Researchers are still divided on the need to use the term ‘hybrid warfare’. Focusing on the essence of conflicts may be a far more productive approach than getting lost in endless debates about labels. Among the many definitions and descriptions of ‘hybrid warfare’, we can pick one that considers "hybrid warfare as asymmetric conflicts provoked from the outside, designed to undermine the integrity of geo-economic interests." Moreover, hybrid warfare is also viewed in the context of indirect approach to regime change (used by the US, especially in the context of the Middle East). This also applies to Syria where the US and other actors had interfered in the conflict even earlier than 2011.
Those focusing on the Syrian crisis are mainly trying to show the “hybridity” of the Russian approach to this conflict. Nevertheless, the Russian military operation in Syria commenced only in 2015, after a number of Western states and regional powers had already long been engaged. They delivered military equipment – overtly and covertly – to Syria, and carried out other operations through their ministries of defense and special services. The outcome of this external intervention in Syrian affairs by 2015 was terrible. In 2014-2015, radical anti-government organizations of various spectra strengthened all over Syria, the so-called Islamic State (IS) flourished, controlling vast territories from Baghdad to Damascus, Jaish al-Fatah coalition led by Jabhat al-Nusra invaded north of Latakia, which threatened ethno-religious cleansing. It was with these consequences of the "hybrid warfare" of Western and regional forces that Russia had to deal with. Moreover, engagement of external players never diminished, but only transformed with Russia taking active role in the Syrian settlement. This meant that Russia itself had to use various tools that it had at its disposal. We could name this as a “hybrid warfare path dependence” concept when a new actor engaging with a conflict is forced to use a certain approach as a result of the given framework established earlier by the other actors.
At the present stage, Moscow is focused on the domestic political agenda, which pushes the policy of Russia in the Middle East into the background. In the context of COVID-19 and the need to address a number of socio-economic and domestic political issues, such as holding a referendum on the constitution from June, 25 to July, 1, Moscow maintains the necessary level of participation in Middle Eastern affairs, but does not thoroughly dive into them. Among the key objectives of Moscow’s policy regarding Syria, the most important are the fight against terrorism and maintaining working relations with Damascus and regional capitals.
Key driver of Moscow’s policy in the Syria
One of the key reasons for the Russian presence in Syria and wider in the Middle East was the need to overcome developments that would entail the destruction of state institutions in Syria and Iraq and lead to the creation of a terrorist safe haven. Since 2015, Russia has systematically participated in coordinating efforts with other states to combat the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra (now Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, HTS) and other terrorist organizations. Military means were not enough to address the issue of terrorism. Using political-diplomatic tools Russia took part in forming regional alliances and unique negotiation formats that allowed coping with the risks and reaching agreements to stabilize the situation. So, in Syria, in addition to purely military means, predominantly the use of Russian air forces from the Khmeimim base, Moscow also used military diplomacy and revealed regional ties.
One of the most successful elements of this approach was the Astana process under the auspices of Russia, Turkey and Iran. Nevertheless, Russia strengthened its coordination activity with various forces, including the establishment of constant contacts with Israel and the United States. On the eve of the beginning of the Russian operation in Syria on September 21, 2015, by agreement of the military-political leadership of Russia, Iraq, Syria and Iran, the Baghdad Information and Coordination Center was formed. The attention to the Syrian-Iraqi border has been marked from the very beginning of Russian participation in the fight against IS. The quadripartite center in Baghdad also can be called among the most interesting elements of the Kremlin’s coordination policy to address the fight against terrorism.
Risks for Moscow in Syria
At present, Russian policy towards Syria is dictated by a general focus on maintaining the necessary level of participation, but not a thorough immersion. This is due to the limited capabilities of Moscow, the lack of resources in the context of COVID-19, low oil prices and sanctions. Moscow’s victories in Syria as of now become losses in the future, as economic threats increase for Damascus. They are primarily associated with the US sanctions policy aimed at preventing any third-party business contacts with Syria and rebuilding the country; lack of effectiveness in the government economic policies, crisis of Lebanese banking sector.
American sanctions against Syria are worsening the general economic condition of the state and humanitarian situation for the population, not just complicating, but rather depriving the economy of prospects for development. One of the key elements of Iran’s assistance to Syria was the supply of oil, since the Syrian government does not have the ability to extract and process its oil in the required volumes. As the fuel crisis in April 2019 showed, the Syrian government is very vulnerable. Damascus finds temporary solutions, but depends on Iranian assistance. The additional US sanctions by the Caesar Act only worsens the economic and humanitarian situations. Secondary American sanctions deprive the EU of the opportunity to use the issue of EU sanctions as a tool for agreements with Damascus and Moscow, and also prevent the Gulf monarchies from using their funds in Syria. Some companies in Russia and other countries, especially those already under sanctions, will continue to work in Syria, but they will experience more and more difficulties.
The Syrian conflict is multi-leveled and complex. Russian actions in Syria were influenced by previous actions of other players – regional and international – which can be defined as the "hybrid warfare path dependence". Given the new developments with COVID-19 and other domestic factors, Russia is less and less interested in active actions not only in Syria, but also in the Middle East more broadly. Although Moscow is faced with growing financial and economic challenges and potential political losses in Syria, it is reasonable to expect that Russian presence will linger on for a long time.
 Bettina Renz and Hanna Smith interestingly put it in the Project “Russia and Hybrid Warfare: definitions, capabilities, scope and possible responses” report 1/2016: “…it is hard to disagree with Kofman and Rojansky, who concluded that ‘hybrid war has become a catchall phrase…resulting in a misguided attempt to group everything Moscow does under one rubric’ in Renz, B., & Smith, H. (2016). Russia and Hybrid warfare - going beyond the label. (Aleksanteri Papers; No. 1/2016). Kikimora Publications. Aleksanteri Institute, University of Helsinki, Finland. P. 13.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of ISPI