Russia is taking advantage of the power vacuum created by America’s desire to disengage from the Middle East. As president, Barack Obama launched the policy of “pivoting” away from the region, and President Donald Trump is carrying that policy forward. As a result, Russia is emerging as a dominant military and political force in the region.
For its decisive military support to Assad, Russia has been rewarded with military facilities in Syria – the Tartus naval facilty and the Khmeimim Air Base – that are crucial for logistics and from which it can project power into the Middle East, the Balkans and farther west along the Mediterranean. In conflict, Russia is positioned to execute an area-denial strategy against the United States. In Syria, Russia’s military decisively affected the civil war and also tested and demonstrated capabilities that showed off Russian boldness, lethality, flexibility and reach. Its attacks included the first combat use of various types of Russian precision-guided munitions.
Russia is also using Syria as testing ground for its electronic warfare capabilities. In April 2018, the US Special Operations Command chief commented, “Right now in Syria we are operating in the most aggressive EW [electronic warfare] environment on the planet.” Our adversaries, he added, “are testing us every day, knocking our communications down, disabling our EC-130s, et cetera.”
Russia attacked Syrian rebel targets from the Caspian Sea and Eastern Mediterranean using Kilo submarine-launched and surface-ship-launched cruise missiles. It struck Raqqa in Syria from a submarine in the Mediterranean. It sent a private contractor military force – referred to in press reports as “paid Russian mercenaries” or “little green men” – to fight for the Assad regime. Its manned aircraft bombed Syria from a base in Iran. During the summer of 2018, to support Assad’s attack on Syria’s last major rebel base, Russia deployed a substantial naval force into the Mediterranean, including a Kuznetzov-class aircraft carrier.