Russia Ramping up Military Involvement in Syria?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Reuters reports, based on sources in Beirut, that Russia is increasing its involvement in Syria, backing the military of beleaguered dictator Bashar al-Assad. Russia appears to be offloading tanks at its Tartous naval base on the Syrian coast, and may also be establishing an interior air field for Russian planes. Increased numbers of Russian advisers and support troops are being embedded in Syrian army units.

Al-Assad has been on a losing streak in the past few months, having lost all of Idlib province in the north to a coalition, the Army of Conquest, one major component of which is al-Qaeda (the Support Front). He also lost the desert town of Palmyra in the east, to Daesh (ISIS, ISIL).

Russia is determined not to lose one of its few remaining Middle Eastern client states. Moreover, it doesn’t want a Daesh or al-Qaeda-ruled state only 20 hours drive from its Caucasus provinces, such as Chechnya. (Chechen volunteers are fighting in Daesh, and President Vladimir Putin fears that a Daesh victory in Syria could embolden Chechens to launch another holy war.)

The increased Russian presence has upset the United States, which is unilaterally intervening in Syria against Daesh, and which has called from al-Assad to step down. Given the lack of a UN Security Council authorization of the use of force, the American bombing of Syria might be seen as a violation of international law. But the Syrian government appears to have given its blessing to US air strikes on Daesh, so that the intervention in Raqqa is probably not illegal.

The increased Russian presence is likely intended to deter the US from striking at al-Assad forces, as Washington said it was contemplating in early August. The US can’t hit Syrian forces if it isn’t sure it won’t also be killing Russians. In early August, a Putin spokesman said that US air strikes on Baath Party targets would just help Daesh/ISIL. Vedomosti reported, according to BBC monitoring:

“Petr Kozlov and Aleksey Nikolskiy article headlined “Russia to help Syria” says that Russia has increased military supplies to Syria since early August. The USA has expressed concern about the move. Russian pundit Yevgeniy Satanovskiy believes that Washington and its allies “have launched active anti-Russian propaganda as they are preparing an attack on Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and Russia’s military supplies may wreck it”; p 2″

Genuine Russian fears that the US might target al-Assad from the sky may be behind Moscow’s attempt to bolster the Syrian military.

Russia seems mainly, however, to intend to put some steel in the spine of al-Assad’s forces. If the reports of increased Russian presence in Syria are true, these steps resemble the Obama administration’s reestablishment of an Iraq command from last year in the face of the Daesh onslaught.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

CNN: “Russia admits to sending military aid to Syria”

20 Responses

  1. A serious twist in the increasing complexity of an already complex situation.

    The short-term outcome is almost certainly more misery in the region.

    It is just barely possible, however, that this injection of great-power games into the Syrian situation might also hasten a world-power diplomatic intervention to produce a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war.

    Yes, it seems impossible, but let’s dream. Maybe the Assads & their worst henchmen get an exile in Russia, perhaps (or a central Asian state that will take them), while for the civilian populations the deal is essentially that there will not be mass murders of civilians on any side.

    Nobody wins, the Syrian state might have to be heavily regionalized and/or federalized, but no civilian populations die either, and they get to go about re-learning how to co-exist with each other as they did for nearly all of their previous thousands of years of history.

    • “Maybe the Assads & their worst henchmen get an exile in Russia”
      And all the minorities’, Women, his supporters, historical artifacts and religious and archeological sites

      • My daydreams did not imagine any role or territory under ISIS/Daesh control emerging from such a settlement — and isn’t the whole point of their ideology that they will not admit any role for Great Power (or local power) diplomacy in the region.

        The whole point of my day dream was imagining a future or peace for everyone who finds that more valuable than they find today’s mix of conflict that may have multiple ethnic and/or ideological dimensions. Neither being in a different national/religious/ethnic group than another population, nor being convinced that your ideas require the murder of others, would be a valid reason for warfare in an imaginary peaceful future. In our real present, civilian populations on all sides have become complicit in the tyrannies and murders of their traditional leaders, as the region has not developed traditions of peaceful changes of government, or of peaceful methods of government. It’s a problem, and I was searching for a way to a positive outcome.

        Hopefully, in the end, more of the region’s populations will want futures of peace rather than of conflict. And hopefully the waste products of our global and regional political-economic cultures will not poison our chances of having any kind of future at all.

        • Day dream has to be Plausible, however improbable. Yours is borderline fantasy. But the past can tell us what the future will hold. The congregation of freedom fighters and holy warriors in AfPak brought immense human misery to south Asia and lead to the tragedy of September 11. Now the same actors and directors are at it again, from North Africa to south Arabian Peninsula. Arab spring was hijacked, sold, raped, drowned, beheaded and ground into fertilizer for more of the same.

  2. “The increased Russian presence is likely intended to deter the US from striking at al-Assad forces, as Washington said it was contemplating in early August. ”

    So odd to see such a distinguished scholar articulate an opinions so at odds with the reality. For four years now we have been hearing about Obama’s “regime change” intentions in Syria from elements on the left who somehow ignored the reality.

    To start with, there was never any intention by Barack Obama to launch a “humanitarian intervention” in Syria whatever people like Nicholas Kristof or Samantha Power sought. On October 22nd, 2013, the NY Times reported that “from the beginning, Mr. Obama made it clear to his aides that he did not envision an American military intervention, even as public calls mounted that year for a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians from bombings.” The article stressed the role of White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, who had frequently clashed with the hawkish Samantha Power. In contrast to Power and others with a more overtly “humanitarian intervention” perspective, McDonough “who had perhaps the closest ties to Mr. Obama, remained skeptical.” The Times added, “He questioned how much it was in America’s interest to tamp down the violence in Syria.”

