News·CBC in Syria

'It's a strategic win': Why Russia is settling in for the long haul in Syria

The Russian military recently took foreign media, including CBC, on a tour of its operations in Syria. The trip showed that despite fierce criticism from human rights groups and ambivalence back home, Russia is planning for a lengthy stay, Chris Brown writes. 

CBC part of media tour of Russian military operations in Syria

Russian soldiers parade next to a radar station at Khmeimim airbase near Latakia, Syria. (Chris Brown/CBC)

After four days of awkward questions from foreign reporters touring Syria with him, Russian general Igor Konashenkov appeared to have reached his limit.

Konashenkov, the main spokesman for Russia's army, had put together an elaborate trip aimed at showcasing Russia's presence and accomplishments in the country.

At the Russian airbase near Latakia, reporters were shown newly constructed radar installations and concrete hangars for fighter jets to make them less vulnerable to remote drone attacks. In the Syrian port of Tartus, the Russians showed off a new repair shop for their naval ships.

In briefing after briefing, Russian officers extolled the successes of their Syrian intervention, claiming to have helped re-unify the country and eliminate more than 5,000 jihadi fighters since Russia began combat operations in 2015.

And yet, it seemed all the foreign journalists wanted Konashenkov to address was the high number of civilian casualties from the Russian bombing campaign and why Russian planes continue to target hospitals and other civilian infrastructure.

Fed up, the general launched a blistering counter-attack on his inquisitors.

"We are fighting these terrorists, do you understand?" he vented.

"It's better to fight them here than have them back in our country," his rant continued. "They run people over with buses and freight trucks. They blow things up. They cut people's heads off with knives. This is not opposition. These are just terrorists."

Konashenkov's outburst came at the end of a visit that included stops in Damascus, Latakia, Tartus, Aleppo and Idlib province, the site of a recent Syrian government offensive.

Maj.-Gen. Igor Konahshenkov addresses the media at the Russian airbase near Latakia, Syria. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

CBC News went on a similar Syria tour with Russia's military in 2017. But this latest trip was notable for the emphasis Russia's military placed on showcasing the permanence of its Syrian facilities, and how despite fierce criticism from international human rights groups and ambivalence back home, Russia is planning for a lengthy stay in the country. 

'A strategic win'

The Khmeimim airbase on the western coast is currently home to 30 Russian Su fighter aircraft, while at the port journalists saw a number of surface vessels, including a frigate and two diesel-powered submarines.

At both facilities, there were examples of new construction and improved amenities for the roughly 5,000 Russian personnel stationed in Syria.

At times, demonstrations of the new Russian amenities in Syria bordered on the comical. Under the watchful gaze of cameras, Russian soldiers silently but dutifully ironed their shirts. Others trimmed each other's hair in a barber's chair while yet others washed and folded their laundry.

Russian soldiers in Syria demonstrate their ironing and barbering skills for foreign media. (Chris Brown/CBC)

Reporters were also taken on a tour of living quarters, which included a Russian sauna, or banya. The military has also set up a Russian Orthodox church near the Khmeimim airbase. A Russian orthodox priest was on hand to explain that "99 per cent" of soldiers were "believers" and attend regular services.

The military set up this Orthodox Russian church at the airbase. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Russia's strengthened position on the ground in Syria, however, has not translated into an increase in public support back home. An April 2019 survey suggested 55 per cent of Russians said the country should end its involvement.

But a Syria presence is likely part of the Kremlin's broader strategic plan.

"Their endgame is to have a foothold in the Middle East," said Bessma Momani, a Syria expert at the University of Waterloo. "It's been a strategic win. They have a client state [Syria] for the long term indebted to them. And it allows them to remain relevant to discussions of the Middle East."

A 'civilian nightmare'

Momani also said the Syrian investment has come relatively "cheap," with most of Russia's soldiers out of harm's way and the war waged mainly from the air.

For human rights organizations, however, any evaluation of Russia's role in Syria has to underscore the human suffering inflicted by that air campaign.

Groups such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) have eviscerated President Vladimir Putin's government, suggesting the conduct of Russia's military — and especially its bombing campaign against anti-regime targets — amounts to a war crime.

Coincidentally, on the day the media tour ended, SNHR released a report that blamed Russia for 6,686 civilian deaths since 2015.

Russia's air force has played a key role in the bombardment of rebel-held towns in Syria's Idlib province. (Anas Al-Dyab/AFP/Getty Images)

The report claims Russia has conducted 1,083 attacks on "vital civilian" facilities, including schools and hospitals. The group also said that by "escalating violence," Russian actions have resulted in the displacement of 3.3 million people.

In a report this past spring, Amnesty International blamed the U.S.-led coalition for excessive civilian deaths as well. It claimed 1,600 died from western bombs in the city of Raqqa alone, which ISIS had declared as its capital.

"It's a civilian nightmare," said Momani. "Whenever anyone said 'civilians,' [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] said, 'No, they are terrorists.' And then you create this aura of doubt. And he has done this from the very beginning."

Showdown in Idlib

The situation on the ground in Idlib province, one of the last regions of western Syria not under regime control, is especially complicated.

On the Russian military tour, the convoy drove through a scorched earth landscape for several kilometres in southern Idlib, the scene of heavy fighting between regime forces and militants.

The province has become a refuge for regime opponents, including hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing Assad as government troops have gradually reclaimed much of the country.

Along with perhaps 500,000 civilian refugees, Idlib is thought to contain between 20,000 and 30,000 jihadis from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a militant group formerly part of al-Qaeda.

The fear is that if Assad's troops move in and Russian bombs start falling, HTS will use civilians as human shields.

Looking out the windows of an armoured personnel carrier, it was impossible to tell which side had created the most destruction. In the towns of Suran and Khan Sheikhoun, several people who spoke to our crew said they were relieved Assad's forces had finally arrived.

"The terrorists attacked us with all kinds of weapons," said Halud Latkani, a mother of six. "We've been on the road now for three days. We had some money on us, but they stole it all from us."

A Russian pilot of a Su-35 aircraft prepares for a demonstration flight in Syria. (Chris Brown/CBC )

Russia's position in Syria may be strengthened by U.S. President Donald Trump's decision this week to pull the U.S. out of an area of northeastern Syria, which would enable Turkey to launch an offensive against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). 

Russia and Syria have both been calling for U.S. troops to leave Syria. One former Trump official called the move "a gift to Russia."

WATCH - From The National, Russia's role in reconstructing Syria:

Russia is playing a major role in reconstruction efforts in Syria, but it may come at a major cost. CBC’s Chris Brown recently went inside Syria’s Idlib province with the Russian military to see what’s happening on the ground. 5:51

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a national reporter for CBC News on radio, TV and online, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.