Two Years in Syria: Putin’s Success Story

Two Years in Syria: Putin’s Success Story, by Anshel Pfeffer.

Everyone expected Syria to be a quagmire. Now it’s a department store window for Russian weaponry on sale.

Two years ago, as Russian fighter jets began landing at the Khmeimim air base in Syria, military experts in the West were predicting a disaster for Moscow. The Russian army had yet to recover from the depredations of the post-Soviet period and would be incapable of sustaining a long-term deployment far from Russia’s shores. Meanwhile, the Russians would be sucked into the swamp of the Syrian civil war, and the mounting casualties would create a PR calamity for President Vladimir Putin back home.

Fast-forward 24 months and none of that has happened. Russia has kept its squadron in Syria at a decent operational tempo. Both its men and machines remain well-supplied through daily airlifts by giant Ilyushin and Antonov transport planes and ships arriving at the Mediterranean ports of Tartus and Latakia.

The casualties have been relatively light, mainly because most ground battles of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime have been carried out by Shi’ite forces led by Iranian officers. Aside from air power, Russia has supplied limited teams of Spetsnaz special forces operators and military advisers, and any deaths among them have been hidden from the Russian public.

Syria has not turned out to be a quagmire for Russia, no rerun of Vietnam or Afghanistan. “It’s easy to make a military success when you have no problem bombing schools, mosques and bakeries,” says one Western diplomat stationed in Moscow, but it’s impossible to ignore that Putin’s Syrian gamble has paid off. …

But now that the survival of the Assad regime has been ensured and the enclaves controlled by rebels and the Islamic State are shrinking, what next for Putin in Syria? Russia has no plans to move its forces as of yet, even though the level of fighting is steadily decreasing. For a start, it plans to establish permanent air and sea bases there. Then Putin wants to play peacemaker – between Iran and Turkey and the Kurds. And between Sunni Arab states and Iran’s Shi’ite axis. And then, who knows, he could even achieve the impossible: an accommodation of sorts between Israel and Iran. Russia’s hold on Syria is crucial for all of these.