Death of Russian airman underscores problems Putin faces in Syria

The downing of a Russian aircraft this week highlights the problems Putin faces in achieving a peace dividend in Syria, writes Chris Brown.

'Russian casualties, instead of decreasing, have been increasing,' said one expert

Earlier this week, rebel fighters shot down a Russian plane over Syria's northwest Idlib province and captured its pilot, Roman Filipov, who then took his own life. (Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images)

For most of this week, Russians have been united in mourning the death of fighter pilot Roman Filipov, who was killed when his jet was shot down over northern Syria. 

The 33-year-old husband and father of two from Voronezh apparently parachuted out of his cockpit alive, but once he hit the ground, he was surrounded and attacked by members of an al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group.

Russia's defence ministry said Filipov's dying act was to shout, "This is for our guys!" as he pulled the pin on a grenade and ended his life.

His sacrifice earned him posthumous recognition as a "Hero of Russia," but it also thrust the Syria conflict back to the top of the country's news agenda, where it had faded from view.

In light of Filipov's horrific death, the "victorious" homecoming President Vladimir Putin promised Russian military personnel when he visited them in Syria two months ago now feels hollow.

The fast-track peace process Russia was hoping it could engineer to end one of the world's most complicated conflicts appears to have been wildly optimistic.

Decisive intervention

International observers and human rights groups estimate as many 400,000 Syrians have died in the seven years that the civil war has raged. In 2015, with forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) bearing down on the coastal Khmeimim air base used by Russia, Putin intervened decisively in the conflict.
A Russian soldier crosses the runway at Kheminem airfield in Syria. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

For the next two years, Russian planes bombed ISIS forces from the air while on the ground, special forces, advisors and mercenaries turned the course of the battle in favour of the Syrian government, thus saving the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The military victory gave Putin unprecedented political influence in the region, setting the stage for a brokered peace deal that would guarantee Russia's long-term interests and influence.

But the bold plan the Russian president put forward to bring opposition groups together, rewrite Syria's constitution and withdraw the bulk of Russia's military hardware from the conflict zone has sputtered.

Deadly week

This past week has been one of the most deadly in Syria for months, and the violence has occurred on a number of fronts.

Dozens of Syrians were killed in Russian-backed air raids in retaliation for the airman's death in northern Idlib province; as many as 80 people died in areas around Damascus as a result of shelling carried out by the Assad government and its allies; and a UN committee is investigating claims Assad forces repeatedly used chlorine gas on civilians in several opposition-held parts of the country.

In a potentially alarming development on Wednesday, U.S. aircraft and artillery strikes killed more than 100 pro-regime forces near the Middle Euphrates River Valley. That would make it among the most deadly encounters between U.S.-backed forces and those loyal to Assad since the start of the conflict. (U.S. commanders said it appeared the Assad-controlled troops were attempting to seize land and oil areas already under control of the Syrian Democratic Forces.)

Putin may have saved Assad, but so far, the Russian leader has been unable to leverage that military victory into the political clout necessary to rein in the violence, said Haid Haid, a Middle East analyst with Britain's Royal Institute of International Affairs.
This photograph hanging in a Syrian military base shows Russia president Vladimir Putin alongside current Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, and his late father, Hafez al-Assad. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

"Although the power dynamics on the ground have shifted in favour of the [Assad] regime, the situation didn't de-escalate as Russia had hoped," said Haid. He said that Assad and Putin may be allies, but their respective endgames diverge, which is thwarting Russia's plans to wrap the conflict up quickly.

"The Russian agenda is to end the conflict in favour of the regime, but also give some kind of authority to other actors in Syria," said Haid. "But the [Syrian] regime from the beginning has been saying we will not share power with anyone."

The result is that in the so-called "deconfliction" zones – truce areas brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran to keep opposing sides apart – Assad's forces have kept up punishing attacks on their opponents.

For example, earlier this week, Turkish troops trying to establish a monitoring post in one of the truce areas came under a rocket attack, leaving one Turkish soldier dead.

Losses mount

The Russian pilot's death, the ramped-up airstrikes and a bold attack on Russia's Khmeimim airbase in January by a swarm of small drones all point to a conflict that is escalating rather than winding down, said Haid. 

"The Russian casualties, instead of decreasing, have been increasing," he said.

Pro-Kremlin Syria watchers acknowledge Russia's grand plan for the region has suffered setbacks, but argue there is no reason for Putin to change course.

"The Russian population may have some questions about the tactics or the operation — we see our mistakes — but strategically, the Russian population supports the Syrian operation," said Mirzayen Gevorg, an influential Russian Middle East pundit who appears regularly on Russian television.
Russian soldiers patrol obliterated areas of east Aleppo. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

On Russia's hugely influential state TV shows, Syria is frequently discussed, but there is almost no direct criticism of Russia's role in the conflict. Nor is there any mention of the constant accusations from human rights groups that Russian bombs continue to kill large numbers of civilians.

"There are no wars where there are no civilian victims, but the sooner the war ends, the less civilians will die," said Gevorg.

Public wary

Russia frames the conflict in Syria as a war on terrorism — that it is better to fight the "terrorists" in Syria than back home in Russia.

"We understand that in Syria, we are fighting not for our honour or our prestige, but our security," said Gevorg, as an explanation for the absence of public criticism of the Syria mission.

While independent public opinion surveys in Russia on Syria are rare, one of the few that has emerged suggests Russians are tepid in their support for the mission. The Levada-Center reported in August 2017 that roughly half of those surveyed felt Russia should end its involvement in the conflict.

Russia's defence minister has said the country has increased security around its Syria air base and will now take extra precautions with its aircraft to reduce the risk of more being shot down.

What Putin really needs to do, said Haid Haid, is ratchet up pressure on his ally Assad to fall in line behind Russia's plans.

"The soft-power strategy that Russia has been trying to exercise behind closed doors is clearly not achieving that goal," he said.


Chris Brown

Foreign Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s London bureau. Previously in Moscow, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.