Russian sleight of hand boosts embattled Syrian regime

Russian sleight of hand boosts embattled Syrian regime
Analysis: With the Syrian regime losing ground, and growing unrest among its supporters, Assad has received an invaluable morale boost as Russia ups the ante with the West over Syria.
9 min read
14 September, 2015
Russia has increased supplies to the Syrian regime [AFP]

Russia has ramped up its belligerent rhetoric with the West over its role in the Syrian war.

In a classic act of provocation that would be familiar with the US, Russian warplanes planned training exercises and firing rockets off the Syrian coast.

However, sources say that the so-called Russian "military build-up" in coastal Syria is being massively overplayed.

It is likely that recent Russian actions are a way of bolstering its support for President Bashar al-Assad, and provide a morale boost for the embattled regime under threat on so many fronts.

"Russia has certainly intensified arms deliveries to Syria recently, but I wouldn't say it was a significant increase," said Yury Barmin, an analyst of Russian affairs.

"I believe that currently Russia is delivering sophisticated weapons, hence the increase in the number of Russian military specialists who travel to Tartous and Latakia."

Barmin said that the number of port calls by Russian landing ships to Tartous between January and August was 39. This is only an increase of three port calls from the same period in 2014.

"I believe that currently Russia is delivering sophisticated weapons, hence the increase in the number of Russian military specialists who travel to Tartous and Aleppo," said Barmin.

Tartous and Latakia

Reports emerged this week of sightings of Russian troops casually strolling around Tartous' souk marketplace. Russian officers were also spotted dining with regime top brass in Damascus restaurants, according to media reports.

"Selfies" taken by Russian troops with banners of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and regime flags have also circulated on social media. Tracking on the phone images' meta-data indicate they were recently taken - and inside Syria.

To say that these Russian soldiers have been sent to Syria's battlefields is alarmist to say the least.

"Any direct involvement would be highly unpopular in Russia, so politically this would a reckless decision for Putin. In fact I think he doesn't want to get involved militarily at all," said Barmin.

Russia has a long and established military presence in Syria, going back to Soviet times.

Russia's presence is concentrated on a small but well-known naval depot in Tartous, where most of the images of the Russian soldiers were located.

Tartous naval depot was leased to the Soviet Union in 1971 but scaled down in 1991. 

Russia effectively abandoned it as a naval base when costs proved too much for the near-bankrupt Russian state, relegating it to a logistics site and supply dump.

In 2008, an agreement between Damascus and Moscow appears to have been signed, restoring Tartous to its former glory. When work is complete Tartous should be capable of hosting large battleships and aircraft carriers.

There were also reports from Arabic-language newspaper al-Hayat that Russia and Syria had revived the 1980 friendship treaty, which would hand over use of Latakia airbase to Moscow.

Barmin said that it was possible that Russia had taken over Latakia airbase - but that did not guarantee that Russia would launch air raids on rebels from there.

"My guess is that this air base is being prepared for future anti-IS operations if an agreement on Syria is reached between Russia, the US and the GCC."

Syria's economy is in dire straits, and it is reportedly unable to pay for new weapons from Russia.

With increasingly high-tech Russian equipment being used by the regime in recent days, the possibility that this treaty was revived in exchange for material support is not out of the question.

Fittingly, temporary buildings have been erected in Latakia airport this week. 

Moscow might now be looking at establishing interests in Latakia, if regime-controlled territory secedes from the rest of Syria - a slim but growing possibility.

Tartous is Russia's only warm sea port and with recent ramping up of tensions between NATO and Russia, it is an invaluable toe dipped in the Mediterranean.

Reports suggest that the port and nearby Latakia airport are seeing increased traffic from Russian planes and ships.

Russia might now be looking to extend its military capabilities in the coastal region in preparation for the next stage of Syria's future.

This includes the alleged posting of the Crimea-based Russian marine unit 810, according to analyst Ruslan Leviev.

There were reports that marines from this Black Sea outfit had taken part of fighting with separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In-depth investigation into the subject - published in Bellingcat - concluded that there were new Russian troops in Syria, judging from social media activity.

But it is unlikely that there is "mission creep" and these units are there to guard Russian interests Syria - ie: existing military materiel.

Barmin said that it was likely that there were a handful of Russian marines in Syria, but these visits have been ongoing since 2012, so do not mark any significant shift in Moscow policy.

"It is certainly not a combat operation, first of all due to the amount of freedom they have to post updates about their life in Syria on social networks," he said, highlighting the fact that Russians in Tartous and Latakia province could help the Syrian regime reaffirm control over its territories.

Eyewitnesses in the area told al-Araby al-Jadeed that there were no increased sightings of Russians in Tartous.

Over the past year of the war, more Russian troops have been seen in Tartous, but most were still confined to the naval depot.

Rump state

Russian military movements in Syria are increasing, but still this does not mean that Moscow has committed units to fight - as the Soviet Union did in Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up its Communist-allied government. 

However, in August, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that a Russian officer was killed in Latakia after a projectile fired by Jaish al-Islam hit the city.

Latakia has been described as Assad's fall-back plan.

