Russia changes equation in the Syrian conflict

Developing Just Leadership

Ahmet Aslan

Dhu al-Hijjah 17, 1436 2015-10-01

News & Analysis

by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 8, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1436)

Russian President Vladimir Putin has served notice that he will not accept the Western engineered war on Syria to overthrow President Bashar al Asad. He has started bombing Western-backed terrorists creating panic in Western capitals.

Russia has finally decided to engage itself more deeply in resolving the Syrian crisis. Syria has been a key Russian ally in the region and from the beginning of the conflict in 2011 Moscow has provided Damascus with light weapons, equipment, military training and financial aid. Russia has also provided diplomatic cover for Syria by vetoing UN Security Council resolutions against Syria and brokered a deal for Syria’s biological weapons to be shipped out of the country in 2013 thus averting a direct US attack on the country.

What prompted deepened Russian involvement in Syria remains a mystery.

Hitherto, Russia had resisted direct involvement in the Syrian conflict. There are, however, strong indications that the Russians have changed their cautious approach and are now embracing for more direct involvement in the conflict. Last month there were media reports that the Russians have been amassing heavy military equipment in Syria. These include such equipment as their most advanced fighter jets, close air support aircrafts, helicopters, tanks, artillery, drones and other advanced weaponry.

The Russians have also increased the number of military personnel in Syria. In addition, according to Pentagon reports Russia is working on building a forward air operations base in Latakia and a large military port. The number of Russian combat troops leaped from 200 to 2000 in the past month and it is likely that more troops may be sent to Syria although on September 28 Russian President Vladimir Putin ruled out the involvement of ground troops in direct combat operations in Syria for now.

What prompted deepened Russian involvement in Syria remains a mystery. Despite western pressure on Moscow to explain its real agenda, the Russians have only said their aim is to support Syria’s war against the terrorist takfiri group ISIS (aka Daesh). Considering that there is consensus among Western countries that the threat posed by ISIS requires the support of the ‘international community’, Russia’s move should not cause any concern for the US or its allies. However, Western officials have expressed extreme concern over it.

US Secretary of State John Kerry voiced his concern about Russia’s engagement in Syria saying “These actions could provoke a further escalation of the conflict and lead to the loss of more innocent lives, increasing the flow of refugees and risking a confrontation with the anti-ISIL coalition operating in Syria.” Saudi Arabia, with its hands drenched in the blood of innocent people in Yemen and of the hujjaj in Mina, and its GCC allies also called the Russian move an “escalation”. Riyadh is the principal backer with funds and ideology of the takfiri terrorists rampaging through Syria and Iraq that have now reared their ugly heads in Yemen as well.

Ahrar al-Sham’s new commander Abu Yahya al-Hamwi who is known to have been appointed by the Turkish intelligence MIT, has already declared war on Russia. “We owe it to you to restore freedom to Syria after the invasion of the rejectionists [Shi‘ites] from all corners of the earth. Today they are bolstered by their allies the Russians and the fate of this invasion shall be defeat.”

The US and its allies’ concern is rooted in the fact that the type of military hardware Russia has deployed in Syria is not only for targeting the takfiri terrorists or any other terrorist group fighting against the Syrian government. Russia has sent tactical fighter jets, the SU 27S (Flankers) to Latakia. The Flankers are one of the most advanced fighter jets in the world. Their primary function is not to engage ground targets but for air superiority. They can without ground support and are equipped with missiles that can hit hostile aircraft from 200 kilometres distance. Further, Russia has sent new batteries of Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria. These missile systems are extremely accurate and lethal. They are short-range missile defence systems and it was one of these that the Syrian army used to bring down a Turkish F-4 military aircraft in the early stage of the conflict.

The nature of the weapons indicates that Russia’s intervention in Syria is strategic. Moscow initially tried to establish friendly relationship with the US and its allies but this policy has changed since the western interference ousted a pro-Russian but democratically elected President Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine. Putin has realised that the aim of the western powers is to eliminate Russian influence in the old Soviet republics. They are not interested in becoming friends with the Russians but to subdue them. This prompted President Putin to annex Crimea and revise his relations with the West. He is on record as saying that Russia does not conduct its policy to appease the West. When Russia is strong, it will earn others’ respect.

As a consequence of the so-called ‘Arab spring’, only Syria remained a close loyal ally of Russia. Since the days of ‘the Cold War’, Russia has always maintained a foothold in Syria that enabled it to have a presence in the broader Muslim East (aka the Middle East) and the Mediterranean. Thus, they realise that if Syria falls into the hands of the terrorists, they would lose their only remaining foothold in this vital region. They have, therefore, decided to play a more assertive role in the Syrian conflict.

This also explains why Moscow did not take a confrontational stance when the US was about to attack Syria in 2013. At that time, Moscow still hoped that it could establish better relations with the US and its allies, albeit still have lower level disagreements. They restricted their activities to diplomatic efforts and never indicated that they may take military action against Western intervention. After the Ukrainian crisis in 2014, Moscow felt it was left with no option but to get involved directly in the conflict on the side of Syria.

There are also other reasons for Moscow’s deeper involvement. Russia considers the takfiri terrorists as a major threat to its national security due to the presence of significant number of Russian speaking militants in the terrorist ranks. Russia fears that if Syria falls, the takfiri terrorists will become stronger and use these militants to launch attacks on Russian soil. Yet, since the beginning of the US-led operations against the takfiris, no significant achievement has been made. The US reports overstate the impact of its operations against the terrorists as they hold most of the territory that they gained before the launch of the operations.

Russian involvement in the conflict had an immediate impact. The Syrian army started to use advanced Russian weapons against ISIS strongholds in Deir Ezzor, Raqa and Palmyra. According to reports provided by the Syrian Observatory, a one-man outfit operating from the UK that has its sympathies with the terrorists, many ISIS members have been killed in such attacks.

Despite Washington’s initial strong reaction, Russia’s hardball policy in Syria seems to be paying off as the US now appears to be much more eager to settle the conflict in Syria than has been the case so far. A White House statement read that the US “remains open to tactical, practical discussions” with Moscow to avoid “miscalculation”.

Further, Kerry stated that “if Russia is only focused on ISIL and if there is a capacity for cooperation ... there still is a way to get a political negotiation and outcome.” It is highly unlikely that Putin intends to cooperate with the US at this stage. What he wants is to keep his strongest ally Syria from falling into the hands of takfiri terrorists. And in order to achieve this objective, he needs to confront their patron, the US.

It is, therefore, expected that Russia will gradually increase its military presence and engagement in Syria. A spokesman for Russian President Putin has already said that Russia would consider sending ground troops to fight in Syria if Damascus requested them. Russia has the military might to shift the current status of the war in favor of Syrian forces. In such a scenario, the US and the Saudis would perhaps be more amenable to settle the conflict peacefully rather than continue with the current policy that has failed to dislodge Bashar al-Asad from power despite causing nearly 250,000 casualties and the virtual destruction of Syria.

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