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Syrien Sergej Lawrow und Bashar Assad in Damaskus
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Stringer/Ap/Pool

Russia's victories in Syria

Kersten Knipp / js
September 20, 2015

Russia may soon bolster the Syrian army by deploying ground troops, allowing Moscow to expand its influence on the developments in the Syrian war. Western states are doing less and less to resist Russian policies.


If the phone rings in the Kremlin and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem is on the other end of the line, the war in Syria could enter a new phase. The Syrian minister has said his country would call on Russia if the Syrian army was in need of more troops to fight the terrorist "Islamic State."

"If a request were made, it would, of course, be discussed and examined in the context of our bilateral contacts," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the news agency Ria Novosti.

So far, al-Moallem has said there is no need for additional soldiers at the moment.

The impact of Russia's military striking power has, however, been disputed. Political scientist Pavel Baev, a security scholar at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO), recently told DW that the general impression of Russian military power has been overplayed and that the country's commitment to Syria is most likely meant to showcase strength than to actually engage in a serious foreign military intervention.

Diplomatic success for Assad's government

Nevertheless, a great deal of evidence suggests that making a request amounts to nothing more than taking out a political life insurance policy. No matter what the impact of Russia's endeavors may be, the mere announcement of intent spells success for the Assad regime - it may not be a military achievement, but it is, at least, a political and diplomatic one to the Syrian leader.

Syrien Russische Flugzeuge in Latakia gelandet ARCHIV
Russian transports are being unloaded in Latakia, an Assad strongholdImage: picture-alliance/RIA Novosti/A. Kudenko

The West regards Assad's government as a rogue regime that should be deposed. At the same time, a new opinion about the situation has been forming: the war in Syria can only be won with - and not against - Assad. This week's telephone call between US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu strongly indicates this premise. The two ministers have apparently considered coordinating their efforts.

Joint action is only possible under one condition: Assad must, at least temporarily, stay in power. Russia has been making this demand for years. Western nations seem to have changed their opinion about Assad having to leave office - or at least when that would happen in a Syrian transition to peace. Earlier this week, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the UK government was ready to "compromise" when it comes to Syria.

For many in the West, the crimes of the Assad regime must not be forgotten, yet in the battle against IS, Assad is on the same side as the West. Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said fighting IS would not be successful without the cooperation of Iran and Russia, adding "we need a pragmatic stance and to include Assad in the fight against IS terror."

Russia's power politics

At the end of September, Russian President Vladimir Putin will present his country's position to the United Nations in New York. It already seems clear that Russia has prevailed over the West in its Syria policy. Putin is looking to expand Russia's foreign policy power, according to Aleksei Malashenko, a military analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

"Putin dreams of the restoration of Russian power everywhere, not just in the former Soviet space," he told "The New York Times." "The activity in Syria and around Syria means Russia is able to come back to the Middle East, not as a superpower, but as something that can balance the power of the West and the United States.”"

Russland Sotchi Treffen Syrien Russland Walid Muallem Lawrow
Syria still enjoys good relations with RussiaImage: picture alliance/ITAR-TASS/Metzel Mikhail

Russia has consistently pursued its goal, unlike Western nations. When the war broke out, Western nations did not manage to enforce a no-fly zone in the north of the country, which could provide civilian protection, nor were they able to take a clear stance on the war in Syria.

Western powerlessness

Russia and Assad's government have benefitted from the horrific images IS has exposed the world to.

"Putin has probably recognized that the United States and Europe are no longer particularly thrilled about a change of regime in Damascus but have instead been primarily focusing on IS," said Ayham Kamel, director of the Middle East department of the London consulting firm Eurasia Group.

Häuserruinen nach Bombardement in Aleppo Syrien
A focus on IS has shifted the spotlight from the barrel bombs Assad troops have droppedImage: Getty Images/Afp/Zein Al-Rifai

Russia has clearly not given any thought to moral factors, such as the hundreds of thousands of victims of the Assad regime, and Putin does not intend to withdraw his support. Western states, however, are much more concerned about the moral aspects of the raging civil war. But in practical politics they do not have moral reservations. More and more, international policy on Syria is being determined by Russia and one of its most important allies, Iran. The West, meanwhile, is left reacting to decisions coming from the Kremlin.

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