilians, including a doctor, five women and five children, were killed and 30 to 65 others were injured. "

Russia has also denied these allegations.

Music for the military

Right from the start, the Russian population was largely indifferent to the operation in Syria. Meanwhile, Russian propaganda was in full swing. A reporter from the Russian state broadcaster Rossija 24 reported on a Russian boom in schools in Syria. First, she reported, the children wanted to learn the word "spasibo", in German: "thank you". After all, there might be an opportunity to thank the Russian pilots personally.

In May 2016, Russia flew the orchestra of the famous St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theater to Syria at great expense. Under the direction of the star conductor Valery Gergiev, there was a concert in the ancient city of Palmyra, which had recently been recaptured by Syrian troops - with the support of Russian air forces.

Shortly afterwards, Russian Olympians visited the air force base in Syria. Russian television showed how the pole vaulter Jelena Isinbayeva instructed Russian soldiers in the morning exercise in the Syrian morning. "It was clear to us: We are going to heroes, to our protectors. Everything here is permeated with such patriotism, I almost burst with pride."

But the longer Russia's military operation in Syria lasted, the further public interest in what was happening fell. In a survey by the Levada Center in May 2019, only 13 percent of those questioned said they were following news from Syria at all. Two years earlier it was 31 percent.

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Contrary to what was announced five years ago, Russians also fought on the ground in Syria. However, they are not regular members of the Russian army, but mercenaries of the so-called "Wagner Group". Officially there is no such thing as the use of mercenaries abroad is prohibited by law in Russia. But the Wagner fighters, according to research by Russian journalists, there were at times several hundred in Syria, have left their mark, including on the Internet.

They fell under the fire of the grenade launchers, but they took Palmyra anyway, the man sings. There is also talk of the sandstorm and the heat at Latakia Airport. According to posts on social media, the song was a hit among the fighters of the "Gruppe Wagner". According to experts, the Russian mercenaries played a decisive role in the success of Syrian ground offensives.

Diplomacy in Astana format

The chief of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, said in the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda at the end of 2017 that Russia had "broken the backbone of the forces of terrorism." By then, Russia had long since begun to take the political initiative as well.

At the end of 2016, Putin invited the heads of state of Iran and Turkey to the first trilateral talks on the future of Syria. This resulted in the so-called Astana negotiations, named after the conference venue in Kazakhstan. The Geneva talks, led by the United Nations, were already stalling at that time.

The Astana format, on the other hand, proved to be effective, says Markus Kaim: "The approach actually started with a narrower focus than the Geneva talks of the United Nations, namely it had a military focus. So the questions were the focus, for example, an agreement on an exchange of prisoners To create truces of a local nature, geographically clearly defined de-escalation zones, and that then became increasingly widened, it began from 2017/18, when these three actors began to increasingly discuss political questions: constitutional changes, refugee return and questions of reconstruction then the agenda of the Geneva talks was really duplicated, if you may put it that way, and ultimately thwarted because the Geneva peace talks did not move in any way. "

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Russia showed diplomatic skills. Because the three participating states, Russia, Iran and Turkey, have conflicting interests in Syria. In addition, the Turkish army shot down a Russian fighter-bomber over the Syrian-Turkish border area in 2015. Markus Kaim: "I think the Turkish leadership and the Iranian leadership have both understood that the path to their own goals leads via Moscow. The loss of importance of the USA goes hand in hand with the increase in importance of Russia. Russia's increase in importance replaces the USA's loss of importance in the Near and Middle East. "

For Kaim it is clear: "I think you have to take note of the fact that the Syrian civil war has been decided. In a political sense, this is a defeat for the West, because very different approaches have been confronted here, and Russia has prevailed. Russia will remain the patron saint of Syria - during the Cold War we would have called it - for the foreseeable future. And from there it will exert its influence in the entire Eastern Mediterranean. "

What Mogherini, the EU foreign affairs representative at the time, referred to as a "game changer" five years ago has come true: today, Russia can no longer be ignored in the Middle East. The military operation made it possible.