Emil Aslan Souleimanov
Dr. Souleimanov is an associate professor of political science at the Institute of International Relations, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague.
On March 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly announced the end, effective the following day, of the Russian intervention in the Syrian Arab Republic. Russia's military — including elite ground forces, the latest Su-34 strike fighters, Buk-M2 missile systems, KA-52 attack helicopters, and other technologically advanced assets — had been deployed in the Middle Eastern country, apparently at Bashar al-Assad's request, since August 2015 and in combat since late September. According to Putin, Russian forces "largely managed" to meet their goals, while their "effective work has created conditions for the beginning of the peace process [in Geneva]."1 And while Putin announced the preservation of Russia's Khmeimim airbase and the Tartus naval facility, both in Assad-held coastline areas, Russia's unpredictable withdrawal sparked heated debates about Moscow's true intentions in Syria, its failures and successes, and the prospects for its further involvement there.
ANTI-IS OR PRO-ASSAD?
Putin underscored that it was "with the participation of the Russian military men that the Syrian Army and the patriotic forces of Syria managed to cardinally stem the tide in the fight against international terrorism and gain momentum in all directions."2 Indeed, the fight against international terrorism ranked among Moscow's most frequently declared goals in Syria. Pointing to the unprecedented concentration of international jihadists in Syria, including those from the North Caucasus, Russian authorities had, prior to their actual military intervention in the Middle East, discussed the possibility of wrecking the jihadists on foreign soil — before the latter could turn their sights on Russia.3 This would imply that Russian airstrikes would mainly focus on the Islamic State, and to an extent also on the al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), for the simple reason that these groups have hosted thousands of international jihadists, including those from Russia's predominantly Muslim areas.
Yet Russian-led airstrikes generally bypassed the Islamic State and dealt the al-Nusra Front only glancing blows, concentrating instead on Syria's western areas, where the Syrian army and the affiliated Shiite armed groups were capable of operating. Indeed, according to U.S. official estimates, at various times, 70 to 90 percent of Russia's airstrikes avoided targeting the Islamic State, a finding shared by independent observers as well.4 Russian authorities have on many occasions questioned these claims, stressing their focus on fighting the Islamic State and similar jihadist or terrorist groups — as all of Assad's opponents were labeled by Moscow. Yet from the outset of its military engagement in Syria, Moscow's main goal appears to have been saving the Assad regime instead of fighting the common international jihadist foe. Importantly, Russian airstrikes only began in late September, as rebel forces advanced as close as eight kilometers from the presidential palace in Damascus.5 Russian airstrikes focused almost exclusively on the strategically key areas of western Syria, where the Assad army and its allies had relative strength and, particularly along the coast, considerable popular support. Hence, moderate rebels — the Free Syrian Army (FSA) militias and affiliated secular or moderate Islamist groups — quickly became the main targets of Russian airstrikes and ground offensives carried out by the Assad military and its allies.
For its part, even before Russia's direct involvement in the Syrian civil war, the Assad army and the Islamic State had generally "avoided" each other.6 Instead, the Islamic State engaged in fighting other anti-Assad groups, including various factions of the FSA-affiliated secular and moderate rebels and the al-Nusra Front. This trend has remained intact since Moscow's intervention in Syria, with some episodic exceptions — for instance, the Russian-backed recapture of the isolated Islamic State-held town of Palmyra in late March. In some instances — for example, during the Russian-backed Assad army's advance in the Aleppo area in October 2015 — the Islamic State went so far as to synchronously attack the local rebel positions threatening the Western-backed rebels' supply lines.7
With the Assad army critically debilitated, it was clear to Moscow strategists that regaining control over all of Syria was impracticable. Moreover, for Moscow, helping Assad reclaim the whole of the country would be too costly and, in strategic terms, rather unnecessary. As Josh Cohen noticed as early as November 2015, the Russian military intervention was "not about restoring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's control over a 'stable and unified' Syria, but rather to preserve a functioning Syrian state — preferably one that can also protect Russia's interests in Syria."8 The deprivation and war fatigue of the Assad army and various pro-Assad ground forces were part of the problem. In fact, according to a high-ranking official in Russia's Ministry of Defense, even though the Syrian top brass spoke of 130,000 soldiers being at their disposal in late September and early October, when joint military operations were launched, the actual number of combat-ready loyalist troops was around 25,000.9 The same source admits that, at the outset, Russians and Syrians had reached an agreement on the need to regain control over part of Syria's territory; Russia was committed to avoiding ground warfare at all costs.10 Significantly, Putin launched the military campaign in Syria after General Qasem Souleimani, the legendary commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, paid a visit to Moscow, where he most likely assured the Russian leadership of the Iranians' determination to provide the pro-Assad coalition with boots on the ground.11 Shiite volunteers or mercenaries from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere have also been encouraged to join the Assad forces, adding up to a thousand or so fighters.12
Therefore, Russian forces, alongside the Assad army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah paramilitaries and Shiite militia, focused on reinforcing Damascus's positions in the western areas critical for the regime's survival. Mikhail Barabanov, a senior researcher at Moscow's Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, affiliated with the Ministry of Defense, has admitted, "Even if there isn't a radical improvement in the regime's military fortunes, which is unlikely, at the very least the aim is to consolidate its military and territorial positions to remove the question of Assad's departure as a precondition for a political settlement."13 Indeed, Putin understood that winning the war in Syria with aerial bombardment was impossible. And reinforcements from outside Syria were too insignificant to help Assad's troops reverse the course of the war and defeat the rebels in the whole of the country. As prominent Russian political analyst Vladimir Frolov has concluded, "Putin's plunge into Syria's fierce civil war was never about winning."14
AN INTERNATIONAL COALITION?
