MOSCOW, Russia – Maj. Gen. Petr Melukhin lost both of his legs in a landmine explosion on the road leading to Homs city. He was the only survivor; four other Russian soldiers in the vehicle with him were killed. The deadly event sparked a debate among the Russian public about the role of Moscow’s military in the Syrian conflict.
Melukhin, a senior commander responsible for the combat-readiness of the Russian army’s western military district, is the highest-ranking officer to be wounded in Syria since Moscow’s military operation began in 2015. In total, 28 Russian army soldiers have died in Syria since the mission began. While the Russian death toll in Syria is still too low to warrant pulling out, the Kremlin is not interested in indefinitely continuing its military mission there.
Unlike the heavy economic burden of the Soviet-Afghan war, Russia’s operation in Syria is not too costly to continue. According to estimates by the Russian business newspaper RBC Daily, the Syrian operation has cost Moscow around 830 million euros ($890.7 million). What’s more, according to a senior military commander speaking on condition of anonymity, it has allowed Russia to show off its growing military power in front of NATO members and Moscow’s allies in the region.
“In light of the war in Syria, we have seen a growing demand for our weapons,” Sergey Chemezov, head of Rostec, a Russian state corporation that manufactures in the military sector, said in an interview with Russian 24.
Despite this, Russia’s recent moves in Syria signal that Moscow may be looking for an exit strategy. In January, Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered the country’s military brass to decrease Moscow’s military presence in the country. Russia is also heavily engaging in political negotiations in both Geneva and Astana, and turning old foes, such as Turkey, into friends. Turkey, which shot down a Russian jet in Syria in 2015, is the only NATO member that conducts joint operations with Russia in Syria.
These unexpected moves from Russia point to the Kremlin’s desire to expedite achieving its goals in Syria. Experts on both sides of the political spectrum say that Russia had three major aims for its Syria operation. First, to distract the West from the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s takeover of Crimea. Second, to mend fences with the United States under the guise of fighting their common enemy of terrorism. And third, to protect its own territory, the North Caucasus, from jihadists who could join forces with radical groups in Syria. (According to Putin, around 4,000 Russian fighters have joined various radical groups in Syria.)
Supporting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is a subordinate reason. Unlike his father Hafez, Bashar did not previously enjoy much support in Russia and didn’t have any personal bonds to Putin.
However, after two years in Syria and numerous sorties by Russian planes against both jihadist groups and moderate opposition forces, Russia has been able only partially to achieve its goals. It has not been able to find common ground with the U.S. A long-awaited agreement to conduct joint operations with the Pentagon has collapsed. And now, achieving this goal is contingent on whether or not Putin and U.S. president Donald Trump can agree on a joint military strategy in Syria.
Fighting for Votes
Putin is seeking to declare “mission accomplished” in Syria before the 2018 elections, where he is expected to run for his fourth and possibly last term. U.S. support is tantamount to achieving this goal, particularly to use the American leverage on the Syrian opposition.
Replacing Assad is likely to be the easiest part for Russia, even if it means flying the Assad family to Moscow for safety. If a new government came into power in Damascus, the real challenge for Russia would be keeping its military base in Syria. If Russia lost it, the Russian public would likely blame Putin.
Unlike in the Ukraine conflict, where Putin’s core supporters see him as a defender of Russian minorities, the Syrian war is unlikely to bring him any votes.
The Russian public doesn’t pay much attention to the war in Syria. In a survey by VTSIOM polling agency, only 18 percent of respondents said they regularly followed the war, while the majority of respondents said they did not fully understand the nature of the conflict. Only 27 percent said they felt that the situation was improving.
What’s more, some fear that Russia might soon become the target of radical Islamists. “Because of its military operation in Syria, Russia is becoming one of the main enemies of Islamist terrorism; that’s why the military operation needs to finish,” prominent foreign policy scholar Alexey Arbatov said in an interview published on the website of the social liberal party YABLOKO.
Learning From the Past
Announcing the end of the mission by the close of the year – in time for the 2018 campaign – will be a difficult goal to achieve. As of now, the efforts of the regional troika – Russia, Iran and Turkey – to bring the conflicting sides to the negotiating table in Astana have had only modest results.
Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan during the Cold War also acts as a deterrent. The Russian invasion – not to support, but to remove a controversial dictator, Hafizullah Amin – provoked a decade-long war, which left more than 13,000 people dead.
In 1989, President Mikhail Gorbachev saw no reason to prolong the conflict. “What are we doing in Afghanistan, comrades?” he reportedly said during a meeting with the Politburo, the elite of the Communist Party. There were no reasonable explanations, and he decided to pull Russian troops out.
Putin is likely to have to answer a similar question about Syria soon.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.
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