What remains of Syria’s civil war has largely been driven to the sidelines of international attention. The broad military offensives of years past have given way to stagnated frontlines and a slow decay that rarely makes headlines. But for the people of Syria, the hardships are not over. For those remaining in areas under Bashar Al-Assad’s control, they are worse than ever – and Syria’s allies, Russia in particular, have little interest in improving their fortunes.
A recent report by researcher Elizabeth Tsurkov lays bare how stark the new reality is. Syria’s spiraling currency – now worth less than 1/50th of its prewar value – has caused 90 percent of the country’s remaining population to fall below the poverty line. An average public-sector salary is now worth about $15, enough for three days’ worth of food at official prices. More than 60 percent of Syrians are food-insecure and do not know where their next meal will come from. There is no end to the economic crisis in sight, as it deepens nearly every month.
This would seem to be starkly at odds with Syria’s military situation. The Assad regime has long since stabilized the frontlines and recaptured most of the country’s key areas. The most crucial actor in this turn of events was Russia, Damascus’s longtime friend and ally. Following its military intervention in September 2015, Moscow’s concerted air campaigns, backed by special forces and elite mercenaries on the ground, led over the next two years to the recapture of most of the country. Pro-Assad forces decisively seized the rebel-held half of Aleppo city, the country’s second largest, in late 2016, and spent most of 2017 mopping up ISIS-held lands in central and eastern Syria. For over three years, then, the Syrian regime – or what’s left of it – has controlled the majority of the country’s territory.
The collapse of the average Syrian’s ability to even feed themselves in the time since, might seem to be a major blow to the prestige of Syria’s major ally, Russia. US officials have long sought to portray the situation in similar terms – first arguing that Russia was stuck in a “quagmire” in Syria, and then, as it became clear that Russian costs for staying were not particularly high, hoping to force Moscow to shoulder more of the burden for rebuilding the shattered country.
Except Moscow and Washington are in different businesses. Contrary to the US efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia is not interested in nation-building. Its overriding impetus for military intervention in Syria in the first place was to save an allied regime and force Western powers to again consider Russia a serious player in world affairs. Six years of entirely failed political processes and government-opposition talks – in places from Geneva to Astana – since Russia’s entry into Syria in force in 2015 underlines the Kremlin’s lack of interest in forcing any genuine concessions from Al-Assad, if it is even capable of doing so.
Humanitarian aid is an even more cynical project for the Kremlin. There are plenty of videos of smiling Russian servicemen delivering grain and food packages to beleaguered locals in villages across Syria, part of Moscow’s carefully maintained image of supporting families in both urban and rural areas. Yet these aid programs rarely go beyond the cameras, as another analysis by Jonathan Robinson for the Atlantic Council showed: 98 percent of Syrian communities given Russian aid over the past five years were visited just once, a symbolic act with no lasting impact. Russia also continues to play games with crucial grain shipments, withholding promised major deliveries as recently as mid-2020 over the decimated Syrian state budget’s ability to pay for them.
Ultimately, for Moscow, none of this matters. The Syrians who remain in regime-held areas, as frequent testimonies attest, are too scared and demoralized to even think of some new effort to rise up against the government. Al-Assad’s security apparatus has remained potent enough to suppress any hint of dissent, with most Syrians thinking more of any possibility of escape than taking up arms again (or for the first time).
Calculated applications of Russian manpower, meanwhile, in the form of military police battalions deployed in key areas or personal security detachments for critical regime leaders such as Major General Suheil Al-Hassan, leader of the elite Tiger Forces, play enough of a role in ensuring the security of areas and figures Moscow deems critical. Russian military infrastructure in the country, primarily the Hmeimim airbase in Latakia (currently undergoing a major renovation and expansion), is likewise under little threat. Everything – and everyone – else can be allowed to burn or starve.
For Syria’s people, this is a disaster. For the country’s rulers, it’s a risk, but not nearly as much as one might think. For Al-Assad’s allies in Moscow, however, it’s little more than an inconvenience.
Neil Hauer is a security analyst based in Tbilisi, Georgia. His work focuses on, among other things, politics, minorities and violence in the Caucasus.