Calls for creating a broad international coalition to combat the Islamic State were frequently made by Russian political elites. Yet it soon became obvious that, while a U.S.-led international coalition operated in Syria with the aim of battling the Islamic State, Moscow sought to attack other anti-Assad armed groups. In fact, the moderate anti-Assad groups that turned into major targets of Russian air strikes had been supported by the United States and its allies. Understandably, this caused unease in Western capitals, and particularly Ankara and Riyadh. Moscow's imperative of keeping the Assad regime alive — and legitimizing it as a partner at the negotiating table — was in conflict with the objectives of the key Western nations, as well as the important regional actors: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The difference of opinion between Western nations and some regional actors, on the one hand, and Russia backed by Iran on the other, made cooperation virtually impossible. Unscrupulous attacks carried out by the Russian air force caused the deaths of thousands of civilians, perhaps making the public cost of cooperating with Russia too high for Western politicians.15 Hence, Putin called for the establishment of an international coalition in late September and October, a coalition that Moscow expected to be led by the United States and Russia. But as early as late November, he already spoke of Russia's readiness to just "cooperate with the coalition that is led by the United States," thereby acknowledging the impracticability of merging Russian and Western efforts.16 Indeed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, within less than half a year, Russian warplanes in Syria caused the deaths of more civilians than the Islamic State during several years of brutality.17 Overall, according to rights groups, Russian airstrikes — often deliberately targeting schools, markets, hospitals and other civilian facilities — are believed to have killed around 2,000 civilians.18
In addition, some analysts have speculated that one of the main goals of Moscow's military intervention was to strike a deal with the United States over Syria: a carte blanche in Ukraine and elsewhere in the post-Soviet space in exchange for Russian concessions in Syria or the lifting of Western sanctions against Russia.19 This most likely did not materialize, from what one can observe in how the international situation has evolved since fall 2015. There is no sign of military or intelligence cooperation having taken place between Russia and key Western actors over Syria, and the Western economic sanctions against Russia have been prolonged.
This may explain why, within less than half a year, Putin and his closest associates several times switched the tasks of Russia's military involvement in Syria. At times, depending on the response from the West, Putin talked about the fight against the Islamic State as Russia's main goal; later on, he switched to claiming that its main goal was to provide support to Bashar al-Assad. For instance, at his "historical" — according to the Russian media — speech at UN headquarters on September 28, 2015, Putin talked of the need to create a wide international coalition of "all forces that resist the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations."20 Just two weeks later, Putin underscored that the Russian servicemen's main goal was to stabilize the "legitimate authority" of Assad.21 Intriguingly, in early February, Russia's minister of foreign affairs, Sergey Lavrov, unambiguously stated, "Russian airstrikes won't be terminated until we actually annihilate terrorist organizations: ISIL, Jabhat an-Nusra and the like. I see no reasons to terminate these strikes."22
WHY IS MOSCOW LEAVING?
