After two years, what is Russia still doing in Syria?

Although there is no exact data on the Russian military campaign, the Kremlin is already beginning to inquire what will happen after the defeat the Islamic State (IS) and liberation of the entire territory.

After two years, what is Russia still doing in Syria?

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It's been two years since Russia began its military campaign in Syria. In this campaign, it has obtained several important victories through which it claims to have freed nearly 85% of the country of IS militants. But for the Russian government, there is no final victory in sight yet, quite on the contrary: the greatest struggle is yet to come. According to statements made by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigú, "the offensive against the IS has been simple at the beginning, but we know that the end will be complicated as they seek to defeat us in their bastions and will not allow us to enter".

Although there is no consolidated data on how much the country has been spending on its military operations in Syria, the Russian state news agency TASS estimates that about $ 2.8 million a day is invested in the conflict, compared to 11.9 million dollars that the United States invests in Syria and Iraq. But for Russia, the most important cost is human lives. According to official Russian data, 37 people have died including a soldier who committed suicide in Syrian territory. However, Reuters claims that the numbers provided by the Kremlin are in fact misleading and that a total of 76 Russian soldiers have died in the conflict.

From the very beginning of its military campaign in the country, Russia has wanted to show that it is not going to end like its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, advertising it as a fast and efficient campaign. However, despite the fact that on the second anniversary of its military involvement the country was eager to show the victories that have been achieved, its rivalry with the United States has produced a complex panorama on the ground that includes blaming each other for any undesired events that happen on a day to day basis while not acting in a coordinated manner.

For the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, the ultimate goal of Russia’s war in Syria is to end terrorism, which he believes to be a major threat to the country. However, Alexander Lavreniev, Vladimir Putin's special envoy to Syria, during a press conference about the progress made in recent months, argued that it is still worrisome not to know about the global objectives that the United States pursue in Syria. A repetition of the aftermath of the Iraq war would likely further destabilize the region and, according to him, Russia would not allow this scenario to take place given the risk it entails to their interests.

Currently, Russia’s most important objective is to conserve the military bases it has established in Syrian territory and to fight against the IS, as well as to maintain the extensive defense contracts it has established with a variety of countries. Similarly, for the Russian government, the questions that begin to arise now that the war is under relative control are related to what the future of Syria will look like, and who will guarantee peace in the region. Analysts like Marianna Belenkaya, expert in international relations and Russia, study the image that Russia wants to create of itself in the world. She argues that the country would not find it convenient to stay in Syria for a long time after the war has finished, since it does not want to look like a neo-empire: "Russian troops have lost popularity in territories such as Latakia, where for locals foreign soldiers are becoming a torment, and sees them as settlers and Russia does not want to give this image".

Nonetheless, Russia still might have to plan for the scenario in which it will have to stay in Syria for a longer time given that from the beginning of its military campaign the country has been committed to the reconstruction of Syria. To develop an image of benevolence among the Syrian locals, this promise would have to be kept.

After two years, Russia is at a crucial moment as its government begins to identify the possible way out of the conflict, while understanding that getting there will not be an easy task. According to the official communication of the Kremlin, Syria is simply a territory that needs help against terrorism and reconstruction. However, Russia does understand that its presence in the country might have to be prolonged and that, at the same time, it does not want to be perceived as a 21st century imperialist nation. For this, it will have to demonstrate that its military campaign, as it was set out from the beginning, can achieve its ultimate goal to end terrorism and bring stability for the region.


Latin American Post | Carlos Eduardo Gómez Avella

Copy edited by Susana Cicchetto

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