Novye Izvestia, together with experts, assessed the Syrian five-year plan in terms of military necessity, economic benefits and geopolitical alignment.
Yelena Ivanova, Natalia Seibil
The military operation in Syria was a premiere for Russia in many ways. For the first time, the Russian army fought outside its territory. Their losses in five years amounted not to tens of thousands, as in Chechnya, but 120 people. The well-oiled information support looked more like Desert Storm than the ever-memorable press conferences of Russian generals during the second Chechen war and the Georgian campaign. After the official end of the campaign was announced, even geopolitical opponents recognized Vladimir Putin as the winner. But victorious reports are not shared by all experts and observers. "NI" understood why Russia needed Syria, and why the Russian authorities needed someone else's war.
The civil war in Syria had been going on for a long time at that time, since 2011. After the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt and especially Libya, fermentation began in Syria. The brutal suppression of chemical weapons attacks launched an armed struggle against the Assad regime. Until 2013, the Syrian authorities held back the onslaught of various groups. Russia provided diplomatic assistance to the Assad regime. All UN resolutions against him were blocked. Russian diplomats insisted on preserving the regime in Damascus and continuing Assad's war against the rebels, offering in return Syria's abandonment of chemical weapons. But with the strengthening of the Islamic State ( prohibited in the Russian Federation - ed. ), The position of the government troops began to deteriorate. IS has summoned radical Islamists from all over the world under its banner. In 2015, Assad controlled only 28% of the country's territory. The situation was more than serious. The only Russian military base in the Mediterranean in Tartus, Syria, has also come under threat.
While the war in Syria was an internal problem of the Assad regime, Russia did not intervene. With the escalation of the conflict, first into a regional, and then into an international one, the country's political leadership has a desire not only to help the only ally in the Middle East, but, first of all, to solve their own internal and international problems.
After the annexation of Crimea and the hybrid war in Donbass in 2014, Russia found itself in international isolation. The country was expelled from the G8, the sanctions caused moral damage and complicated the economic situation. Russian companies were cut off from international loans, and President Putin was viewed as a pariah.
“The main point of the operation in Syria, as it was conceived in 2015, was not at all in the war on terrorism. The main point at the time when the operation began in 2015 was to get out of the international isolation associated with Russia's successes in the Donbass and Crimea. You don’t want to talk to me, as Putin would say, I’ll make you talk to me, ”said military expert Alexander Golts .
The state's position on why Russian planes began bombing Syria in the fall of 2015 is well known. In addition to the desire to keep Assad as the only secular regime in the Middle East and protect Christians, Russian experts point to immigrants from Russia who fought in the ranks of ISIS.
“Russia at that time raised the question - to find and neutralize them, because Russia understood that all these people would return and continue their extremist activities, but on the territory of the Russian Federation. This is what was called to eliminate the threat on the distant approaches. Our colleagues from abroad look at this reason with a grin. This is understandable because, unlike Russia, they are located quite far from these territories. For Russia, these are close approaches, this is a backyard. This is a direct impact on the southern borders of Russia, ”emphasizes Andrei Chuprygin, an Arabist orientalist, senior lecturer at the School of Oriental Studies at the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, Higher School of Economics, and senior research fellow at the Center for Civilizational Studies of Eastern Countries.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, reporting on the Syrian five-year plan, said that militants from Russia and the CIS countries had been destroyed in five years. "865 gang leaders and more than 133 thousand militants have been liquidated, including 4.5 thousand militants from the Russian Federation and the CIS countries," Shoigu said in an article by the Russian Defense Ministry newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda.
Features of the war
According to the Ministry of Defense, the active phase of the Russian military operation in Syria lasted for almost a year and a half, although President Putin announced the solution of tasks and the withdrawal of troops in the spring of 2016. And although special forces, military police and the navy fought in Syria, aviation played the main role.
“The Syrian war is a specific war,” says Alexander Golts. - It is characterized by two main factors. The first is the enemy's lack of any air defense system. He was completely defenseless against Russian air strikes. The successes in the air were consolidated on the ground by pro-Iranian paramilitaries.
For 5 years more than 44 thousand sorties were made. 90% of Russian military pilots have passed through Syria.
In addition to special forces, Russian mercenaries fought in Syria. Thanks to the war in the Middle East, PMC Wagner became famous. And although the Russian authorities and the Ministry of Defense have never confirmed the presence of the "soldiers of fortune", some spoke about their participation, including tragic episodes of the war. Experts believe that if the actions of the PMC and the regular army were coordinated, then it was bad, and then because of the personal conflicts of the chiefs, people died.