In military terms, Russian airstrikes indeed helped a great deal to stabilize Assad's control over western Syria, but many doubt that Damascus's initial successes, still short of major ground victories, could last without Moscow's — or Assad's Shiite allies' — critical support. Commentators agree that, facing high casualty rates, the Iranians have ramped up their withdrawal from Syria, having reduced their initial ground force of 2.000 Revolutionary Guards to a symbolic force of 700 in late 2015.23 Moreover, the Revolutionary Guards proved to be a rather dubious combat force. According to a high-ranking source in Russian military headquarters, credit could be given to Tehran for bringing in numerous combat-ready Hezbollah paramilitaries from Lebanon, while the number of Revolutionary Guards was rather nominal. "They didn't really want to fight, even when they agreed on support for the Assad troops at a certain moment, [when ordered to strike] the Iranians were quick to fall into some kind of paralysis."24 Yet even in the ranks of the Hezbollah units, morale has been relatively low due to high casualty rates.25
Interestingly, Russian forces left Syria before the critical siege of Aleppo could be secured and the subsequent assault carried out. Aware of the potential bloodshed, Russian officers hesitated to embark on a siege or attack on Syria's second-largest city, defended by thousands of determined fighters. Russian sources indicate that this hesitation was shaped by a lack of strong ground forces on the Assad side.26 Russia's leaving may be indicative of Putin's unwillingness to remain alone in backing an allied regime that at some point would require engaging in the bloodshed of urban combat. If it attempted to reinforce Assad's recent territorial gains, the Russian military would be effectively dragged into a quagmire. Against the background of severe casualties, a Russian retreat would entail a loss of face, which Putin is eager to avoid. In itself, the outcome of Russia's airstrikes was rather modest: a total of 9,000 tours, with only 2,000 terrorists killed, according to official Russian estimates.27
Moscow's announcement of its military withdrawal from Syria may also be aimed at the Damascus government. In fact, Assad has on some occasions spoken out in favor of the "liberation" of the whole of Syria, not just its western parts, from all sorts of "terrorists." One cannot be sure about the sincerity of these declarations from the Assad representatives. For most obeservers, it is obvious that, without tangible support from Russia and Syria's Shiite allies, the Assad regime will have a hard time consolidating its recent gains in the country's western areas, let alone recapturing the rest of the country. One of these statements was made at the peak of the Syrian regime's Russian-backed advances in mid-February; it implied that the ceasefire did not mean that Damascus was going to cease its fight against the "terrorists." It is likely that such statements have been made for external purposes to signal the rediscovered strength and commitment of the Syrian army. Yet in what many considered as a public sign of cracks in the Russian-Syrian alliance, Moscow's envoy to Washington, Vitaly Churkin, asserted, "Russia has invested very seriously in this crisis, politically, diplomatically, and now also in the military sense." Therefore, Churkin warned Assad about challenging the peace talks: "We of course would like that Bashar Assad should take account of that."28 Against this background, Fyodor Lukyanov, head of a Kremlin advisory body known as Russia's Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, pointed out, "This is a way to show Assad his own weaknesses," he said. "This is a signal to him that we will not abandon you, but if you think you can use us for your own success, that's not our job."29
Although proof is missing, some observers have speculated that Putin ordered the withdrawal of Russian warplanes from Syria just days after news of the downing of the Syrian MiG-21, which may have been targeted by rebels using Saudi Arabian-supplied U.S.-made surface-to-air missiles (SAM).30 Concerned over Russian-led advances in Syria, Saudi authorities have recently implied they might supply such missiles to the rebel forces, which could significantly impact the course of the war.31 As a Russian military analyst has summarized the Russian armed forces' record in Syria, "If we entered Syria to fight terrorism, we failed to achieve this task."32
Russian military intervention came just as the moderate opposition's strategic momentum was effectively being reversed by the joint Russian-Assad-Shiite advances of fall 2015. Politically, what Moscow appears to have achieved is the further weakening of these moderate rebel forces. Importantly, it was the latter with which Western nations have been willing to discuss Syria's post-Assad future — or to pass on the governance of the state following the much-anticipated collapse of the Assad regime. Against the background of the critically weakened and fragmented moderate rebel groups, the Islamic State appears to have turned into one of the two major remaining military forces in Syria, alongside the Assad troops. The ongoing U.S.-led assault on the Islamic State may serve Assad's goals in the long run, provided Assad still nurtures the idea of consolidating the whole of the country under his control. Against this background, an assault on the Assad armies would now be interpreted as implicit assistance to the Islamic State. In line with this logic, with Syria dominated by two power centers, the Assad regime is to be taken as the lesser evil. Yet, following the commencement of the Geneva peace talks, the international community has obtained another reason not to assault the Assad forces. Moscow's intervention has contributed to "the Syrian government [being] internationally recognized" and becoming part of the peace negotiations.33
