Russia moves the “butcher of Syria” and its weapons to Ukraine and leaves the Middle East front in limbo

Vladimir Putin applauds Colonel General Sergei Surovikin at a ceremony in the Kremlin. Surovikin gained ground for Bashar al Assad’s army through brutal bombing of the civilian population. Will he now do the same in Ukraine? (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik via AP) (Alexei Druzhinin/)

From the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, military analysts assured that the Kremlin troops were going to put into practice all the barbarities that the Russian troops had carried out in the Syrian war, where Russia arrived in 2015 to defend the regime of Bashar al Assad. The reality was different. They failed in their attempt to take kyiv and had to withdraw to safer areas in the south and east of Ukraine. Now, nine months later, Vladimir Putin is trying again. It carried the “butcher of Syria”, General Sergei Surovikin, and a good part of the arsenal that there they have to do what until now they had not been able to: scorched earth and conquest without any hesitation.

It is not known whether the strategy could produce any good results for the Russians, but what is clear is that while reinforcing its Ukrainian flank, it leaves Syria’s unprotected. And there lie in wait enemies as tough as the ones it claims to be facing with the help that NATO gives to Ukraine. ISIS can regroup at any time in the desert. The Turks will consolidate throughout northern Syria. US special troops will take up more space. The Al Assad regime will remain as weak as it has been since 2011. And as we know, a destabilization of Syria affects the entire Middle East.

Beyond the war scenario, the citizens of the region are feeling the impacts of the war in Europe in their food security, energy prices and labor markets. They are torn between sympathizing with Ukrainians fleeing their homes and cities destroyed by Russian weapons and remembering how the world looked the other way. while the same weapons wreaked havoc in Syria and Libya just a few years ago. Governments in the region, including traditional US allies, are divided between Russia and the Western camp, playing with time to better assess the impacts of war and ease restrictions that it is imposing on fragile economies.

Russian aircraft bomb civilian targets in the Syrian city of Idlib where Russia is fighting for Bashar al Assad's regime.  (EuropePress)
Russian aircraft bomb civilian targets in the Syrian city of Idlib where Russia is fighting for Bashar al Assad’s regime. (Europa Press) (RUSSIAN MINISTRY OF DEFENSE/)

The Kremlin cannot afford to forget about Syria. “Russia’s presence in Syria is not a mere strategic interest for Moscow, but an existential necessity,” says Kheder Khaddour, a researcher at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “The Russian military presence in western Syria must be considered in two contexts: the first is that of the Syrian war and its regional dimensions, and the second is Syria’s position overlooking the eastern Mediterranean Sea where Russia has a strategic presence”.

That is why Vladimir Putin played an ambiguous role in Syria and Libya. On the one hand, as a warlord. On the other, as a mediator and negotiator in recent years. The UN-sponsored political process was carried out with Russian facilitation, which Moscow offered to persuade the Al-Assad regime to enter into talks with the opposition. At the same time, Russian officials pushed for a new framework for a security agreement between Ankara and Damascus along the Turkish-Syrian border. Now these two tracks, the political and the security track, are closed, and the Syrian conflict has entered a period of stagnation.

Faced with the failure of his troops in Ukraine, Putin decided to get the best he has out of Syria to try to reverse the situation in Donbas. He not only took General Surovikin, but moved his strategic S-300 anti-aircraft missile batteries. The satellites detected how strategic weapons moved from Masyaf in western Syria, where they were deployed, to the port of Tartus, where Russia has a major naval base. They were loaded onto the Russian ship Sparta II, which left Tartus for the Russian port of Novorossiysk. A large fleet of fighter jets also departed for Ukraine, which are what Surovikin used to bomb and reduce the city of Idlib and others in the regions still controlled by the Syrian opposition to rubble.

Russian Tartus naval base in Syria.
Satellite view of the Tartus naval base that Russia has controlled for decades on the Mediterranean coast of Syria.

Although these transfers of personnel and weapons they do not mean that Russia will leave its presence in Syria. The Hmeimim air base, overlooking the Mediterranean, is highly strategic for Moscow’s interests. It not only allows you to monitor gas exploration projects in the Eastern Mediterranean, but also allows Russia to exert its military influence outside the former Soviet republics. From there it has possibilities for rapid intervention in the Arab states of the Gulf, Egypt, Israel and Turkey.

“Putin is not going to leave this strategic position that he got thanks to his action in the Syrian war, but today his priority is Ukraine. He knows that if he loses there, he will not be able to sustain the Mediterranean bases over time. For now, he is going to strike a balance between the two zones, but if the course of the war in Ukraine continues, at some point he could be forced to choose,” says specialist Kheder Khaddour.

Surovikin, 56, who earned Nicknamed “General Armageddon” in Syria, he is the first overall commander of the onslaught in Ukraine to be publicly appointed by the Russian government. The announcement coincided with the explosion of the Crimean bridge, a monument to Moscow’s 2014 appropriation of the Ukrainian peninsula and a pet project of Putin’s that serves as a vital conduit from Russia to the battlefield for troops, weapons, and other supplies.

Immediately after the explosion that partially destroyed the strategic Crimean bridge, Putin decided to transfer the most successful general and a large part of the arsenal that Russia has in Syria.  (Arman Soldin/AFP)
Immediately after the explosion that partially destroyed the strategic Crimean bridge, Putin decided to transfer the most successful general and a large part of the arsenal that Russia has in Syria. (Arman Soldin/AFP) (ARMAN SOLDIN/)

Just two days after the bridge explosion, which Putin has blamed on Ukraine’s special services, Moscow deployed “high-precision, long-range weapons from the air, sea, and land” to bombard kyiv, Dnipro, and other Ukrainian cities. at the time of the first hour of the morning when there are more people on the street. It was probably one of the first orders given by Surovikin in his new position. Indiscriminate and ruthless bombing was the hallmark of the Russians in Syria and now it seems they intend to do the same in Ukraine. On the first day of these attacks, Moscow launched missiles worth more than 700 million dollars. Russian finances cannot keep up with this pace of spending and this is hope for the Ukrainians and their troops who continue to advance in the Kherson region, where the Kremlin-imposed governor has already asked the population to vacate the city in the face of the imminent counteroffensive.

The Russian Defense Ministry has repeatedly credited Surovikin with making critical achievements in Syria, stating that Russian and Syrian forces “liberated more than 98%” of the country under their command. “At the head of the Syrian troops and the Russian commandos, he lifted the siege of the strategic city of Deir al-Zour and recaptured Palmyra for the second and last time, which was quite an important part of the fight against ISIS”, Kirill Mikhailov, an investigator with the Conflict Intelligence Team, explained to the Washington Post, referring to the Islamic State terrorist group. “The specific thing about Surovikin is that he really fought with ISIS, which is arguably a more formidable enemy than just the Syrian rebels.”

A 2020 Human Rights Watch report said that air and ground attacks on civilian sites, including homes, schools and hospitals, they were a hallmark of Russia’s campaign in Idlib, in which Surovikin participated during his second intervention in 2019. The report listed him as one of the commanders “who had command responsibility for the violations” during the Idlib offensive.

It is how Surovikin acts and that is how he is going to do it in Ukraine. Y it will do so by keeping an eye on the syrian desert. He knows that now the two war fronts are intimately linked for him and for Putin’s wishes.