One year ago, Russian planes started dropping bombs on war-torn Syria.
The airstrikes, which began Sept. 30, 2015, propped up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s collapsing government, which controlled an ever-shrinking area of the country after more than four years of civil war.
Dozens of warring groups opposed to Damascus — including moderates and jihadists such as Islamic State and the Al Qaeda-allied Nusra Front — were more concerned about fighting one another while government forces kept losing ground and morale. The area held by Assad’s forces had been reduced to territory along Syria’s west and the Mediterranean coast, with several tentacle-like strategic corridors in the central and northern parts of the country.
Russia’s involvement was a surprising game-changer. It reversed the momentum in the war and helped keep Assad in power. From the Russian perspective, it also put a spotlight on perceived American weakness — and certainly put the United States in an awkward position, since it shared the Russian goal of defeating Islamic State and Al Qaeda, but strongly opposed the larger goal of saving Assad.
One year in, however, the unanswered question is how long will Russia be bogged down in Syria — and whether it will achieve, at best, a hollow victory.
President Vladimir Putin explained Russia’s involvement in a nationally televised address the day after the strikes began.
“The best way to fight international terrorists … is to act preemptively, to fight and eliminate militants in the areas they have already occupied without waiting for them to enter our home,” he told his citizens.
Moscow deployed dozens of bombers and fighter jets and up to 4,000 military personnel. Within weeks, they were conducting up to 60 strikes a day, bombing Assad’s opponents of all stripes — and killing hundreds of civilians, human rights groups said.
A Syrian opposition monitoring group that tracks the country’s civil war said Russian airstrikes have killed 9,364 people.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the total killed included 3,804 civilians, among them 906 children. Those killed also included 2,746 members of Islamic State and 2,814 people from other rebel and militant groups, including Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
Washington lambasted Russia for backing Assad and bombing ostensibly moderate U.S.-allied opposition groups. Turkey accused Moscow of killing Turkmen civilians and shot down a Russian plane for violating its airspace.
Of course, we’re not going to plunge into the conflict.
But Moscow adamantly insisted the strikes targeted only Islamic State and other jihadists.
Almost daily, Russia’s Defense Ministry released black-and-white video footage of bombings taken by cameras on reconnaissance drones — and provided detailed accounts of how many enemy soldiers, training camps, depots and vehicles each strike purportedly destroyed.
The bombing was backed by visually stunning but militarily insignificant cruise missiles launched from Russian warships in the Caspian and Mediterranean seas.
Russia also supplied a range of sophisticated weaponry to Assad’s ground forces — including T-90 tanks that often withstood powerful tank-destroying missiles provided by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
“Of course, we’re not going to plunge into the conflict,” Putin promised, adding that Russia’s involvement would be limited to airstrikes and that no Russian boot would touch Syrian ground.
He also said the strikes would be limited in time — and did withdraw some of the planes and pilots by mid-March. Just weeks earlier, a partial cease-fire that Washington helped broker had significantly reduced the level of violence in the country.
By that time, the Russian campaign had strengthened Assad’s grip on power and helped his troops regain major strategic areas, including the ancient city of Palmyra. At least 60% of Syrians who had not fled the country resided in government-controlled areas.
“August 2015 was seen as the beginning of the final countdown” for Assad’s government, Moscow-based defense analyst Maxim Shapovalenko said in an interview. “A year later, we see there’s going to be no final countdown.”
Most important, the saving of Moscow’s last ally in the Middle East marked Russia’s political comeback to the region — and the world stage — as a power to be reckoned with. After the Soviet Union’s disastrous 10-year war in Afghanistan, which ended acrimoniously in 1989, the Syrian campaign was Moscow’s first major military operation outside the former U.S.S.R.
“For 15 years, people in Washington were telling themselves that Russia was weak, weak, weak, and that’s why they could talk to Russia using force, using fists,” former lawmaker and political analyst Sergei Markov said in an interview. “It took a demonstration of Russia’s military might to return some hawks in Washington to reality.”
But what Russia is facing now is more of a stalemate than a triumph.
A cease-fire brokered by Moscow and Washington on Sept. 9 collapsed after a U.S. airstrike that targeted Islamic State but killed dozens of government troops.
The U.S. is “on the verge of ending” talks and suspending military cooperation with Russia after weeks of relentless bombing of Aleppo, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Wednesday.
Washington and human rights groups had for weeks accused Moscow and Damascus of using incendiary and bunker buster bombs that killed hundreds of civilians in the besieged city and destroyed hospitals, shelters and at least one convoy with humanitarian aid.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry retorted by saying that the U.S. was “on the verge of hysteria.”
This week, the White House said it had begun considering tougher measures against Assad’s government and forces — including military options. If the U.S. resorts to the military options, the victories Damascus has won with Moscow’s help could look Pyrrhic.
“It is unclear what to do next,” Moscow-based analyst Sergei Strokan said in an interview. “Assad has been saved, but [the current situation] is not what we counted on.”
Mirovalev is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Beirut contributed to this report.
9:40 a.m.: This article was updated with Times staff reporting on the number of people killed.
9/30, 4:10 a.m.: Updated with death tolls from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights
This article was originally posted Sept. 29 at 3:15 p.m.