Examining Syria-Russia Nexus during the Syrian Civil War

The Middle Eastern states have always been of interest to external powers because of their abundant natural resources, strategic location, and geopolitical significance. In recent years, their political importance has grown significantly in areas such as counterterrorism, security cooperation, and diplomacy. One of the most significant strategic alliances in the region is the partnership between Syria and Russia, which attracts global attention. As the Syrian civil war nears its 13th year, this article aims to analyse the strategic interests that drive the Russia-Syria alliance within the context of this conflict.

The Syrian civil war emerged against the backdrop of the broader Arab Spring when the Syrians stood up against the corruption, despotism, and widespread human rights violations by the Assad regime and demanded political reforms and greater freedoms. Assad’s administration crushed the dissent and sanctioned the use of deadly force by the police and military to subdue civilians, turning the protests into a full-fledged civil war. The conflict resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties, millions of refugees, and extensive violations of international law.

As the war in Syria escalated, it became increasingly difficult for the Syrian Arab Army to resist the military advances of Jeish al-Fattah and other armed rebel groups. Despite receiving support from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the presence of Iranian militias and Russian mercenaries, and regular shipments of Russian weaponry, stopping the opposition and radical armed groups proved challenging. The Bathist regime lost control of significant areas such as Idlib, Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir Az Zor, Hassakeh, Deraa and Quneitra and struggled to control Hama, Homs and the Damascus countryside. Against this backdrop, Russia intervened in the Syrian civil war at the request of the Syrian government.

The key factors that compelled Syria to seek Russia’s assistance include but are not limited to seeking military support, getting diplomatic backing, and bolstering economic cooperation with Russia.

The key factors that compelled Syria to seek Russia’s assistance include but are not limited to seeking military support, getting diplomatic backing, and bolstering economic cooperation with Russia. Firstly, the Syrian army, equipped primarily with Russian weapons, needed a continuous supply of spare parts and repairs by Russian experts. Russia has continued to modernise and repair military hardware, and the weapons used by the Syrian army are mostly Soviet or Russian in origin. Russia’s supply of military hardware to Syria, including weapons, aircraft, and other defence systems, has strengthened Syria’s military capabilities and bolstered its position in the ongoing conflict.

Secondly, for Syria, embattled by years of conflict and desperate to rebuild, Russian investment and trade are vital lifelines. Following a threefold increase in 2021, trade volumes experienced an additional 7% growth in 2022. This expansion, emphasised by Alexander Yefimov, the Russian Ambassador to Syria, reflects a deepening of economic ties amid external political and economic challenges. In recent years, substantial projects, particularly in critical infrastructure, have unfolded, including the reconstruction of the port of Tartous, the modernisation of a fertiliser production plant in Homs, and restoring various oil and gas fields and treatment facilities. The fortified bond between Russia and Syria was further exemplified by the March 2023 meeting between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia has identified 40 additional investment projects in Syria, focusing on key sectors crucial for the country’s reconstruction. These sectors encompass energy, covering both electricity and oil, transportation infrastructure, housing, and industrial development. Primarily since the beginning of 2024, Russia, in response to ongoing Western sanctions, is shifting its focus to strengthening trade relations with the Middle East, with Syria emerging as a key partner.

Thirdly, Russia serves as a significant diplomatic shield for the war-torn and diplomatically isolated Syria. Since the start of the conflict in Syria in 2011 to July 2022, Russia has vetoed 17 United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions against Assad’s regime and in support of the rebels. These resolutions have included sections condemning “the widespread violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by the Syrian authorities and pro-government militias,” attempts to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, and various plans designed to facilitate political transformations.

Finally, the Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, frames its fight against various rebel groups and opposition forces as a struggle against terrorism. Assad administration has been facing threats from various extremist groups, including jihadist organisations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeda affiliates. Syria has sought Russian assistance under the name of “fight against terrorism”.  In 2015, when Russia began a military intervention in Syria, it claimed that it was waging war on ISIS and international terrorism. The two states, along with Turkey, also recently endorsed their determination to combat terrorism and extremism in the region at the 7th Summit of the Astana Peace Process. The joint statement reaffirmed “the determination to continue their ongoing cooperation to eliminate terrorist individuals, groups, undertakings and entities ultimately.”

Overall, Syria’s alliance with Russia in the Syrian Civil War is driven by political, military, economic, and security considerations. The relationship between the two countries reflects a convergence of mutually beneficial interests. During the course of the conflict, Russia has provided Syria with arms supplies while also using its influence in international forums – especially the UNSC – to shield Syria from diplomatic isolation and prevent the imposition of sanctions. Furthermore, Syria has deep-rooted economic interests with Russia, as it is the primary investor and partner in various development and infrastructure projects. On the other hand, Russian involvement in the conflict has augmented its role in the Middle East dynamics while facilitating Moscow’s wider conception of an evolving global order. As new dynamics continue to emerge, one thing is certain: Russia will play a critical role in the future of Syria and its impact on the broader region.

Natasha Matloob

The writer is pursuing a bachelor's degree in International Relations from National Defense University, Islamabad.

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