The Syrian conflict has become a platform for Russia to demonstrate its new assertiveness across the Middle East. Moscow has also used the Syrian war to advertise its new weapon technology to the world’s arms market, experts say.
Russia's entry into the Syrian conflict changed the political equation in the country with its direct intervention in September 2015 in support of Bashar al Assad, and to facilitate his regime’s takeover of most of the Syrian territory.
Through its intervention, Moscow has proved to world powers that Russia has not only regenerated its political and diplomatic skills, but also redeveloped its military skills on an unprecedented level, many experts say.
“The Kremlin has certainly used the Syrian combat experience to demonstrate several things, including that Russian armed forces are perfectly capable of conducting a protracted and modern out-of-area operation [which means not close to the Russian borders] in a difficult environment,” said Mathieu Boulegue, a research fellow on the Russian and Eurasian program at the Chatham House, a prominent British think-tank.
“This sends a message to the West and the US that the Russian armed forces are capable and adapted to modern conflicts,” said Boulegue.
One of the main reasons for the Russian intervention in Syria “was to train our military forces and to show the new power of Russian military forces, thus to restore our ability to deter,” said Sergei A Karaganov, an influential Russian political scientist and a former foreign policy advisor to the Kremlin.
“When Russia sent some few cruise missiles over the Caspian Sea to kill a few bandits in Syria, that was too expensive a step to show that we are having a new generation of weapons which are very viable to deter forces,” Karaganov told TRT World.
For the countries of potential buyers, it’s a powerful message that Russian military equipment is working perfectly. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, many countries including Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia have shown interest in buying the new Russian weaponry.
Despite being a NATO member, even Turkey has moved to purchase the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system, which has angered the Trump administration.
NATO has long been an anti-Russian alliance.
In February, Yuri Borisov, one of the top Russian defence officials, pointed out, "Customers have started queuing up for the arms that have proven themselves in the Syrian conflict,” which has killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians since its beginning in 2011. ”The chance to test in real combat can’t be overestimated," Borisov assessed.
According to Syrian human rights organisations, Russian military activities have killed more than 6,000 civilians.
In mid-2012, three years before Russia’s heavy-handed intervention in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin emphasised the importance of arms exports which are “an effective instrument for advancing [Moscow’s] national interests, both political and economic.”
In July, Putin described Russia’s Syria war as a “priceless” occasion to reassert Moscow’s military capabilities and to test its new weaponry.
“The use of our armed forces in the battlefield is a unique experience, a unique tool by which to improve our armed forces. No amount of military exercises could compare with the use of force in combat conditions,” Putin said.
Over the course of the Syrian conflict, Russia has reportedly been able to use more than 600 new weapons, which allows Moscow to label them “combat proven.” It’s a trademark that could further promote Russian business interests across continents.
“Specifically in Syria, Russia has been displaying an impressive array of military technology. This allowed the armed forces to test new systems on the ground in combat situations, notably for air defence systems, aerial drones, urban combat and autonomous de-mining vehicles, or electronic warfare systems,” Boulegue told TRT World.
“Syria also allowed the Russian military industry to showcase its most advanced systems for exports and foreign buyers, further displaying the ‘combat proven’ label of such systems.”
Boulegue thinks that Russia’s intervention in Syria is serving Moscow’s business and public relations interests, reaching an unparalleled “systematic level” in the country’s history.
“The level of their military show in Syria is unprecedented. Business logic behind their military intervention in Syria is incomparable,” he said.
Essentially, using its intervention, Moscow scores on several crucial areas in terms of promoting the country’s internal and external interests.
First, demonstrating in a powerful fashion, Moscow conveys a strong message to its population that the country’s military can operate in difficult foreign territories, and as a result, Russians could feel more secure than ever at home.
After Russia’s dramatic failed invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, which left traumatic scars on the Russian psyche, the country’s involvement in Syria might be a healing experience.
Externally, the country is successfully promoting its business interests and increasing its public relations activities to raise the country’s worldwide profile.
Finally, across the Middle East, Moscow is giving an unmistakable political message to the West and its rivals that the country has overcome the decadence of the 1990s when a weak Western-friendly Russian government led by the late president Boris Yeltsin was in power following the collapse of the communist Soviet Union.
Most Russian experts define the new era of Russian politics led by Putin with the phrase Russian deterrence.
“We have restored an effective deterrence, which collapsed in the 1990s and brought numerable disasters to the world,” said Karaganov, who also heads the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, one of the Russia’s leading think-tanks.
The combination of wrong-headed Western policies and Russian weakness has created disorder in the regions ranging from Ukraine to the Middle East, where the US invasion of Iraq brought complete chaos, Karaganov thinks. But recently, Russia has been attempting to bring stabilisation to those regions through its intervention in Ukraine and Syria, according to the Russian scholar.
But Westerns experts strongly dispute Karaganov’s assessment.
“Russian experts can believe what they want, but there is a big difference between military operations and deterrence,” said Boulegue.
“The Russian state is definitely using and amplifying the rhetoric that Syria proved a point. I would conversely argue that Syria proved that the West needs to watch closely the developments inside the Russian armed forces. But this does not relate to deterrence.”
Kyle Orton, a British expert on the Syrian conflict, and a Middle East analyst, agrees with Boulegue. “Russia does not have the ability to deter the US in Syria, though — nor the ability to deter Israel or Turkey, if it comes to that,” Orton told TRT World.
“Moscow’s position in Syria is effectively a bluff: it is making progress because none of its adversaries have mounted a proper challenge.”
Despite Orton’s confident remarks, in Washington, political operators and mainstream American media have been shaken with claims of Russian meddling in the recent US presidential elections. Beyond deterring Russia in Syria, the Washington establishment is anxiously debating how to deter Russia in the US.
“We’re running out of time to deter Russia,” was the title of a Washington Post editorial just last month.