- The story that happened in 2018 struck me sincerely emotionally, - says Alexander Golts. - This is an episode when the Americans killed 200 people. The Americans called the Russian operational duty officer several times and asked: are your people moving? We will open fire. He answered with a blue eye: no, we have no idea who is moving, do what you want. If there was any coordination, he would have to stop the movement of this column. Even if there are conflict situations between big bosses, in particular, between Prigozhin and Shoigu. But listen, these are Russian people!
Who fought against whom
President Putin, speaking at the UN General Assembly in late September 2015, where he arrived after a 10-year absence, called ISIS (banned in Russia) the main force opposing Assad's army. Putin proposed to create a coalition based on three objectives: air strikes on the positions of ISIS (banned in the Russian Federation) and other terrorists, support for the forces of Assad and the Kurds: as well as launching a peace process, while Assad will retain his power. Obviously, the coalition, already created by the Americans in 2014, could not agree to preserve the regime in Damascus, so the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan Arabia, Turkey fought separately, while Russia, Syria, Iran and Hezbollah fought separately.
It soon became clear that the main task for the Russian military was to support the Syrian army and expand the territory controlled by Assad. As a result of the fighting, the regime in Damascus today controls 80% of the country's territory. In the north, there remains the Idlib enclave, which continues to be held by groups close to al-Qaeda (banned in the Russian Federation). The nuance is, experts say, that some of those who have been pushed into this zone are pro-Turkish forces. Turkey is hindering the Syrian army, which gained strength when hostilities broke out between Turkey and the Syrian army in March-April.
- Turkey stopped the movement of the Syrian army, which was going to deal with anti-Assad formations. As a result, Putin once again met with Erdogan. They established a patrol zone so that anti-Assad forces would not get out of Idlib, and, on the other hand, so that Assad forces would not try to attack them, ”says Alexander Golts.
By the 5th anniversary, Defense Minister Shoigu reported that ISIS (banned in the Russian Federation - ed.) Had been destroyed in Syria. Nevertheless, a fifth of the territory is controlled by opponents of Bashar al-Assad.
Russian military bases
Before the war in Syria, the Russian fleet used a naval base in Tartus, provided to the Soviet Union by the father of the current ruler in Damascus.
- The presence of military ports is also important, because Russia's military presence in the Mediterranean was important for world politics and trade. Russia has no other bases in this area at all, so the availability of technical support for ships in Tartus is necessary for Russia, and it simply could not lose it for strategic reasons, - says Andrey Chuprygin.
In addition to her, now the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation has an air base in Khmeimim. Both bases will be expanded and improved, said Yuri Shvytkin, deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma's defense committee. Ship repair facilities will be commissioned in Tartus. The airfield in Khmeimim should receive not only military, but also civilian aircraft.
Experts suggest that the Russian military justifies these costs by the need to confront the US 6th Fleet. This task is illusory. The US Sixth Fleet is a two carrier group carrying 300 aircraft on board alone. It includes at least twenty destroyers, each of which is armed with 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles. On the Russian side, we are talking about a single Mediterranean squadron, which is formed by the forces of 4 fleets and has not yet been created. If Russian military leaders have an idea of confrontation in the Mediterranean, then they can only be pitied, notes Alexander Golts .
How much did the Syrian war cost
The costs of running a military campaign are classified. There are either Western estimates or information published by the business press. It is impossible to check them.
In 2015, analysts at IHS Jane's suggested that the day of the operation in Syria would cost the Russian budget between $ 2.3 million and $ 4 million. RBC has estimated the costs to be $ 2.5 million a day. In 2016, President Putin announced the figure of 33 billion rubles, or $ 570 million.
If we take these figures as a basis, then 804 days of active operation cost the Russian budget more than $ 2.5 billion. The next two and a half years could require the same amount.
Military spending could not but have an impact on the Russian economy. Each additional ruble invested in missiles, aircraft, fuel, and the maintenance of military bases and troops reduces spending on education, science and health care. And although with an average annual oil price of $ 59 per barrel in 2015, $ 65 - in 2016, $ 71 and $ 76 - in 2017 and 2018, respectively, such a "stroll through the Syrian buffet" could remain unnoticed, with the current sanctions and restrictions the effect was noticeable.
Russia annually supplies arms worth $ 14-15 billion, keeping the second place after the United States in the sale of arms in the world. According to the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, the volume of long-term orders for equipment and weapons is estimated at $ 55 billion. Combat aircraft and air defense and missile defense systems are in the greatest demand.
The military says a large number of new weapons have been used in Syria. The systems were tested under combat conditions, refined and tested again.