Perhaps Moscow's only clear-cut political success rests in breaking the international isolation in which the Russian political leadership had found itself following the annexation of Crimea and the initiation of a hybrid war in eastern Ukraine. Since late 2015, Western leaders have resumed talking to Putin as an important negotiator, and Foreign Minister Lavrov has frequently met with his U.S. counterparts to discuss the fate of Syria, lately expressing hope that ongoing discussions would lead to a "normalization" of Russo-American relations.34 However, here, too, Putin should content himself with a partial achievement.35 Apart from the rather modest goal of resuming Russo-American talks, the Ukraine-crisis-triggered economic sanctions against Russia have remained intact, with Washington and key EU member states in favor of retaining them. Even more important, Moscow appears not to have been given a free hand in dealing with Ukraine. Furthermore, the Russian military's ruthless behavior in Syria has antagonized many in the West. A recent statement by the foreign secretary of the United Kingdom, Philip Hammond, illustrates the point: Putin does not deserve "any credit" for stopping the bombing of Syrian schools and hospitals, especially as that halt has only been partial.36
Economically, too, the war effort appears to have been fairly costly for Russia, which has been facing severe shortages due to falling oil prices. According to some estimates, the airstrikes have cost Moscow around a billion dollars a month,37 with Russia's defense budget making up as much as $50 billion annually. Yet Moscow desperately needs funds at home to ensure a minimal standard of living for the middle class Russians who feel increasingly hard hit. This, too, indicates that Moscow's military intervention in Syria was, from the very beginning, planned as a short-term initiative, not a costly full-scale military involvement.
Last but not least, the downing of a Russian warplane by the Turkish air force in November 2015 added another important dimension to Russia's strategy in Syria. Following this incident, Moscow has strengthened its military presence in and around Syria, possibly in the anticipation of an armed clash with Turkey, an important NATO ally. Concerned with the advances of Kurdish troops in northern Syria, Ankara has frequently issued warnings aimed at the so-called Rojava authorities. Yet, as the pro-Assad coalition's military push of early 2016 in the Aleppo area demonstrated, the Kurds have been collaborating with Moscow (and Damascus) on the battlefield; according to some sources, they may even have received weapons and could possibly count on some form of Russian support in the case of Turkish intervention in nothern Syria.38 While a strong Russian military presence in Syria may have deterred Turkish intervention, the Russian withdrawal is likely to increase the chances of a Turkish thrust into the area to prevent Kurdish cantons from uniting just to the south of the Turkish-Syrian border. It is not clear whether Moscow was willing to engage in an armed conflict with the Turkish military in case the latter sought to enter northern Syria. But the considerable reinforcement of Russian facilities in Syria with the most technologically advanced weapons and aircraft in the aftermath of the downing of the Russian warplane indicated that Moscow considered that possibility — or did its best to deter the Turks from pouring into Syria.39
For the same reason, the Russian media leaked information that Moscow could deploy tactical nuclear weapons in the case of a Russian-Turkish military confrontation in Syria, where the numerically stronger Turkish ground forces would have had an upper hand conventionally.40 Against this background, Moscow may choose to supply weapons to the Syrian-Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), a 50,000-strong armed force, emboldening them to consolidate their control over northern Syria, instead of risking a direct armed conflict with Ankara. Given Moscow's recent efforts to degrade NATO from within, sowing discord among its member states, a Turkish war with the YPG may serve this strategy, as the United States and NATO countries incline toward the Kurds in their fight against the Islamic State. In other words, Russia's withdrawal from Syria has the potential of allowing the Turks to enter northern Syria, which could lead to an armed confrontation with the Russian-backed Kurdish forces that enjoy strong Western sympathy.
Clearly, the Russian intervention in Syria saved the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad. Apart from that, could the Russian involvement in Syria be considered a success? It depends on the understanding of Russia's true goals in Syria, as the above assessment has illustrated. If Moscow were to seek to systematically combat the Islamic State or any other jihadist group — which it did not — the Russian military failed to achieve its goal; the Islamic State in Syria was not destroyed or even weakened, and al-Nusra Front only suffered partial losses. If Moscow sought to strengthen the military standing of Bashar al-Assad, helping him consolidate control over some strategically important parts of western Syria, this goal was partially achieved. Yet, militarily, in the face of diminishing Iranian support, Putin may have become increasingly unwilling to risk a ground war that the Russian military would have to wage on their own to further boost Assad's grip on the country. Perhaps more important, thanks to Russia's intervention, Assad's military position has been improved enough for him to enter the peace talks while holding strategic momentum.
