by Lyubov Podgornaya
Two Years of Russian Military Operations in Syria: We Predicted “a Second Afghanistan.” But This Prediction was Wrong.
On September 30, 2015, Russian Aero-Cosmic Forces launched their first air strike on terrorists in Syria. During this time, I had been in Damascus for a week and was terrified of seeing life fade in what used to be a lively capital. The outside world was supporting Damascus via Lebanon only – it was possible to reach Damascus from Beirut via a high-risk route. However, the majority of Syrians used this route in the opposite direction.
The entire city was covered in white concrete blocks and multiple check points. However, there were no usual noisy traffic jams and the desperation was tangible. I was able to draw comparisons because I was in Syria two years earlier. In 2013, in the midst of the “chemical scandal,” we were waiting for American strikes on Damascus. In September 2015, everything changed. ISIS fighters were entering the town. It was possible to reach the front line by taxi… in five minutes.
I remember the skepticism of the western mass media at the start of the Russian military operation. Here are some of the quotes:
“Let’s say by some miracle the Russians defeat ISIS” – wrote the New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman. “The only way to keep them defeated is by replacing them with moderate Sunnis. Which moderate Sunnis are going to align with Russia?”
The Guardian quoted the U.S Department of Defense: “Russia’s support for Assad will worsen the civil war in Syria and the destabilisation of the Middle East as a whole.”
The Economist wrote: “The bombing provides a new and badly needed spectacle at a time when the war in Ukraine, which dominated the airwaves for a while, is starting to freeze and euphoria over the annexation of Crimea is fading.”
Analysts had many predictions: “Moscow will surrender Assad and lose the war!” Even the U.S. president could not resist making his own forecast: “It will be very expensive. If you look at the state of the Russian economy, this is obviously not the best idea for Russia. Russia risks getting bogged down in Syria like in Afghanistan,” said Barack Obama
Western analysis of Russia in Syria boiled down to one simple formula: Russia got involved in its new Afghanistan and it will result in an undeniable and devastating failure from which it will be incredibly difficult to recover. There was an element of gloating and hope that this would be happen. However, time has put things in order again. To be honest, the idea of destroying ISIS seemed to me to be an extremely complicated mission considering the territory under the control of the terrorists at the time – 70 % of the country! And judging by Iraq, this war was going to last for many years. Moreover, during the two previous years, the American and coalition forces (Around 60 countries at that time!) did not succeed in stopping the disease but let it spread dramatically.
Today, it is clear that Russia proved it is able to fight effectively in the modern world. Russia has sealed multibillion-dollar contracts for the supply of arms. This was not just an advertising campaign for the Russian Aero-Cosmic Forces. The political settlement in Syria does not look like a utopia, but every day new opposition groups are joining the process of reconciliation thanks to Moscow’s efforts. If we look at a map, ISIS has a small presence – the Deir ez-Zor province.
THE DANGER REMAINS
“ISIS has suffered a military defeat in large areas – that’s a fact,” Semyon Bagdasarov, director of the Middle East and Central Asia Study Center, told the KP. If in the coming months the Kurds in Northern Syria defeat ISIS in Raqqa, ISIS will have nothing significant left. But I think it is premature to talk about the end of the war in Syria. Let us remember the US military operation in Iraq in 2003. George W. Bush, speaking on the aircraft carrier, declared victory and said that the war was over. It looked like he was right. All the big cities were under control and later Saddam Hussein was caught. But in 2006 – 2007, the partisan war began. At that time, no one was even talking about ISIS. Military actions were performed by radical Sunnis and Shiite groups oriented towards Iran and Syria. Hence we can’t say that the war will be over with ISIS’s defeat. The situation relies on the Syrian government finding an acceptable formula of coexistence with the population. Would they be able to reach an agreement with people who were supporting ISIS earlier, give them authority and create the conditions for peace?
And what to do about the de-escalation zones in Adlib, for instance, where the position of Al Nusra Front remains strong? What about the presence of Turkish troops on the Syrian border? What to do about the Federation in Northern Syria controlling up to 20% of the county’s territory? The government cannot confront them. As you see everything is on the edge. That is why it is a long way until the war is completely over.
Can ISIS migrate somewhere with more favorable conditions? Central Asia or Afghanistan?
Sometimes we overate ISIS’ capabilities though we hear about their activities in Northern and Central Africa and in Central Asia. Yes, many groups are preaching the same ideology which exists in Afghanistan, but they do not control any territory. The military defeat is a fact and they are unable to buy out the Taliban.
Hence I am skeptical about the future existence of “ISIS”. No doubt it can exist in the form of terror acts. Every idiot will take responsibility for or on behalf of ISIS. But there is no reason to talk about its recreation as a state.
The majority of foreign fighters of ISIS are returning home to their own countries, increasing the probability of terror acts. The jihad ideology is not over and such danger will remain for a long time.
*This article was originally published in Komsomolskaya Pravda, a daily Russian tabloid newspaper.