Russia Declares Victory in Syria, but Its Open-Ended Commitment Will Not End

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 133

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (Left) with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman (Source: Russian Federal News Agency)

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that his country’s military operation in Syria is “close to conclusion” (see EDM, October 17). The Islamic Stateonce a sizable quasi-state, stretching from the outskirts of Iraqi Bagdad to Aleppo, in Syriahas lost control of all major cities, including Mosul, in Iraq, and its self-proclaimed capital Raqqa, on the Euphrates in Syria. Of course, both Mosul and Raqqa have been overtaken by forces armed and supported by the United States, but the Russian military does not have any qualms declaring itself the true victor. And it has a point: As the Islamic State loses territory and is degraded from being a strict Sharia quasi-state into a jihadist guerrilla/terrorist organization, Russian influence in the Middle East grows dramatically. Shoigu declared victory-at-hand in Syria during a high-profile visit to Israel, where met with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Interfax, October 17).

Two weeks ago, the ruling monarch of Saudi Arabia, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, was in Moscow on a state visit that resulted in a number of arms contracts, including the possible Saudi purchase of Russian-produced S-400 anti-aircraft missiles (see EDM, October 10, 11). The Kremlin has announced that President Vladimir Putin will visit Iran, before the end of the year, for a trilateral Iran-Russia-Azerbaijan summit (TASS, October 12).

Shoigu arrived in Israel with a large military delegation and appeared at official functions in dress uniform. Top Russian brass may don their dress uniform abroad only under specific Kremlin orders—in most cases, this protocol is reserved for visiting close friends and allies. In October 2013, during Shoigu’s last visit to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) headquarters, in Brussels, the Russian military delegation wore civilian attire. In Israel, Shoigu reportedly discussed Syria, Kurdish problems, military cooperation and arms trade. While Israeli officials sought Russian cooperation in preventing Iranian forces from gaining access to bases in Syria that may threaten the Jewish state, Moscow pursued access to Israeli advanced military technologies. The workhorse Russian reconnaissance drone in the Syrian campaign has been the Israeli-designed and licensed Forpost (Searcher II). Without the Forpost, the entire air campaign would be much less effective. Moscow may have maneuvered itself into a position whereby it earns billions selling weapons to Iran and Saudi Arabia and then spends the proceeds to buy advanced Israeli know-how, while all three hostile countries seek Russian aid in checking each other’s actions. Russia seems to have successfully transformed itself into a powerbroker in the Middle East (Kommersant, October 18).

Despite the presumed victorious conclusion of Russia’s military operation in Syria, there will be no significant withdrawal of deployed forces, according to the first deputy chairman of the Federation Council Defense Committee, Frants Klinstevitch: “New Year’s Day is the latest we will conclude everything concerning Syria and terrorism, but our military bases will stay and there is no need to cut back forces.” Speaking last week (October 14) in St. Petersburg, Putin hailed Russia’s successes in Syria and called on the international community to put together a comprehensive financial package to begin rebuilding the shattered Syrian infrastructure. Russia is ready to take part in the rebuilding of Syria by “signing mutually beneficial contracts,” according to state officials. The majority of Russians, according to a recent poll, agree Russia must provide Syria with humanitarian aid “after the war is won,” but are against massive material aid. It is understood in Moscow that as long as Bashar al-Assad remains as president in Damascus, the European Union will refuse to finance the rebuilding of Syrian infrastructure and the economy (Interfax, October 17).

The swift destruction of the Islamist state built by the Taliban in Afghanistan, after the US-led invasion in 2001, did not end the war. The Taliban regrouped as a terrorist insurgency and shows no outward signs of battle fatigue in 2017. Similarly, the Islamic State and other jihadist groups are hardly going to disappear entirely in Syria or Iraq if there are millions of discontented Sunni Arabs that see the forces that liberated them as infidels and occupiers. Pro-al-Assad forces, supported by Russia and Iran, already seem to be spread out too thin as the Islamic State retreats, and the territory they are recapturing is inhabited by a hostile population. By ruthlessly applying superior firepower from above, Russia may have achieved a measure of military success, but it does not seem to have the resources to solidly occupy the conquered or pour in massive financial resources to rebuild and pacify, as was successfully done in Chechnya after the war was won in 2001. 

When Moscow was pacifying Chechnya, the price of oil was steadily growing and the Russian budget was overflowing with extra revenue. Since then, Russian forces have overtaken South Ossetia and Abkhazia after defeating Georgia in 2008, as well as occupied and annexed Crimea in 2014. Moscow began an open-ended operation in Donbas in 2014, and entered Syria in 2015. But the price of oil has fallen in recent years and continues to stay low. Moreover, sanctions imposed by the West have undercut investment sevenfold, according to former finance minister Alexei Kudrin (RBC, October 12). Capital continues to flee Russia (Kommersant, July 3). Household incomes, adjusted for inflation, have continued to decline this fall, despite optimistic government announcements about the economy growing again. The year 2017 is the fourth consecutive year in which household incomes are in decline in Russia (, October 18). Attempts to decrease the 2017 budget deficit have failed. The price of oil has increased somewhat, and the federal budget received some $7 billion in additional income in 2017; but the ruble has appreciated somewhat against the dollar, and this has virtually wiped out the additional earnings. Moreover, practically all the additional budgetary income was spent on subsidizing the defense industry (Kommersant, October 19).

In a recent lecture in Moscow, Finance Minister Anton Syluanov warned that overextended defense commitments, combined with a fall in oil prices, led to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, and present-day Russia may also suffer serious consequences (RIA Novosti, October 6). The Kremlin is running a massive Cold War–style military rearmament program that began after the 2008 war with Georgia, when the price of oil was way over $100 a barrel. Moscow is playing a global zero-sum game against the US in the Middle East, Ukraine and Eastern Europe, undertaking costly open-ended commitments one after another, depleting increasingly scarce resources. This folly may continue until a breaking point.