Indeed, politically, with the once-prevailing "Assad must go" formula abandoned by Washington, the controversial regime in Damascus was made part of the peace talks, which may be considered a partial success. Yet questions remain over the fate of Moscow's only client in the Middle East. If key Western nations, Turkey or Saudi Arabia are willing to provide critical support to the rebel forces, the Assad regime — now facing decreasing support from Moscow and Tehran — would not be in a position to secure its recent territorial gains. Emboldened by Russia's withdrawal from Syria, rebel forces may regroup and reclaim lost areas, and possibly even regain the strategic initiative to the point of threatening the Assad regime. As Pavel Baev has pointed out, "Bashar al-Assad's forces have gained in strength and morale, but not to such a degree that they can sustain their rather moderate gains without continued Russian air support."41 To preclude such developments, Moscow is vitally interested in negotiating an international peace deal over Syria that would keep its ally alive. That is why it was quick to broker a ceasefire and is determined to negotiate a settlement to preserve Assad in Damascus, in one way or another. Yet it is still unclear whether such a deal is negotiable — and whether it would indeed include a strong role for Assad. Indeed, with the Geneva peace talks just recently launched, it is too early to contemplate their outcome or the political future of Assad.
Still, as the previous section illustrated, there have been signs that Moscow and Damascus are at odds with each other. Recently, Assad's army achieved a number of military victories, all backed by extensive Russian airstrikes. One of the victories most celebrated by the Assad-controlled media was the recapture in late March of Palmyra, considered by some commentators as the Islamic State's biggest defeat since 2014.42 It was followed by the recapture in early April of the town of al-Qaryatain some 60 miles to the west of Palmyra.43
Moscow seems willing to use Syria as a trump card in its negotiations with the United States.44 Against this background, Assad is vitally interested in achieving as much clout and legitimacy as possible in order to remain in power. To that end, emboldened by recent battlefield victories, Damascus carried out parliamentary elections in the country's regime-controlled areas on April 13, 2016, in which Assad's National Progressive Front won the majority of votes. Having attained a semblance of legitimacy, the regime is willing to continue with the Geneva talks, even proposing its own peace plan. The Kremlin will have to keep Assad on his feet as long as a peace agreement is struck that takes into account Moscow's interests. According to Paul Salem, vice president of policy and research at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, Moscow is stuck with Assad for the moment: "They [the Russians] are afraid if somebody else removes him or they remove him, the whole state will collapse." According to Salem, "They are hostage to his continued survival. He can withstand Russian displeasure and irritation. He feels under no compulsion to make major concessions."45
Moscow is, therefore, interested in retaining some form of military presence in Syria, to make sure it can control the evolving peace process. Should the deteriorating situation on the ground necessitate it, Russia is likely to resort to violence to keep the current government in Damascus alive. As Dmitry Gorenburg and Michael Kofman have alleged, observing the nuances of Russia's partial withdrawal from Syria, "The [Russian] aircraft that are being withdrawn this week can easily be reintroduced should military or political circumstances warrant a ramp-up. Nothing is leaving that cannot come back in a matter of days, and other equipment is likely to arrive in its place."46 Indeed, as the recent death of a military serviceman in combat in the Palmyra area indicated, Russian elite forces remain in Syria, providing support to the Assad army's operations.47 Now, having formally retreated from Syria, it would still be possible for Putin to abandon his Syrian protégé, should the cost of backing him surpass the cost of abandoning him. On the other hand, were the Assad regime again threatened, Moscow would have to strike back without the element of surprise, facing an emboldened adversary confident that Russia lacked staying power. Importantly, the Russian public would be even less willing to tolerate casualties in a distant war than during the first military campaign.48
Besides, with Russian media increasingly abandoning the topic of Russia's intervention in Syria and turning back to the frozen conflict in Donbas, it is possible that Putin, having failed to achieve concessions from the West using the Syrian gambit, has chosen to refocus on the strategically much more important Ukraine. He may still be hoping to trade Syria for Ukraine. In this case, having once formally declared the end of Russia's intervention in the Middle East, Putin could abandon Assad to his fate without risking a loss of face. In fact, as some observers have admitted, Syria itself has been less important for Moscow than a number of other issues, such as Western sanctions, Russia's clout in Ukraine and the post-Soviet space, and so on. As Vladimir Frolov has observed, "It is obvious that the Kremlin would like to make Syria a template not only for bilateral relations with the United States, but also to develop new rules of the game in a broader sense." As Minister Lavrov indicated in mid-March, at the time Putin announced the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria, Moscow would have preferred to settle the armed conflict in Donbas bilaterally with Washington. "It is not entirely far-fetched," Frolov has pointed out, as "Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Putin's aide Vladislav Surkov have already discussed replacing separatist leaders with Ukrainian oligarchs Rinat Akhmetov and Yury Boiko — as acceptable both to Kiev and Moscow."49 Unless a Russian-American deal were struck in the halls of power in Moscow or Washington over the fate of Syria and possibly eastern Ukraine, the outcome of the peace talks is still not in sight — and Moscow may be willing to use its leverage on the ground to achieve a bilateral trade-off with the United States.
