The political and moral impact of the Russian intervention has been huge, much greater than is reflected in the (not-insignificant) territorial changes
When evaluating to what extent if at all the Russian claims of having "mostly accomplished" the aims with which they begun their Syrian adventure there is a great temptation to roll out a map of territorial changes and simply sum up all the gains and losses of the government and the Kurds.
This, however, would be missing the point that the battlefield victories won, while not insignificant at all, are really the least important aspects of Russian successes in Syria.
The most important things the Russians accomplished in Syria are actually:
- The onset of the Russian intervention scuttled US plans for a "no-fly zone" against the Syrian government
- It likewise checked the desired imposition of a Turkish "safe zone" in northern Syria – ie a Turkish invasion and occupation of parts of Syria
- It changed the dynamics of the conflict transferring the initiative on the front from the jihadi-dominated rebellion to government and loyalist forces
- It gradually forced the US to abandon or downscale its ambition of toppling the Syrian government
- It brought about the current peace process which has so far brought a partial ceasefire and may yet bring about a real peace to the country
That is to say Russia's greatest successes were political rather than military and strategic than tactical.
Even so the battlefield victories the Russian air support enabled the Syrian army and Kurdish militias to win are not to be scoffed at either.
Government and loyalist forces pushed back the rebels from the approaches to the Alawite heartland in Latakia, greatly secured and expanded its positions around Syria's largest city Aleppo and cut off the more important of the two rebel supply routes to Turkey.
The Kurds captured the strategically important Tishreen dam and secured a bridgehead on the right bank on the Euphrates, expanded their Afrin enclave in the north-west, and recently pushed back ISIS from huge swathes of desert in the east.
Moreover all of this happened after rebels and ISIS had been for a time stringing up victory after victory against the government (if not the Kurds who at least had some US backing).
Finally, besides political and tactical victories Moscow also scored some moral victories.
By intervening in earnest against ISIS and Al Qaeda it won the sympathies of many in the west who could not comprehend why their governments were not seriously confronting these forces in Syria but were instead more interested in frustrating and downgrading its main enemy – the Syrian government and army.
It put Russia in the position of a protector of Syria's minorities and its secular order and the only power which took seriously the existential threat faced by particularly its Christians, Shiites and Alawites.
It exposed the lethargy of the US effort against ISIS which had begun the year prior and also finally got the West to at least partly admit the extremist and ultra sectarian nature of the largely jihadi rebellion dominated by Al Qaeda affiliates.
By intervening only at the request of the Syrian government and to preserve the existing Syrian order it distinguished its own intervention from the nation-shattering and stable-international-order-killing interventions preferred by the West.
Even its withdrawal is a moral victory of a kind, in that it draws further distinction between the time-limited and escalation averse Russian effort from the open-ended and infinitely escalating western adventures.
Likewise it shows that Russia was indeed interested only in rolling-back Saudi, Turkish and CIA-backed Islamist extremists, but as a foreign power does not feel it is its place to re-impose Assad's order on the parts of the population which are unhappy with it.
This is in stark contrast to Western intervention which time and again denies foreign constituencies ability to determine their own fate and rides roughshod over their rights of self-determination.
That said any moral victories should be weighted against any harm inflicted by the Russian military on Syrian civilians. If Russian leaders (as well as those of any other power) are to take credit for lofty political and moral goals they should also take and face responsibility for any civilians it may have injured or killed in the process of securing them.