Russia's Involvment in the Syrian War
Updated: Jul 21, 2020
Bashar Al Assad’s brutal and bloody campaign against armed opposition forces in Syria has, throughout the years, received substantial support from its two major allies - Russia and Iran. These two countries have for long enjoyed a multifaceted and pragmatic relationship, with a prime example of the complexities and importance of this relationship being found at the heart of the Syrian conflict.
The close ties Syria has with these two countries spans back to long before the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. Iran and Syria’s strong relations date back to the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. For ex-president Hafez Al Assad, the creation of the Republic represented an opportunity to establish a new counterweight to Israel and Iraq, who have been considered Syria’s regional enemies for quite some time. The cooperation between the two countries during the Iraq-Iran war further solidified their relationship.
As for Russia, close ties have been maintained with Syria since the end of the Second World War. In 1946, the Soviet Union greatly supported Syrian independence and also provided military assistance to the Syrian Arab Army. On 8 October 1980, Syria and the Soviet Union signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, which encourages regular consultations between the two states, promotes coordination of responses in the event of a crisis, and military cooperation. This treaty paved the way for the 2015 Russian mass-scale military interventions aimed at keeping President Assad in power.
The US, UK and France also had interests within the region at the time when the civil war began. At first, Western powers (more specifically the US) started giving weapons and military training to what they considered moderate rebel groups. However, with the rise of extremist groups within peaceful rebel factions - such as ISIS - the US’s foreign policy gradually steered away from backing the rebels to defeating the newly founded Islamist jihadists. Due to the rapid rise of groups such as ISIS, the US lead an international coalition including more than 60 countries with the intent of carrying out military strikes against extremist groups, and backed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their struggle to gain back land that was being controlled by ISIS.
The West’s stance on the Syrian conflict was initially anti-Bashar and pro-rebel, but quickly turned into a mission solely aimed at defeating ISIS. The capitulation of the West’s pro-rebel stance came after Obama’s famous “red line” speech in which he claimed that only a chemical attack would warrant significant US military intervention. In 2013, the Assad regime carried out a series of horrifying chemical attacks on the city of Ghouta, yet the red line that had blatantly been crossed was not enough for the US to intervene militarily. Subsequently, the West intensified its anti-ISIS campaigns, leaving behind the rebels they once claimed to back.
On the ground, Russia and Iran have become allies of convenience, with differences in thought on how the country should be governed and a struggle for power and influence within the region causing tensions amongst the two countries. Confrontations between Syrian forces backed by Iran on the one hand and Syrian forces backed by Russia on the other have sometimes developed into severe clashes with dozens of casualties.
Russia and Iran are also in competition when it comes to trying to get access to Syria’s rare economic resources, such as port access and hydrocarbons.
Both countries jockey for influence within the Assad regime, trying directly to place people loyal to them in key military and bureaucratic positions. Iran and Russia had different reasons for getting directly involved in the Syrian civil war, but have now become mainstays in the region following Donald Trump’s decision to pull American troops out of Syria.
As for the future of the conflict, the power vacuum caused by the USA’s withdrawal seems to pave the way for Russia and Iran to assert their dominance even further within the region, all while solidifying Assad’s victory in a conflict that has dragged on far too long.