Syrian conflict started with anti-government protests in March 2011 before escalating into a complex and one of the most devastating civil war in the Middle East. With the involvement of big fish, the war went longer than World War II. Last week it entered into its eighth year with more than 465000 people killed/missing, more than a million injured and almost half of its total population (22.8 million) driven away from their homes. Nearly 6.1 million are internally displaced and 5.3 million have fled to other countries for survival. 13.1 million are still in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Since last year, most of the major cities which were controlled by the anti-regime groups have been reclaimed by government forces, radical groups like ISIS have been militarily defeated, the rebels are continuously attacked by government forces in eastern Ghouta and the Kurd separatists are in fight with the regime, rebels, radicals and the Turkish forces in Afrin.
Syrian forces, backed by Russian warplanes, launched a major military offensive in eastern Ghouta last month. At least 1500 people including hundreds of children and women have been killed, more than 50,000 people have been displaced from their homes and thousands of civilians are still trapped in the rebel stronghold near Damascus. To give safe passage to civilians, UN unanimously adopted Resolution 2401 on 24th February calling for a thirty-day ceasefire excluding operations against UN designated terrorist groups. Despite the ceasefire, the government forces and its allies continued bombing the areas where civilians are trapped and humanitarian convoys are unable to go through to deliver humanitarian aid. International community has repeatedly condemned the ongoing violence. UN Secretary General and High Commissioner for Human Rights described the situation in Ghouta as ‘hell on earth’ and ‘monstrous annihilation’ respectively. It was also attacked with sarin gas in 2013, killing at least 1200 civilians. Ghouta is the last rebel stronghold near the capital, in distance of about 10 km to Damascus which makes it important for Syrian government to evacuate it from the rebels at any cost.
Similarly, the situation in Afrin is dire, where the cross-border operation against Kurdish militia – People’s Protection Unit (YPG) – had been started by Turkish forces and the Free Syrian Army (rebels) since January 20. At least 100 civilians are killed and more than 150,000 civilians have fled the city when the attacks intensified recently.
Though Iran and Hezbollah have played a vital role in defending the Syrian government, without Russian support the fate of the regime would not be different from that of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Without Russian firepower, the Syrian regime would not have been able to stand against the opposition supported by the west and their Arab allies. Similarly, without Russian diplomatic support at international level, the UNSC would have passed resolutions against the regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons and for other war crimes. Russia has blocked UN resolution against Syria at least eight times (often along-with China) by using its veto power. The recent resolution on calling for ceasefire in Ghouta was also delayed by Russia to keep operations continued against the rebels to reclaim the neighbourhood of Damascus from them, and to further strengthen Assad’s position.
Russia has made significant investments in Syria’s energy sector and natural resources during the war. Various private companies in Russia have signed agreements with Syrian government to liberate, protect and develop oil and mining fields controlled by the rebels. Evro Polis and Stroytransgaz are two such companies who signed deals with Damascus to get profits from oil/gas wells and rights of phosphate mining respectively.
Several other agreements on government-to-government level have also been signed between the two countries. This includes the agreement on cooperation in electrical power field in January this year and the contract signed by the Syrian government in September last year to import three million tons of wheat from Russia over the next three years. Both countries have also discussed the rebuilding of telecommunication infrastructure in Syria. The post-war Syria would be one of the most significant strategic and economic hubs for Russia in the region which would provide basis for a new regional, diplomatic process between the anti-American forces like Iran, Turkey and Syria. Turkey and Russia have moved closer since the relations between Turkey and the US deteriorated after the latter’s military support for YPG’s fighters in Syria and the alleged role in the foiled coup against Erdogan in July 2016. Iran, Turkey and Russia are also seeking an end to the Syrian conflict despite convergence in interests.
Other than protection of its investments, Russia also wants to secure itself politically on domestic and international fronts. Domestically, containing the radical armed groups is necessary for Russia’s internal security. Groups like ISIS could cause existential threats had they become stronger and reached near its borders. The Chechen fighters are deeply involved in activities of ISIS and its success in the Middle East could give rebirth to Chechen insurgency which had been toppled by Russia with the help of the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, in 2009. Internationally, Russia wanted to display itself as a world power and to send a message to the world that it can and will defend its allies and interests beyond its borders. After the end of the Cold War, Russia projected its power by sending its forces beyond its borders for the first time in Ukraine in 2014, smoothly annexed Crimea and the very next, it intervened militarily in Syria and successfully defended its ally.
is a Research Associate at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research. He has done MSc. and M.Phil in International Relations from the National Defence University, Islamabad. His areas of expertise are politics and foreign policy of Pakistan and Afghanistan.