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What Russia achieved in Syria The main takeaways after 167 days of Moscow's bombs

Source: Meduza
Photo: Pavel Golovkin / AP / Scanpix

Vladimir Putin has ordered a major withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria, set to begin on Tuesday, March 15, marking the completion of a military campaign that began 167 days ago on September 30, 2015. Meduza summarizes the apparent results of Russia's intervention in Syria's long-lasting and still ongoing civil war.

Bashar al-Assad remains in power. And his troops have also strengthened many of their frontline positions, thanks largely to support from Russian aviation and Iranian forces. The Assad regime's greatest success is that its troops have nearly encircled Aleppo, once the nation's largest city, parts of which fell under rebel control. As a result of the siege, the city reached the verge of a major humanitarian disaster. (The UN warns that 300,000 people face starvation.) In an interview with the newspaper El Pais, Assad said that he is prepared to amnesty any combatants who agree to lay down their arms.

The West was forced to negotiate with Russia. After an international coalition levied sanctions against Russia over Moscow's intervention in Ukraine, the Kremlin's role on the global stage was significantly diminished. Russia's airstrikes in Syria marked Moscow's return to great power politics. Despite the West's strong objections to Russian bombing missions in Syria, the Kremlin's participation became essential to holding peace talks. The United States and its allies have also softened their main condition for a settlement in Syria: the removal from power of President Bashar al-Assad. Washington's latest rhetoric focuses instead on a transitional period, and Assad's immediate ouster is no longer something American diplomats demand. Russia and the US led the negotiations that produced the ceasefire announced on February 27. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry led the talks.

Once gaining ground, ISIS is now on the defensive, but it's not destroyed. In 2015, ISIS lost ground in Syria, though the terrorist organization still controls significant parts of Syria and Iraq, and it continues to carry out terrorist operations abroad. It is unclear, however, who was most responsible for turning the tide against ISIS. Both Russia and the Western coalition are eager to claim credit.

Vladimir Putin meets with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on March 14, 2016
Photo: Kremlin press service

There are civilians among those targeted. Russia has repeatedly been accused of bombing civilians in its attacks ostensibly aimed at terrorists. American officials and other observers point to evidence that Russian airstrikes have targeted rebels fighting against the Assad regime, and some of these bombs, critics say, have hit civilian populations. According to the London-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, roughly 1,700 noncombatants were killed by Russian airstrikes between September 30 and March 1. Russia has also been accused of deliberately targeting hospitals. Defense officials in Moscow have consistently denied all accusations of civilian casualties caused by Russian airstrikes. 

Russia has entered a protracted conflict with Turkey. The new tensions spiked when two Turkish jets shot down a Russian bomber over Syria near the Turkish border. Ankara insists that the plane violated Turkish airspace repeatedly, though Moscow has vociferously denied this. Vladimir Putin called the attack “a stab in the back by terrorists' accomplices.” Moscow responded by levying food sanctions against Turkey, and it canceled visa-free travel for Turkish citizens to Russia. Moscow also banned organized tourist trips to Turkey, and froze all major economic projects between the two nations. Turkish businessmen and students traveling and living in Russia have complained of harassment by local authorities. In Russian propaganda, Turkey has displaced Ukraine: national television networks now present Turkey as an enemy that collaborates with terrorists against Russia.

Moscow's military intervention in Syria did cost some Russian lives. About a month after the airstrikes began, a 19-year-old serviceman died. According to official reports, Vadim Kostenko (a professional soldier—not a conscript) killed himself after losing his girlfriend in a breakup. (Kostenko's family says it doesn't believe he would have committed suicide.) On November 24, Oleg Peshkov also died. He was one of the pilots of the Su-24 bomber shot down by the Turkish Air Force. Peshkov was killed while parachuting to the ground, after ditching his aircraft. Militants opened fire at him while he was still in the air. Peshkov's navigator, Konstantin Murakhtin, managed to reach safety, but one of the marines in his rescue party, Alexander Pozynich, was killed during the operation. On February 3, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that a military adviser to the Syrian Army died in a mortar attack. According to officials in Moscow, the man wasn't participating in combat, and was only providing training to the Syrian military, which currently receives Russian military hardware. The Defense Ministry has not released the man's name.

Russia got to try out its newest weapons. Though Putin denies that it factored into Moscow's decision to intervene in Syria, one of the airstrikes' objectives was to test Russia's newest weapons—an opportunity the Defense Ministry exploited to the fullest. The Russian military delivered its bombs not just by aircraft, but also using warships and even the Rostov submarine, firing missiles from the Caspian Sea at targets more than 1,500 miles away. The airstrikes also marked the first time in history that Russia has ever used X-101 cruise missiles and other modern weapons. Even before the X-101 launches, the news agency RBC reported that Russia was spending at least $2.5 million on its Syria campaign every day. If RBC's calculations are accurate, it means Russia's military operation in Syria has cost at least $415 million to date.