1 "Operatsiya VKS RF sozdala usloviya dla politicheskogo protsessa v Syrii [The Operation of the VKS of the Russian Federation Have Created Condition for Peace Process in Syria]," Izvestiya, March 14, 2016, http://izvestia.ru/news/606390.
3 See, for instance, Emil A. Souleimanov and Katarina Petrtylova, "Russia's Policy toward the Islamic State," Middle East Policy 22, no. 3 (Fall 2015): 66-78; and Emil A. Souleimanov, "Globalizing Jihad? North Caucasians in the Syrian Civil War," Middle East Policy 21, no. 3 (Fall 2014): 154-62.
4 "'More than 90%' of Russian Airstrikes in Syria Have Not Targeted ISIS, U.S. Says," Guardian, October 7, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/07/russia-airstrikes-syria-not-targetting-isi; and Andrew Dunn, "Obama Envoy: 70 Percent of Russian Strikes Don't Hit ISIS," The Hill, February 10, 2016, http://thehill.com/policy/defense/268964-obama-envoy-70-percent-of-russian-strikes-dont-target-isis.
5 "Ekspert: Rossiyskaya aviatsiya nichego ne smogla sdelat s terroristami v Syrii [Expert: Russian Airforce Failed to Deal with the Terrorists in Syria]," Rosbalt, March 15, 2016, http://www.rosbalt.ru/piter/2016/03/15/1498030.html.
6 Cassandra Vinograd, Ammar Cheikh Omar, "Syria, ISIS Have Been 'Ignoring' Each Other on Battlefield, Data Suggests," NBC News, December 11, 2014, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/isis-terror/syria-isis-have-been-ignoring-each-other-battlefield-data-suggests-n264551.
7 "ISIL Fights Syrian Rebels near Aleppo As Army Prepares Assault," Al Jazeera America, October 14, 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/10/14/isil-fights-syrian-rebels-near-aleppo-as-army-prepares-assault.html.
8 Josh Cohen, "Putin Is Achieving His Goals in Syria," Moscow Times, November 12, 2015, http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/putin-is-achieving-his-goals-in-syria-op-ed/548890.html.
9 Ivan Safronov, Sergei Goryashko, and Maria Yefimova, "Inogda oni uletayut. Chto udalos sdelat rossiyskim voennym v Sirii [Sometimes They Fly Away. What Russian Military Men Managed to Achieve in Syria]," Kommersant-Vlast, March 19, 2016, http://kommersant.ru/doc/2942528.
11 See, for instance, Layla Bassam and Tom Perry, "How Iranian General Plotted Out Syrian Assault in Moscow," Reuters, October 6, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-soleimani-insigh-idUSKCN0S02BV20151006.
12 Othman al-Mukhtar, "A Fistful of Dollars. Iraqis Recruited for Assad's War," New Arab, February 4, 2016, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/indepth/2016/2/4/a-fistful-of-dollars-iraqis-recruited-for-assads-war; Michael Knights, Iran's Foreign Legion: The Role of Iraqi Shiite Militias in Syria, The Washington Institute Policywatch No. 2096, June 27, 2013; Emil A. Souleimanov, "Azerbaijanis Volunteer in Syria Conflict," Central Asia and Caucasus Analyst, February 5, 2014, http://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/12908-azerbaijanis-volunteer-in-syria-conflict.html; and Hashmatallah Moslih, "Iran 'Foreign Legion' Leans on Afghan Shia in Syria War," Al Jazeera Politics, January 22, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/01/iran-foreign-legion-leans-afghan-shia-syria-war-160122130355206.html.
13 Ilya Arkhipov, Stepan Kravchenko and Henry Meyer, "Putin Officials Said to Admit Real Syria Goal Is Far Broader," BloombergBusiness, October 19, 2015, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-10-19/putin-officials-said-to-admit-real-syrian-goals-are-far-broader.
14 Vladimir Frolov, "Mission Incomplete: Syria Has Not Achieved Bipolar War for Russia," Moscow Times, March 16, 2016, http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/mission-incomplete-syria-has-not-achieved-bipolar-world-for-russia/562798.html.