“New systems important for the Russian army were specially tested, including potential delivery vehicles for tactical nuclear weapons - Iskander and Caliber missiles, aviation cruise missiles (Russia used Kh-101 missiles in Syria), the Bastion coastal complexes, which fired on the ground - as well as all types of new combat aircraft that Russia has adopted, "said Vasily Kashin, senior researcher at the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics.
Experts believe that any weapon tested in a real war sells significantly better than untested weapons.
- There is no doubt that Syria was a wonderful testing ground and showroom for sales, there is no doubt about it. First of all, it concerns aviation, - says Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
It is clear that war is a dirty and cynical business. However, the "Syrian showroom" claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands and deprived millions of homes and homes.
- I am amazed at such a naive delight of the Russian bosses that they received a training ground in Syria for testing their military equipment. Such calculations may be borne in mind, they may exist. But to admit it publicly and openly is the delight of a barbarian, - Alexander Golts is indignant.
If we return to the practical side of the matter, but the main beneficiaries of the Syrian war were the United States. The Center for the Analysis of the World Arms Trade pointed to a number of mega-deals that the Americans concluded with the countries of the Middle East. So, another US coalition partner in Syria, Saudi Arabia, purchased weapons for a record $ 13.44 billion. Our experts said that they were unaware of Russian arms sales to the Middle East.
- The operation takes 5 years. There should be a boom in sales of Russian aviation equipment. The boom is not visible. We sell something, the Indians are going to buy something, something a little there in Southeast Asia, and nothing at all in the region (in the Middle East - "NO"). This theory does not find confirmation, - says Alexander Golts .
Experts say that the latest Russian SU-57 fighters were used in Syria for a short time. In the absence of opposition from at least someone, their main task was not to suffer an accident or catastrophe during the flight, Goltz suggests.
They said that Russian specialists had established a Syrian air defense system that could shoot down cruise missiles.
- There is no practical confirmation of this theory, but there is a skeptical view: to designate the destruction of cruise missiles, after the attack, the Syrian air defense systems launch their own means that self-destruct. The S-200 has such a program: if it does not find a target, it self-destructs. After that, the Syrians, followed by the Russian military leaders, claim that cruise missiles are being destroyed. This number was used in the Israeli attack, which resulted in the downing of a Russian observer aircraft.
It is difficult to talk about arms sales, experts say. Recently, Rosoboronexport and the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation have not shared such information. After the outbreak of the pandemic, many countries are revising their military budgets, so the equipment that went through the fire will be easier to sell.
- It can be said quite clearly that due to the economic turmoil in the world and due to the fact that countries are redistributing funds to fight the covid, it has become difficult to sell weapons. In particular, Chile was going to modernize its F-16 aircraft, as a result of which an already agreed contract for several hundred million dollars was postponed indefinitely, because the priority is not the purchase of weapons, but sustainable social development, says Ruslan Pukhov.
In terms of the stated objectives, the campaign in Syria ended in victory.
- It is already clear that the existing political regime has remained and will remain. It is already clear that there is no alternative to the current leader in the coming years, because there is a replacement. Despite the periodically flashing antagonism and shouts that Assad must leave, they are meaningless, because where to go and who will come. The opposition, which fled in different directions, quarreled among themselves and could not agree. They read bad or good to negotiate with Damascus. All this indicates that yes, there were a lot of failures, a lot of unfinished, unfinished, but in general, the fact that the Western analytical press calls Putin the winner in the Syrian conflict is close to reality. In fact, Russia has outplayed the players interested in this process, - says Andrey Chuprygin.
But this opinion reflects the official Russian position. And observers have many questions for her. Alexey Malashenko , political scientist, head of scientific research at the Dialogue of Civilizations Institute asks:
- Not a single serious analyst talks about Putin's "victory" in Syria. This is what our propagandists say somewhere in Europe. There is no victory. What is the victory? Absolutely legitimate Assad regime? Ending the Civil War? Achieving a solution to the Idlib problem? Control over the territories also raises a question: someone says that he, Assad, controls eighty percent of the territory, someone believes that only thirty. And then what does this control mean? There is opposition, there are Islamists, there are Kurds. There is a local government that does not want to obey anyone at all. They are tired of both Boshar and Islamists and Kurds. The war continues.
The Syrian campaign makes sense from the point of view of some Mr. Prigozhin, says Alexander Golts. He has a chance to get oil fields. It makes sense for the Russian generals - they are all decorated with the stars of heroes.
Did the war make sense for the Russian economy and the situation in the world - in the following materials of the cycle.