Was intervening in Syria worth it for Russia?

So far, Russia’s intervention in Syria has had five principal benefits: shifting some domestic international attention from Ukraine to Syria; increasing the credibility of any potential future threats to use force; demonstrating Russia’s advanced military capabilities in a highly visible manner; strengthening Moscow’s leverage over the Syrian government in absolute terms and relative to Iran; and bolstering Russia’s claim to a major role in shaping a political settlement in Syria.

These benefits are not inconsequential. Yet they are not overwhelming, either. Internationally, while Washington and some major European capitals are open to working with Moscow to end the fighting in Syria, none seems inclined to “trade” positions on Ukraine in the process. Domestically, Syria can be a successful distraction only so long as it is a successful war — something largely outside Russia’s control, since its forces are in a supporting rather than a leading role.

Similarly, regional and global assessments of the credibility of Russia’s military forces and weapons systems will ultimately depend on the outcome of Russia’s intervention. The Syrian government’s inability to make significant gains so far does not help in this respect. Russia’s attractiveness as an arms supplier is less reliant on military victories, so long as its systems perform as advertised — but helping Bashar al-Assad’s regime take back territory would likely produce more sales than facilitating a protracted stalemate.

Finally, Russia’s leverage in Syria — and its ability to shape a settlement — may not last indefinitely, particularly if the stalemate continues. This is in part because Moscow’s influence in Damascus depends heavily on what Syrian leaders expect from Russia in the future.