Reexamining Putin’s military interventions in the Middle East
In September 2015, President Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to intervene on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was in his fifth year of a brutal civil war against domestic opposition and foreign recruits. By then, the Russian government had already supplied weapons to the Syrian state, which had become infamous for its horrific human rights abuses. But the Russian military effort helped swing the war decisively in Assad’s direction. Last year, the Airwars group estimated that the Russian intervention had killed tens of thousands of civilians; the UN accused Russia of war crimes. The intervention also offers clues as to how Putin wants to exert his military power abroad, as seen in recent weeks during the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.
I recently spoke with my colleague Anand Gopal, a contributing writer at the new yorker, who has written extensively about the Syrian civil war for the magazine and elsewhere, and is currently working on a book about the conflict. During our chat, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed Russian military strategy, why Ukraine has proven more difficult for Russian forces than Syria, and what the Syrian intervention suggests on how Putin sees Russia’s place in the world.
When Putin’s intervention in Syria began, in 2015, what was the state of the Syrian conflict, and what did you initially consider to be the Russian objectives?
Well, at that time, in 2015, the conflict was at an impasse. Truly, both sides had been cut off. You brought in Iran and Hezbollah alongside the Syrian regime, and that stopped the rebel momentum in 2013. From 2013 to 2015, there was more or less a stalemate. So Russia’s intervention, in retrospect, tipped the scales. But at the time, it was not clear, because Russia had intervened essentially in what they described as a very limited engagement to prevent various jihadist groups from reaching the Syrian coast, where minority groups are located. It was therefore a stated objective of their intervention, but it very quickly appeared that they were not really targeting jihadist groups; they mainly targeted the democratic opposition.
What else do you now see as their real goals?
Well, it was clear that their first objective was to consolidate the Assad regime, and to consolidate it against what they considered, I think, was the most serious threat to the regime, which was not the jihadists but this democratic opposition. That is why they directed the vast majority of their firepower against the democratic opposition. Since then, I think the goal was to end the war and then, two, to enjoy the post-war environment. In particular, they hoped to land reconstruction contracts. So one of the things Russia wanted was to end the sanctions regime against Syria, and it hoped to attract Western reconstruction money, which Russian companies would be in a good position to capitalize on.
As for the way the Russians conducted the war, I have the impression that they managed to turn the tide of the war quite quickly. Is this also your feeling? What was the feeling on the ground in Syria of the quality of the Russian military operation?
Yes, it was clear very quickly that this was a game-changer. First, it was mainly thanks to Russia that the regime was able to retake all of Aleppo, and then was also able to retake areas of the Damascus countryside that had been opposition strongholds. And they did it primarily through overwhelming air power. Thus, their campaign in Syria was largely an air campaign. We believe that there were, and still are, thousands of Russian troops on the ground, but they weren’t really leading the fight. It was the Syrian regime’s conscripts who led the fight on the ground, but it was Russian air power that really changed the game. And they wielded their airpower both in a more technologically sophisticated way than the Syrian regime and in a devastating way, where they targeted not only rebel positions but markets, hospitals, schools, with , in many cases, huge civilian casualties in their attacks. .
Obviously, the war was fought with incredible and horrendous brutality by some of the jihadist forces, as well as the Syrian regime and the Iranian regime who were helping Syria. And then America entered the conflict and caused many civilian casualties. How does the Syrian regime compare to the various countries that are waging war there? Was it more brutal?
Well, the Russians had air power, which distinguished them from jihadist groups. Islamic Stateof course, was quite brutal, but the other jihadist groups that were anti-Islamic State and the anti-regime has certainly committed crimes, but I don’t think anything on the scale of what the Syrian regime or the Russians have done. Thus the Russian massacres were numerous. They were using cluster munitions. Like I said, they were attacking crowded markets. Just to give an example of the type of brutality the Russians brought to Syria, the United Nations shared a list of hospitals and clinics in Idlib province with the Syrian government and the Russians basically in the hope of prevent the Russians from hitting them accidentally. places. And, instead, the Russians used this list to target these hospitals.
So that was part of the Russian strategy: to attack the hospitals. And that was, I think, partly to break the morale not only of the rebel movement but also of the population. And also, of course, if you wage war against an enemy and destroy their health centers, you make it difficult for them to reproduce on the battlefield. So it got to a point where people in Idlib had to put their clinics literally underground. I saw underground hospitals because the Russians were targeting anything that looked like a humanitarian center or a hospital.
What about the Russian non-air presence? You said there were Russians on the ground and there still are. How effective were they and what exactly did they do?
So you had a few thousand Russian soldiers. We do not know the exact number because Moscow does not publish them. Some of them are military police, others work closely with Syrian regime forces, others are involved in calling for airstrikes. Then you also have private military contractors—Russian private military contractors—like the Wagner Group, which is very closely tied to the Russian state but is, I assume, technically independent. And so they are active in the country. Then you also have militias. They are mostly Syrian militias, but they are funded and controlled by the Russian government. You count all that, and you’re probably talking about thousands of people under arms, directly or indirectly by Russia.
To what extent do you think Russia’s success was tied to its brutality? Was part of the reason he was able to succeed because he was willing to do these things and had air power? Or was there something else about the Russian intervention that you think made it a kind of strategic value?
I think it really came down to air power, and overwhelming air power. They had over twenty thousand airstrikes. It’s overwhelming firepower that’s put to good use. And they are not unique in this area. This is the reason why the United States was able to overcome Islamic State, as well as. American strategy and Russian strategy are very similar: they rely heavily on air power with a small number of ground troops. And, in both cases, they managed to turn the tide against their respective foes. It is important to say that they were confronted with irregular forces, untrained forces, guerrillas. It is a very different matter if we are talking about facing a professional army equipped with anti-aircraft weapons and an air force.