Russia just launched its latest celebration of victory in Syria. As part of the “Defenders of the Fatherland” holiday, officials on February 23 inaugurated the “Syrian Breakthrough” train in Moscow. The train, which contains over 500 war trophies from Russia’s campaign in Syria, will traverse the country multiple times over the next two months, covering 29,000 kilometers and stopping at more than 60 cities. The exhibition is the first major event by Russia’s newest branch of the armed forces, the Main Military-Political Directorate, a new public-relations division equipped with a fittingly Soviet title. And just as appropriately old Soviet, little of Russia’s celebration over Syria correlates with reality.
Moscow has declared “victory” or withdrawal from Syria several times since its direct entry into the conflict in 2015. In March 2016, Vladimir Putin announced a large-scale withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria. This was followed shortly thereafter by a triumphant victory concert in the recaptured city of Palmyra in May (it was lost again to ISIS before the end of the year). In a December 2017 visit to Russia’s Hmeimim airbase on the Syrian coast, Putin again declared victory, while in June 2018 he announced that dozens of aircraft and over 1,000 servicemen (out of an official total of roughly 5,000) had been withdrawn from the country.
Almost none of these events have reflected the situation on the ground in Syria, or that the conflict is truly reaching a close. The one exception may be the December 2017 announcement, coming as the Syrian regime’s campaign against ISIS in eastern Syria reached its end. There are no such successes to mark the present moment, however. Russia in fact finds itself facing largely the same conundrums in Syria as it has over the last six-plus months: what to do with Idlib and Manbij.
In both cases, its goals are directly at odds with the other major arbiter involved, Turkey. Moscow has repeatedly asserted that the “presence of terrorists” in Idlib is “unacceptable,” and it is an open secret the Kremlin would like to see most of the governorate return to regime control. It has likewise pushed for a similar solution to Manbij, with Syrian government forces and its own military police replacing Kurdish troops. But nearly no progress has been made with Ankara on either point, despite months of talks.
If anything, Russia’s problems in Syria at present appear to be multiplying, rather than receding. Reports of clashes between Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian forces have surged since the start of the year, with the two sides experiencing unprecedented turbulence in their relationship in a development that further weakens Moscow’s hand vis-a-vis Ankara.
Potentially even more ominous is the burgeoning insurgency in Daraa, where killings of Syrian military personnel and improvised explosives targeting regime vehicles have cropped up in the past three months. The receding rebel threat has meanwhile opened the door to far greater discontent with Bashar Al Assad’s government from within its own core constituencies, with growing resentment against an economic situation that continues to worsen amid the brazen corruption of profiteering elites.
None of these are particularly auspicious signs for Moscow. Nevertheless, Putin clearly feels he needs to demonstrate to his domestic electorate that the conflict has been a straightforward success that is nearly at an end. Since announcing a massively unpopular pension reform last June, the Russian leader’s ratings have plummeted. Polls show that disapproval of the Russian president recently hit their highest-ever mark since he first came to power in 2000, with 35 percent of Russians now displeased.
The populace is increasingly tiring of foreign adventurism amid stagnating or deteriorating conditions at home: the social media response to the “Syrian Breakthrough” was rife with sarcastic remarks that the train “should be delivering free food” instead. Three and a half years of nightly newscasts informing Russians of another hundred terrorists killed in Syria have run their course.
There was another less-reported aspect of Russia’s latest triumphalism, one potentially more interesting. On February 21, Salah-Haji Mezhiev, the Grand Mufti of the Chechen Republic, made a visit to the Khalid Ibn Walid Mosque in Homs, Syria, for its ceremonial reopening. The mosque is one of two whose reconstruction has been funded by the Chechen government’s Akhmad Kadyrov Foundation, one of several ways in which the Sunni Muslim province of Russia has contributed to Moscow’s public relations efforts in Syria.
Mezhiev met with Syrian government figures, including the minister of religious affairs, and noted that the rehabilitation of the second mosque, the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo, was nearing completion. There is reason to believe that event will be marked by a more high-profile visit by Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who recently stated his intention to visit Syria. The Chechen attempts to portray the end of the conflict on the ground in Syria dovetail with Moscow’s efforts on the home front.
Regardless of the narrative, there are signs that Moscow is quietly preparing for the long haul. The recent deployment of additional military police to Manbij hints at a desire to establish more control on the ground, a strategy that may come to facilitate further Kurdish-regime agreements as the US withdraws its troops. The establishment of additional ties with regime formations like the Fifth Corps also represent a long-term investment.
Putin may wish to be done with Syria, but Syria isn’t done with him.
Neil Hauer is a security analyst based in Tbilisi, Georgia. His work focuses on the Syrian conflict, particularly Russia’s role; politics and minorities in the South Caucasus; and violence and politics in the North Caucasus, particularly Chechnya and Ingushetia.