15 Patrick Wintour, "Russia Accused of Deliberately Targeting Civilians," Guardian, January 15, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jan/15/russia-accused-of-breaching-norms-of-war-by-targeting-civilians-in-syria.
16 Andrew Roth and Carla Adam, "Moscow Is Ready to Coordinate with the West over Strikes on Syria, Putin Says," Washington Post, November 26, 2015, http://wapo.st/1IjoBDK.
17 Corey Charlton, "Russian Airstrikes in Syria Have Killed MORE Civilians than ISIS Jihadis, Report Claims As Moscow Boasts of 6,000 Bombing Runs since September," Daily Mail, January 20, 2016, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3408623/Russian-airstrikes-Syria-killed-civilians-ISIS-jihadis-report-claims-Moscow-boasts-6-000-bombing-runs-September.html.
18 Emma Graham-Harrison, "Russian Airstrikes in Syria Killed 2,000 Civilians in Six Months," Guardian, March 15, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/15/russian-airstrikes-in-syria-killed-2000-civilians-in-six-months.
19 Joseph S. Nye Jr., "The Russian Connection between Syria and Ukraine," National Interest, February 16, 2016; Neil Macfarquhar, "Questions Linger over Russia's Endgame in Syria, Ukraine and Europe," New York Times, February 23, 2016; and Matthew Bodner, "Putin's Pivot: Out of Ukraine, Into Syria," Moscow Times, December 24, 2015.
20 "On v OON. Osnovnie tezisy rechi Putina na Genassamblee v Nyu-Yorke [He in the UN. Putin's Main Theses at the General Assembly in New York]," September 28, 2015, Lenta.ru, https://lenta.ru/articles/2015/09/28/un_putin/.
21 "Putin ozvuchil zadachu rossiyskikh voennykh v Sirii [Putin Explained the Goals of Russian Servicemen in Syria]," October 11, 2015, Glavred, http://glavred.info/mir/putin-ozvuchil-zadachu-rossiyskih-voennyh-v-sirii-339773.html.
22 "Lavrov. Operatsiya v Sirii zakonchitsa tolko posle unichtozhenia terroristov [The Operation in Syria Will Only Terminate After the Liquidation of the Terrorists]," Voennoe obozrenie [Military Digest], February 4, 2016, http://topwar.ru/90338-lavrov-operaciya-sirii-zakonchitsya-tolko-posle-unichtozheniya-terroristov.html.
23 "Report: U.S. Officials Say Iran Pulling Out Ground Troops from Syria," Haaretz, December 11, 2015, http://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/1.691344.
24 Ivan Safronov, Sergei Goryashko and Maria Yefimova, "Inogda oni uletayut. Chto udalos sdelat rossiyskim voennym v Sirii."
25 "Report: U.S. Officials Say Iran Pulling Out Ground Troops From Syria."
26 Ivan Safronov, Sergei Goryashko and Maria Yefimova, "Inogda oni uletayut. Chto udalos sdelat rossiyskim voennym v Sirii."
27 "Ekspert: Rossiyskaya aviatsiya nichego ne smogla sdelat s terroristami v Sirii [Russian Airforce Failed to Deal with the Terrorists in Syria]," Rosbalt, March 15, 2016, http://www.rosbalt.ru/piter/2016/03/15/1498030.html.
28 Alexander Winning and Christian Lowe, "Russia Warns Assad not to Snub Syria Ceasefire Plan," Reuters, February 18, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-russia-syria-envoy-idUSKCN0VR240.
29 Sam Dagher, "Syria Defies Russia in Bid to Keep Assad," Wall Street Journal, April 11, 2016, http://www.wsj.com/articles/syria-defies-russia-in-bid-to-keep-assad-1460332538.
30 For an overview, see "Syria's Downed MiG-21: How Russian Aircraft Will Defend Themselves," Veterans Today, March 13, 2016, http://www.veteranstoday.com/2016/03/13/syrias-downed-mig-21-how-russian-aircraft-will-defend-themselves/comment-page-1/.
31 "Minoborony Rossii: MiG-21 VVS Sirii byl sbit iz PZRK [The Ministry of Defense of Russia: MiG-21 of the Syrian Air Forces Was Downed from a SAM]," Vedomosti, March 13, 2016, https://www.vedomosti.ru/newsline/politics/news/2016/03/13/633317-minoboroni.