  3. The Pentagon, having failed at counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, is now failing at insurgency in Syria. What’s left?

    • that’s easy.

      SF missions include “insurgency,” “counterinsurgency,” and what 20 years ago was called “internal defense and development.”

      If the US military is to salvage a “win” in Syria,
      we need to ally with al-Assad and the Russians.

  4. The german media is already screaming holy murder about that. The current spin is: Russia is to blame for all the refugees, since Russia ‘irresponsibly escalates’ the conflict by helping Assad…

    Quality media. For sure…

  5. The United States, as usual, does not recognize that Russia’s interests at least partially overlap with its own. The ball-grabbing and penis-measuring will continue without the US admitting that Russia is just as fearful of ISIS as it is. But in the end, the US calculus is always simplified to the zero-sum question: who has more client states and military bases? Boys and their toys. Boys and their marbles.

  6. I don’t know how apt this is or might prove to, but for some reason the march of folly that became the First World War that begat the Second World War came to mind. The actions taken then by the various national leaders made sense to them from their particular viewpoint, but they morphed into that century’s greatest disasters. The actions taken now in the Middle East presumably make sense to the various participants from their viewpoints, but the consequences appear to be worsening inexorably. A Third World War becomes more plausible with each step along the present march.

    If ever there was a time for diplomacy, surely it is now, but where are the diplomats truly worthy of being called statesmen to be found?

    • John Kerry just accomplished more than all Secretaries of State since Dulles.
      Maybe he qualifies ?

  7. The small Russian Tartous (Tartus) naval facility on the Syrian coast is the only officially active naval site (leased from Syria) Russia maintains on the Mediterranean Sea. The Tartous site is functionally for repair and replenishment of Russian naval vessels. (There is also some very minimal anti-piracy activity on Crete and Cyprus.)

    The Russian/Syrian listening post, Center C, on the peak of Tel Al-Hara Mountain near Golan Heights was intended to monitor military activity in the region but was taken by the Free Syrian Army earlier this year.

    Bashar Al-Assad and Russia are close business partners. An evacuation of Tartous by Russia would further weaken the Assad government and be bad for business.

    Renewed Russian interest in the Mediterranean, all but abandoned in the 1970s, might also be a response to U.S. military operations in Lask, Poland.

    • According to our 1903 “treaty” with the Cuban Dictator Tomas Palma,
      who was succeeded as head honcho of Cuba by Wm. Howard Taft in 1906,
      Guantanamo Bay Naval Base is officially for supplying coal to US Navy ships.
      This could also be a response to the “European Reassurance Initiative.”
      See link to
      Under ERI, US European Command has initiated acquisition of facilities and stationing of officials in 6 Eastern European countries this month, all bordering Russia.
      Or maybe a response to our sending US troops into western Ukraine (we’ve had troops there continuously since February 2015.)
      Or maybe it’s just what they say, they are supporting a historical ally. Check, eg, the language in the WH press release on ERI.

      • Syria has been a major customer of very expensive Russian air-defense systems, military aircraft, weapons/ammunition and other related goods and support services.

        The events of the Islamist and Arab upheavals in Syria threaten that business relationship.

        Other factors contribute such as Ukraine but Assad is a business deal Russian leadership can ill afford to lose.

  8. Whatever may lie behind Russian motives, it’s clear their primary purpose is to resolve the Syrian conflict, and then get on with tackling Daesh. The US appears more concerned to topple Assad. I doubt Russia is wedded to Assad per se, but Syria has an army and for the time being Assad is its boss so it is logical that if anyone is going to get involved in all this Assad and the Syrian army should be assisted. But, no. The US is even pressuring other countries to close their airspace to Russia’s efforts. This is absurd, and Kerry calling Lavrov twice within a week to ‘express US concerns’ about their efforts looks increasingly like petulance. One might understand the US desire to go it alone if their efforts were working but patently they are not working, whatever they claim, and it even appears from the Daily Beast that they are deluding themselves link to Yes, the Syrian regime is brutal but that is nothing new, Assad’s father hanged rebels from the lampposts in Damascus. Comparatively speaking his son might even be considered a mild improvement.

  9. Would the Russians hesitate to shell/bomb anti-al-Assad forces if they knew U.S. troops were among them calling in air strikes, etc.?

  10. Can’t wait for the western backed comie Kurds go to war with Russian backed shia militias. I grew up in the cold war so the irony will be delicious.

  11. Syria is a swamp filled with quicksand. There are no winners there. The US hope that Assad can be toppled by moderates who will then take over and form a pro-Western regime is hopelessly naive. We shouldn’t get involved in Syria at all. I opposed bombing ISIS in Syria. Let the Russians go in and get things all screwed up like they did in Afghanistan if they want. Their intervention will probably weaken Russia so we should be encouraging it while we withdraw further.

  12. I wonder what the current state of Syria’s air defenses is, and if any Russian help is designed to bolster these, which would please neither the US nor the Israelis, both of whom prefer unfettered access to Syrian airspace in pursuit of whatever their current objectives are.

    Given that the Israelis have killed several Iranian advisers in Syria (probably deliberately in most instances), one wonders if Russians attached to Syrian units will be under the same threat of accidental or “collateral” attack?

    Israel would probably like to stop weapons from reaching the Assad forces but I doubt it would attack a Russian supply ship or a Russian transport convoy.

  13. Why was Saudi Arabia recently having talks with Putin knowing that he supported Assad? Were they trying to convince him to lesson support of Assad? If so whey didn’t it work?

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