There has been a sudden wave of speculation and fragmented reporting on the possibility that Russia is becoming a more active supporter of the embattled Al-Assad regime in Syria. What could Russia possibly want by deepening its involvement in such a complicated and bloody conflict?
Russia is a long-time trading partner and ally of the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Syria. The same regime that has been embattled in a brutal civil war that has morphed over the last half decade into a menagerie of less-than-clear alliances and affiliations. Key opposition players include everyone from supposedly pro-American freedom fighters to hardcore extremist elements, of which the Islamic State is the most prominent.
Untangling the long list of players involved in the Syrian conflict, and who each considers an enemy or a friend, will have to wait for another time, but let’s put it this way: it’s complicated, very complicated, and getting more-so by the day.
Beyond just a trading partner and stated ally, Russia does have a strategic interest in Syria. The port of Tartus on the Syria’s Mediterranean coast is Russia’s only port on the Mediterranean Sea (although Cyprus may now be a second, less secure option) and could be used to resupply a resurgent Russian Navy without Russian ships having to travel through the Bosporus Strait and well into the Black Sea and visa-versa. It could also one day be home to its own fleet of smaller surface combatants that could give Russia a constant presence off the shores of Southern Europe and Northern Africa, much like it had during the Cold War.
Additionally, Russia has historically maintained intelligence collection centers in Syria and other strategic intelligence gathering ties with Assad Government. Russia also sees an Assad ran Syria as a strategic partner in a region it has had little influence over since the end of the Cold War.
Throughout the whole Syrian conflict, as the Assad Government was dropping barrel bombs on its own citizens, and even gassing them, Russia has remained by Al Assad’s side, at times even working as a go-between for the regime and western powers. The biggest example of which was Russia’s help brokering the chemical weapons disarmament deal which kept Assad’s forces from falling under America’s military cross-hairs in 2013. Russia has also constantly been accused of supplying fresh weaponry and material support to the Syrian Government, with Russian advisers known to be working alongside Assad’s forces as they wrestle to keep ISIS and separatist fighters at bay.
Now Russia’s policy of only supplying Syria with small arms, equipment, military spare parts and advisers may be changing in a big way as numerous reports state that Moscow may have already deployed a light expeditionary force to Syria, one that is surveying and repairing airfields and setting up barracks for a larger force that would arrive via air.
This corresponds with Russia’s recent request for overflight clearance of European countries for its aircraft, which could equate to the first steps in building an air bridge between Moscow and Damascus. Still, even without a formal aerial route established between the two countries as of yet, tweets depicting what appear to be Russian combat troops have supposedly been coming out of key conflict areas where the Assad Regime struggles to maintain its grip. It could very well be that Russian combat forces are already in the fight, just in small numbers.
As to what end-game goal is behind Moscow’s change of posture regarding Syria, that remains unclear. On one hand a contingent of Russian troops and combat aircraft could be forward deployed to airfields in Assad Regime held territory in an attempt to fortify that territory. Once any more territorial losses appear to be forestalled, Russia could begin using those same airfields to launch offensive operations against anti-regime targets via air power and possibly special operations raids. On the other hand, Moscow could prepare key airfields under the guise of a “humanitarian relief operation” without deploying combat aircraft to them. Such a move would leave Russia many options, allowing it to flex its force posture from a skeleton humanitarian force to one capable of combat operations at a moments notice. Combat aircraft could even be deployed in limited numbers to these humanitarian relief airfields under the guise of defensive requirements as part of a larger force protection package.
If there is one thing we have learned since Russia’s invasion of Crimea, it’s that Vladimir Putin likes to keep his options in a seemingly never ending state of suspended animation. It keeps his opponents guessing, and as they move pieces on the board Putin only moves shadows, never fully giving away a strategic end-game or goal. This has been a core element of Moscow’s emerging game of Hybrid Warfare in Europe, and it may be in the process of migrating to Syria.
Although American trained Syrian Rebel forces have been more or less a bust so far, with the first 54 fighters (trained at the cost of close to a million apiece) being deployed back to Syria last July, which ended in almost instant disaster, eventually U.S. or Turkish backed fighters will be in action in Syria against Assad’s forces. This is where the goals of Russia, the U.S. and its allies could collide in spectacular fashion. Will allied forces provide air cover for their newly minted freedom fighters? If so, will they be willing to engage Russian aircraft that could be deployed to go after them in “defense” of the Assad regime? Once again, Putin is putting is creating a strategic blocking position for which the U.S. and its allies must chose a way around. In essence, he is making his rivals react at his will, and in doing so dictating their decision cycle.
Just the chance of Russian and U.S. aircraft engaging one-another over Syria may be a deterrent enough for the Obama Administration to suspend the Pentagon’s Syrian freedom fighter training program. At the very least, it could keep those fighters from benefiting from U.S. and coalition air power. Additionally, knowing that Russian troops are among Syrian troops along Assad’s front lines could deter the U.S. and its allies from ever going after Assad’s rule directly. Moscow would accomplish its goals of giving the Assad regime the best chance of survival by keeping U.S. and allied air power at bay without ever having a confrontation at all. Meanwhile, Putin can just say he is just trying to fight terrorism at all costs.
Above all else, the Assad regime gives Putin’s Russia a proxy for which to showcase its power, and possibly its willingness to use its military might to support an ally, regardless of how scrupulous that ally may be. Clearly Putin and company want to show existing and prospective strategic and trading partners alike that Russia does not turn its back on its friends. This is especially important as Russia has made significant diplomatic and trade headway with long-time U.S. ally Egypt and soon to be flushed with cash Iran. In essence, Putin looks to shame the U.S. and President Obama anywhere it can, and making the U.S. adapt to it, and not the other way around, is part of this strategy.
Then again, Putin does risk further eroding his approval ratings back at home. Standing up against NATO and seizing what many see as Russia’s territory is one thing, but freely jumping into a nasty and convoluted conflict in the Middle East is another. Russians have a clear memory of what the war in Afghanistan did to their country during the 1980s, and Putin, even with his ability to mold nationalistic sentiment seemingly at will, will be hard pressed to overcome those comparisons.
Putin will be addressing the United Nations for the first time in over a decade later this month, during which he could very well lay down the diplomatic and geopolitical gauntlet for Western rulers, with Syria being a key part of it. There is a good chance he could call for an expanded anti-terror operation in Syria, even one supposedly focused on ISIS.
But that would also mean by default that the Assad regime, or at least one pro-Russian, will continue in power in Syria for as long as Russian forces are based within its territory. As such, even what sounds like a gesture somewhat inline with the goals of the U.S. and its allies in the region is really just an announcement that Assad is not going anywhere — and Russia’s war machine has moved into his backyard to make sure of it.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.
All photos via AP