32 Vadim Lukashevich quoted in "Ekspert: Rossiyskaya aviatsiya nichego ne smogla sdelat s terroristami v Syrii."
33 Fyodor Lukyanov, "Russia Is Following a Clear Strategy in Syria," Financial Times, March 20, 2016, http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/e5917508-ecf5-11e5-888e-2eadd5fbc4a4.html#axzz43uTowtTS.
34 "MID rasschityvaet na uluchshenie otnosheniy s SShA v svyazi s vizitom gossekretarya Kerri [MFA Counts on the Improvement of the Relations with the USA in the Light of the Visit of State Secretary Kerry]," Newsru.com, March 1, 2016. http://newsru.com/russia/19mar2016/midsays.html.
35 Joyce Hackel, "Today's Kerry-Putin Photo Op Doesn't Mean Moscow Is Coming in from the Cold," PRI's The World, March 24, 2016, http://www.pri.org/stories/2016-03-24/todays-kerry-putin-photo-op-doesnt-mean-moscow-coming-cold/.
36 Steven Swinford, "Vladimir Putin Is Like a Man Who Beats His Wife, Philip Hammond Says," Telegraph, March 15, 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/vladimir-putin/12194795/Vladimir-Putin-is-like-a-man-who-beats-his-wife-Philip-Hammond-says.html.
37 Paul J. Saunders, "Was Syria Intervention Worth It for Russia?" Al-Monitor, January 7, 2016, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/01/russia-syria-intervention-costs-benefits-turkey-ukraine.html#.
38 Daren Butler, "Kurds' Advance in Syria Divides U.S. and Turkey As Russia Bombs," Reuters, February 17, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-kurds-idUSKCN0VQ1FR; "U.S. Observes Russia-YPG Cooperation," Hurriyet Daily News, March 9, 2016, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/us-observes-russia-ypg-cooperation.aspx?pageID=238&nID=96248&NewsCatID=352; Amberin Zaman, "PYD Leader: Russia Will Stop Turkey from Intervening in Syria," Al-Monitor, October 1, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/10/turkey-syria-russia-pyd-leader-muslim-moscow-prevent-ankara.html; and Hilal Kaplan, "YPG Follows Russian Lead," Daily Sabah, February 11, 2016, http://www.dailysabah.com/columns/hilal_kaplan/2016/02/12/ypg-follows-russian-lead.
39 "Turkey-Russia Jet Downing: Moscow Beefs Up Defenses in Syria," BBC News, November 28, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34950355.
40 Alexander Mercouris, "Did Russia Just Threaten Turkey with Nuclear Weapons?" Russia Insider, February 19, 2016, http://russia-insider.com/en/politics/did-russia-just-threaten-turkey-nuclear-weapons/ri12936.
41 Pavel Baev, "Putin's Not-Quite-Withdrawal Signifies a Strategic Retreat," Eurasia Daily Monitor 13, issue 55 (March 21, 2016), http://www.jamestown.org/programs/edm/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=45223&cHash=ceaa46f7975448276dd8d66e8ab86a88#.VvPgM0uRrwI.
42 Kareem Shaheen, "Assad Hails Syrian Regime's Capture of Palmyra from ISIS," Guardian, March 27, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/27/syrian-regime-forces-retake-all-of-palmyra-from-isis.
43 "Syrian Army Captures ISIL-held Town in Homs," Al-Jazeera, April 4, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/04/syrian-army-captures-isil-held-town-homs-160403131645820.html.
44 Under certain circumstances, Putin could even trade the Assad regime off for a strategic commodity of bigger importance, for example, for carte blanche over Ukraine being granted to Moscow.
45 Sam Dagher, "Syria Defies Russia in Bid to Keep Assad."
46 Dmitry Gorenburg and Michael Kofman, "There is No Russian Withdrawal from Syria," War on the Rocks, March 18, 2016, http://warontherocks.com/2016/03/there-is-no-russian-withdrawal-from-syria/.
47 "Russia's Special Forces Officer Killed in Syria: Interfax," Reuters, March 24, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-russia-death-idUSKCN0WQ28Z; see also "Russian Army Special Forces Participate in Operations in Syria," TASS Russian News Agency, March 23, 2016, http://tass.ru/en/defense/864616.
48 "SMI vyiasnili, kem sluzhil v Syrii pogibshiy voennosluzhashchiy, imya kotorogo segodnya nazval Putin [Media Have Found Out Who Was the Serviceman, Killed in Syria, Whose Name Putin Mentioned Today]," Rosbalt.ru, March 17, 2016, http://www.rosbalt.ru/federal/2016/03/17/1498906.html.
49 Vladimir Frolov, "Mission Incomplete: Syria Has Not Achieved Bipolar War for Russia."