Russia's intervention in the Syrian civil war from 2015 onward was partly driven by Moscow's desire to protect its historical position in the country. Beyond that, however, Russia sought to enhance its influence and leverage in the wider Middle East, especially in broader talks with the United States. But there is an aspect of Russia's involvement in the campaign that is often overlooked: The conflict in Syria has been the ultimate testing ground for Russian troops, equipment and combat capabilities.
The Syrian civil war differs from other conflicts Russia has entered since the end of the Cold War. Unlike the wars in Chechnya, Georgia and the Donbas region of Ukraine, the Syrian conflict is neither within nor adjacent to Russian territory. Therefore, Russia's intervention in Syria depended on its ability to project military force over considerable distances. With no land route available, Russia relied on airlifts and its maritime transport capacity to bring its troops to Syria and then to sustain them over a long period of combat operations. Despite facing considerable hurdles, Moscow proved its ability to logistically sustain a military force in combat operations far from home.
Russia's previous post-Cold War conflicts largely took place in regions with relatively familiar cultural, linguistic and sociological characteristics. Not so the intervention in Syria. It was a foray into a distinctly foreign land that required the Russian military to prioritize its ability to communicate, assimilate and partner with Syrian government forces to a degree it didn't have to do in the past. This partnership was not seamless; there were numerous reports, rumors and indications of friction between Russian troops and their local partners. On the whole, however, the Russians succeeded in being accepted by the Syrian military as critical advisers and partners. Indeed, after the battlefield death of Lt.-Gen. Valery Asapov last month, the Russian military said that Asapov not only was an adviser for Syrian government forces but was also integrated into the Syrian military's chain of command as the commander of its Fifth Corps.
Beyond logistics and command, the Syrian conflict presented a major test for Russia's combat aviation. The air war in Syria is notably complex, involving constant close air support and ground attack missions in a crowded airspace where numerous air forces, including those of the U.S.-led coalition, are simultaneously conducting operations. Beyond dealing with complexity, the Russian air experience in Syria faced other problems. Russian airstrikes caused widespread civilian casualties, friendly fire incidents occurred, and exposure to hostile fire and technical issues led to losses of Russian aircraft. But regardless of the pitfalls, the Syrian conflict gave Russian air forces valuable combat experience.
Syria was also a major testing ground for new Russian weaponry and tactics. Russia entered the war in Syria in the wake of a major modernization of its military, and more than 160 new types of weapons systems were tested in Syria. Moscow's forces employed new sea- and air-launched land-attack cruise missiles, deployed new types of air defense systems and battlefield drones, and extensively relied on next-generation electronic warfare systems. The campaign also accounted for the most widespread use of precision-guided munitions in Russian history. Moscow also hasn't been shy about touting the usefulness of the conflict in highlighting deficiencies in equipment for further improvement.
Russia entered the war in Syria in the wake of a major modernization of its military, and more than 160 new types of weapons systems were tested in Syria.
Russia's testing of new weaponry in Syria has a related benefit: It allows Moscow to highlight its equipment for foreign arms sales. A number of Russian weapons prominently figured in the Syrian conflict, particularly the Su-34 and Su-35 aircraft and the S-400 surface-to-air missile system, were recently purchased by a number of countries, particularly Middle Eastern states — such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — that witnessed these systems in action in Syria.
The Syrian conflict came at a cost for Russia, to be sure. Moscow suffered significant casualties, including the loss of high-ranking officers. Numerous Russian citizens were also killed while serving in Syria as private military contractors, often with little public acknowledgment. Russia's widespread use of expensive precision-guided munitions and cruise missiles, as well as the loss of numerous aircraft, drones and vehicles, further adds to the national debt at a time of fiscal constraint. Indeed, Moscow has no intention of remaining in the Syrian conflict for long and is attempting to create the conditions that would allow for its exit from the war.
Even with these costs, Russia's intervention in Syria so far has proved a net benefit for the country. Moscow has secured its influence and presence in Syria, and expanded its reach across the Middle East, where it increasingly is viewed as a key stakeholder in the region. And the Syrian battlefield has allowed Russia to test its troops, its equipment and tactics as it continues to seek ways to bolster the combat effectiveness of its forces.