Russia's military intervention in Syria has been going for almost a year now. Many experts believe that Russia has achieved its main objectives. Nevertheless, a resolution to the conflict is nowhere in sight.
Following an attack on a UN humanitarian-aid convoy near Aleppo, Syria, the tone between the United States and Russia has grown noticeably coarser. At a UN Security Council meeting on Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry said that talks with colleague Sergey Lavrov had given him the impression that the Russians were living in a "parallel universe." Prior to the statement, Washington announced that its most recent information confirmed the convoy had been attacked from the air, meaning that either the Russian or Syrian army was responsible.
In New York, Lavrov warned against jumping to conclusions. He said it would be wiser to wait for the findings of a comprehensive investigation. The Russian Ministry of Defense denied accusations that it had attacked the convoy, and instead, pointed the finger at Syrian rebels and the USA. Among other things, the Russians released photos that they claimed showed a car outfitted with a grenade launcher near the convoy.
Accusations against Moscow and Damascus
The convoy that was destroyed on Monday near Aleppo, which is currently under siege by the Syrian government, was the first UN aid convoy designated to enter Syria's largest city. Some 20 people were killed in the attack. Syrian insurgents support Washington's assessment of the incident.
A group of government critical Russian activists, calling itself the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), is specialized in the analysis of open-sources that provide information, especially on the internet, and has determined that Russia was complicit in the attack. The UN convoy near Aleppo was "most likely destroyed by air strikes conducted by the Assad regime as well as the Russians," according to CIT's analyses. CIT's assessment of the Russian defense department's data on the incident was that it either "had no relation whatsoever to the incident," or was "simply false."
Ceasefire under attack
For Alexey Malashenko the convoy attack is a puzzle. "Everything seems to suggest that it was the Syrian army," the Middle East expert from the Carnegie Center's Moscow offices told DW. But he goes on to say that a "Russian factor" cannot be ruled out either, even though it cannot be clearly proven. "Russia would never admit it," says Malashenko. "Can you imagine Vladimir Putin ever saying, sorry, we made a mistake?"
That is exactly what the USA did just a few days ago, after Russian sources provided information confirming that more than 60 Syrian soldiers had been killed in air strikes carried out by a US-led coalition in Eastern Syria last Saturday. Moscow and Damascus protested loudly, and the United States announced its regret over the incident. These two attacks, within just a few short days of each other, raise questions about the stability of the ceasefire recently negotiated between the USA and Russia in Geneva, and put into effect on September 12. The Syrian government has said that it is over, and blames the rebels for having broken the agreement.
It is against this backdrop that Russia is currently building up its military presence in the region. On Wednesday, Russia's Ministry of Defense announced that it will be sending its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to the Mediterranean. The warship will strengthen the Russian navy's presence off the Syrian coast.
Helping Assad is the main objective
Soon, a year will have passed since the Russians began military operations in Syria. Back then, the whole world wondered why Russian military transport planes and warships were traveling to Syria so much more frequently than usual. It turned out that Russia was expanding a base for its air force in the western Syrian province of Latakia. On September 30, 2015, Russia conducted its first airstrikes, justifying them as part of the global fight against terrorism. The West accused Moscow of bombing moderate opposition forces.
From a Russian point of view, it has been a good year. Experts say that Moscow began its operations in Syria for two reasons: to aid its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and to force the United States to the negotiating table. "When it all began, the risk of Assad's downfall was a decisive factor," as Fyodor Lukyanov, chairman of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow - an organization with close ties to the government - told DW.
Alexey Malashenko also agrees that those two objectives have been attained, and that is what matters most to Moscow. In Syria, Russia has been able to demonstrate that it is not simply a "regional power" as US President Barack Obama once labeled it. And so far, Washington has been forced to make more concessions than Moscow.
Western experts agree that Russia has managed to strengthen its position in the Middle East. "It is well-nigh impossible to solve any issue in Syria without Russia or against its will," says Margarete Klein from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.
Putin, a man without a plan
However, experts also agree that a solution to the Syrian crisis is nowhere in sight. Moscow has not been able to hand over control to the Syrians and then "elegantly withdraw itself," says Fyodor Lukyanov. Alexey Malashenko also sees the situation quite pessimistically: "The bottom line is that the conflict continues." Both Moscow and Washington have been rather halfhearted in looking for an acceptable solution. And the self-proclaimed fight against terrorism seems to have simply been a pretext for a trial of strength between the two in Syria.
As far as Russia is concerned, the Kremlin has no plan whatsoever for ending its operations in Syria. "Putin has very strong tactical positions, but he has no idea how the game will end," says Malashenko. "He well understands that Assad might have to go at some point, but has no idea who might take his place."
Therefore Russia will stay in Syria as long as its protégé Assad is still in power. Anything else would be an unacceptable loss of face for Moscow.