Russian President Vladimir Putin thought he could succeed where the U.S.’s then-President Barack Obama failed. Pacify Syria, rescue the regime of his client, President Bashar Assad, and balance the conflicting interests of Iran and Israel in the war-torn country. All this he did with a relatively small investment: the deployment of a couple of dozen aircraft and 2,000 men. As foreign campaigns go, it was power projection on the cheap. The United States on a similar mission would have used a force 10 times the size – aircraft carrier groups and hundreds of fighter jets, aerial tankers and electronic warfare planes. Not to mention boots on the ground.
But Russia could pull it off thanks to the cannon fodder supplied by Iran. Tens of thousands of Shi’ite mercenaries, mainly refugees from Afghanistan, propped up Assad’s failing battalions. Hezbollah fighters came from Lebanon to carry out the more difficult operations. Russia made do with small teams of special-force troops and, where more muscle was needed, its own mercenaries.
It was a relatively small investment with few casualties and not, as some predicted two years ago, a rerun of the Soviet Union’s disastrous occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.