The Russian Defense Ministry hosted the 9th Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS) from June 22-24. As some 600 defense and diplomatic nations gathered in the capital to discuss global security concerns, Russian officials took to the international stage to brag about their country’s military intervention in Syria.
Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev claimed the Islamic State was defeated thanks to Russia and Syria, accusing anonymous countries of hampering Russia’s fight against terrorism.
“By fighting side by side, our troops and the Syrian troops have dealt a powerful blow to the terrorists, who planned to create a world caliphate in Eurasia”, said Patrushev, quoted by the Russian news agency TASS.
“During these difficult months, the Russians, along with the sister nation of Syria, not only fought for the future of Syria, they fought for the whole world the terrorists were working against.
Patrouchev added: “It is regrettable that some states claiming the status of great powers have not found it necessary to join us against this scourge, and they have even made great efforts to hinder the fight against it.
Patrushev’s claims are very misleading.
Russia intervened militarily in Syria in September 2015, largely to save its ally Bashar al-Assad, whose regime had been losing ground for years to opponents despite help from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Iranian.
Although Russian and Syrian government forces operated against the Islamic State (IS) in areas west of the Euphrates, an international coalition backed by the United States, with Kurdish forces leading on the ground, was already at war with the future caliphate in eastern Syria and Iraq.
Some of Russia’s earliest airstrikes in Syria were not believed to have been directed against ISIS but targeted Syrian opposition forces, including a CIA-backed group, according to US officials, media and academic accounts .
From the start, Russia claimed that its warplanes “carried out high-precision strikes against an international terrorist organization. [Islamic State]And his Defense Ministry posted a video online showing airstrikes targeting what he said were ISIS locations.
Russian airstrikes escalated when ISIS claimed responsibility for a bombing of a Russian airliner in November 2015 over Egypt, killing 224 passengers and crew. But with ISIS, the air campaign hit anti-Assad forces and even civilian targets.
At the start of the Russian campaign, then-US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the United Nations Security Council in New York to discuss military coordination in Syria. Kerry expressed concern “about the nature of the targets, the type of targets and the need for clarity on them”.
“It’s obviously one thing to target (Islamic State),” Kerry said. “We are concerned, of course, that this is not what is happening. “
A year earlier, in 2014, the United States launched its campaign to form the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, with international allies and local partners in Iraq and Syria.
Although the United States and Russia have made every effort to avoid an accidental military conflict in Syria, Russia has never been a member of the coalition. In 2016, a report by the Reuters news agency claimed that Russia had in fact sent local Islamist radicals to Syria.
Some ended up joining jihadist groups – the terrorists that Russia later claimed to be against. According to the news agency, this program started before the Olympics in Sochi in 2014, for fear that the games would be attacked.
“In December 2015, some 2,900 Russians left to fight in the Middle East,” said Alexander Bortnikov, director of the FSB, the Russian security service, at a meeting of the National Counterterrorism Committee late last year. , Reuters reported. “According to official data, more than 90% of them left Russia after mid-2013. ”
According to Reuters, Ekaterina Sokiryanskaya of the International Crisis Group said: “Russian is the third language of the Islamic State after Arabic and English. Russia is one of its main suppliers of foreign fighters.
The territory held by the Islamic State reached its peak in the summer of 2014, covering 40% of Iraq and Syria. By 2017, the group had lost all but a fraction of that, including Raqqa, its self-proclaimed capital in northern Syria, and Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
Although analysts theorize that Russia’s Syrian intervention has multiple purposes, one of the main motivations was the fear that Assad might be ousted in favor of a pro-Western government in Damascus.
In an interview with CBS News in 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to avoid what happened in Libya, where four years earlier strongman Muammar Gaddafi, after years of internal conflict, had ended up being hunted down. and killed by rampaging militants.
When asked if Russia’s goal was to “save” Assad, Putin replied:
“[I]It is my deep conviction that any contrary action aimed at destroying the legitimate government will create a situation which you can now witness in other countries in the region or in other regions, for example in Libya, where all the institutions of the ‘State are disintegrated. We see a similar situation in Iraq.
Russia said its army came at Assad’s request. But Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah told pro-Assad al-Mayadeen television in an interview in December 2020 that Iran has played a key role.
Nasrallah said the IRGC paramilitary force chief Qasem Soleimani persuaded Putin to go to war during a clandestine visit to Moscow in July 2015. Although Russia said Soleimani’s visit did not had never happened, it was reported in other media.
Soleimani’s trip, if it happened, may not have mattered much. Analyst John W. Parker, in an article for the Institute for National Strategic Studies, part of the US government’s National Defense University, cited the example of Libya as well as other possible motives for Putin.
“Syria quickly became this key point for Putin to present himself as a strong leader defending not only Russia’s world status, but also the sovereignty and independence of other states against foreign interference,” Parker wrote. “Syria has also helped keep Putin’s national approval ratings high.”
Soleimani, who was in charge of Iranian operations in Syria and Iraq, died in a US drone strike in January 2020. Iran declared him a martyr.
A timeline of the war in Syria produced by the Wilson Center, a Washington, DC foreign policy think tank, describes the arc of the conflict in detail.
The Russian intervention worked for Assad, who consolidated his grip on power.
“According to most accounts, Moscow’s decision in 2015 to intervene militarily in Syria turned the tide of the war in favor of the Assad regime,” wrote Mona Yacoubian of the American Institute of Peace last February. . “Russian air power combined with Iranian-backed militias on the ground played a decisive role in preventing the collapse of the Assad regime by neutralizing much of the armed opposition and brutally reasserting control of the Assad regime. regime over much of Syria.
In the meantime, Russia’s air operations in Syria have come under heavy criticism.
One example is a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on the April 2019 campaign to oust anti-Assad forces from their stronghold in Idlib. “Over the next 11 months, the Syrian-Russian alliance has shown utter disregard for the lives of the estimated 3 million civilians in the region, many of whom are people displaced by fighting in other parts of the country. country, ”he noted.
“The alliance has launched dozens of air and ground attacks against civilian objects and infrastructure in violation of the laws of war, hitting homes, schools, health facilities and markets – the places where people live. , work and study. They used cluster munitions, incendiary weapons and improvised “barrel bombs” in populated areas with lethal effect. The attacks killed at least 1,600 civilians, destroyed and damaged civilian infrastructure and forced the displacement of around 1.4 million people, ”HRW said.
A United Nations investigation last year also implicated Russia’s air campaign in indiscriminate attacks that resulted in the deaths of civilians and children.