It is an area he enjoys the most support and where his ancestral home is - Qardaha. Latakia and Tartous are essentially the bulwark of the regime's Alawite support.

Syrian rebels have captured captured almost every inch of neighbouring Idlib province, and are on the advance in Hama.

Rebel brigades are also hemmed in at Latakia's north-western mountain range, and have held their ground for several years now.

The rebels are making their presence known in the regime heartland, firing rockets at Latakia city and detonating car bombs.

Syria has also recently witnessed small protests and murmurs of discontent among regime supporters in Latakia and Tartous. 

This is over mass casualties in the army - which Latakia is bearing the brunt of - in a long and sustained war that Damascus now looks like it is losing.

There has also been a low-level rebellion against conscription, forcing Assad to rely more-and-more on militias, Hizballah and Iranian support.

"Assad himself has admitted manpower problems and the need to retreat from non-vital areas. I think Russia backs him in that regard," said Aymenn J al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

"It is possible that there is an attempt to convince people that they need not fear armed service, as Russia is here to stand with them."

Tamimi believes that recent Russian movements could fit with the idea of Assad establishing something of a rump state in areas he still controls - notably Damascus, Latakia, Tartous, Homs and Hama.

It makes the Western political and media focus on a "Russian military build-up" - using comparisons of the Cold War - a massive propaganda coup for the regime.

However, Tamimi believes that ultimately, troop and material movements are to protect Russian interests.

"Russia is providing military advisers, equipment provision, primarily. [It] is aiming to protect its own assets in Syria by enlarging and fortifying its bases."

Bashar al-Assad's home province looks more under threat than ever, but with news of Russian troops coming to the province at least the domestic audience will be satisfied, Damascus might be thinking.

Morale boost

Talk of battle-hardened, square-jawed Russians being rushed to the country makes Syria's deteriorating army look like it has an invaluable and supportive ally in the battle against the rebels and the Islamic State group.

It has given a massive morale boost to the regime's domestic supporters, even if it has been a massive gamble on the international scene.

There are obvious signs that Moscow is stepping up supplies to the regime and is shoring up its support for Damascus.

We have seen huge Russian flagged ships sailing through the Bosporus to Syria's coast.

Moscow has also been involved in a dispute with Europe and NATO over Russian cargo planes using Greek and Bulgarian airspace to send supplies to Damascus and Latakia.

There have also been new Russian BTR-82A infantry fighting vehicles spotted in Syria, which would indicate fresh supplies are coming in and Russian technical support and advice is at hand.

Moscow and Damascus call this "humanitarian aid" but there can be no doubt that it includes include military aid too.

This is a reasonable assessment to make, believes Rami Aburrahman of the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights.

"We know that supplies have been going to the Syrian regime and assistance to its forces, but there is no way the Russian army has been joining them in fighting," said Abdurrahman.

"It is political assistance in Damascus, Latakia, Hama and Homs but not with forces. There has been material support so far but we don't think anything will change on the ground, even if they bring more troops there."

Air corridor

It appears that an air and sea corridor is being established between Syria and Russia.

Regime-controlled Syria is largely surrounded by hostile neighbouring countries, rebel fighters, and the Islamic State group.

[Click to enlarge]

Such a supply route would allow Russia - one of the main suppliers of military equipment to Syria - to send weapons directly to the embattled president.

There are also undoubtedly Russian advisers on the ground in Hama and other areas of Syria.

Some are most likely around where fighting is taking place, such as in Sahl al-Ghab in Hama, the site of a massive battle between regime forces and rebels.

However, Russia's increasing influence in Syria may ultimately be nothing more than a sleight of hand by President Vladimir Putin.

Undoubtedly, Putin wants the Syrian president to survive.

But he also wants to better his hand for when he meets Western leaders in New York for a UN Security Council meeting, the first the Russian president will attend in eight years.

"Moscow is hoping to make a major push in Syria-related negotiations and Russia's visible presence on the ground in Syria proves to the US and the GCC the seriousness of these intentions," the Russia analyst said.

"Previously Russia's only strength was its friendly relations with Assad, now there is a new lever that it can use against the opposite side."

Moscow is still struggling with a paralysed economy, caused in part by Western sanctions over its military presence in eastern Ukraine and its annexation of the Crimea.

Western politicians fear a repeat of this is happening in Syria, and Russia is beginning to make her soft entrance.

However, Russia's bombastic statements about its material and military support for the Assad regime should not be drawn out of context.

The country is already fighting a bloody war in Ukraine, and has numerous threats from Islamist and separatist groups at home, along with a collapsing economy.

It is unlikely that Russia would want to be sucked into a new Afghanistan with body bags returning home.

That said, it is equally obvious that the US would also be reluctant to make too many gambles in Syria.

Washington has adopted a nervous and cautious approach to the conflict, and few in the opposition believe that the US will fight against Russia over Syria - particularly after the number of "red lines" the Syrian president has crossed with no consequences.

Few Syrians - on either side of the war - believe the major powers will slog it out in Syria for them.

But for the regime, they have won a small diplomatic victory for Assad amid a disastrous war.