Russia’s engagement in Syria has evolved into an unexpected predicament, leading Moscow to grapple with mounting challenges and uncertainty. This shift in dynamics emerged following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, a move seemingly aimed at diverting international attention from the Ukrainian conflict. Nikita Smagin, an expert on Russian affairs in the Middle East, outlined this transformation in an analytical piece for the Carnegie Middle East Center.
Smagin pointed out that Russia’s initial objective was to establish Syria as a secure base for its forces in the Middle East while avoiding significant financial expenditures and distractions from the Ukraine crisis. However, this objective has proven increasingly unrealistic, thanks to the expanding American presence in the region and Washington’s bolstered military capabilities.
The United States has been augmenting its military footprint in the Middle East by deploying attack aircraft, including A-10s, F-35s, and F-16 fighter jets. This build-up followed a series of attacks on American bases in eastern Syria by Iranian militias and a surge in Russian “air provocations” in the region.
Russia had initially aligned itself with Iran in the shared goal of pushing the United States out of Syria and the broader Middle East. Paradoxically, Russia’s large-scale intervention in Ukraine and its deepening partnership with Tehran have had the opposite effect, as the American military presence has intensified.
As Russia becomes more entangled in Middle Eastern affairs, managing the Ukrainian situation becomes increasingly challenging. Washington shows no intention of succumbing to Russian and Iranian pressures in Syria, particularly as any escalation in Syria would divert Moscow’s focus away from Ukraine. Furthermore, Syria is beset by numerous issues, including instability, unresolved economic problems, and escalating protests.
The killing of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the commander of the Wagner private military company, has added another layer of complexity to the Syrian puzzle. The Wagner forces, now without their leader, control oil wells in Syria, while Iran seeks to exert control over them.
Despite these mounting challenges, Smagin emphasized that Russia’s position in Syria remains somewhat stable but far from ideal. Moscow’s direct military involvement alongside the Assad regime began in 2015, with the Hmeimim base in Latakia serving as its central hub. In 2017, Russia solidified its presence by signing a 49-year lease for the base with the Syrian regime.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.