Ensuring the survival of Assad’s authoritarian regime in Damascus was never the sole goal of Russia’s intervention. Instead, its purpose was at least as much to inject itself into a crucial geopolitical battleground and force Washington—which, at the time, sought to isolate Moscow diplomatically—to realize that Russia would not be overlooked. It was also to keep Syria from becoming an Iranian vassal; Moscow and Tehran are, at best, frenemies, happy to try to marginalize the United States yet also fierce competitors seeking influence in the Middle East and South Caucasus.
Judging by that criteria, things look pretty good for Moscow right now. The Assad regime once again has momentum, and doesn’t appear headed for collapse. Moscow has also demonstrated that it is not, in fact, just a “regional power” (to use Barack Obama’s phrase, one that Putin clearly resented). It’s a power broker in the Middle East, a spoiler in North Africa, and a partner (of sorts) in Asia, making it at least a global player if not a superpower.
The recent spat between Iran and Israel also comes with its own virtues. Putin’s Russia and Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel are surprisingly close. Putin understands that while Iran and its client Hezbollah may also be supporting Assad, their vision of Syria is quite different from his own. Following the path he has chosen, Putin can play the role of would-be peacemaker between Israel and the Palestinians, even while watching Iran and Hezbollah get cut down to size. But Putin shouldn’t get too comfortable in Syria.
Many Russians felt a surge of patriotic pride when they learned that Major Roman Filipov, the pilot of a Russian fighter jet shot down in Syria, spent his final minutes after parachuting out exchanging shots with what the Russian Defense Ministry said were Islamist militants. Yet lurking just beneath that pride is the uncomfortable truth that this is not a war dear to many Russians. They tolerate it only so long as they continue to believe it is not going to cost them money and lives.
The need to keep the true costs of the war hidden led Moscow to form Wagner, a pseudo-mercenary unit. It is technically part of a foreign-registered private military company, but one that is Russian-funded, Russian-commanded, and largely Russian-manned. Moscow’s official military aid to Syria is limited largely to air and artillery support and rear-area security. Wagner exists to provide front-line assault troops—whose deaths don’t have to be reported or marked by an official funeral.
With this reliance on soldiers of fortune, it’s unclear how long Putin can keep selling his Syria adventure as a “clean” war. Wagner has absorbed an estimated 100-200 casualties from 2015 up to last December—two to five times the death rate of regular Russian soldiers in Syria. Now that these figures are becoming public knowledge, can Putin avoid a backlash?