Russia ups the ante in Syria

Russia ups the ante in Syria
Comment: Moscow's support of Damascus raises the stakes in a highly charged game of geopolitics, writes James Denselow
4 min read
22 Sep, 2015
Russia has been keeping the flow of arms to Assad's regime throughout the war [Getty]
The fluid, complex and ever-more destructive civil war in Syria took a new twist this month as attention focused on Moscow's growing involvement.

The Russians have been long-standing and loyal supporters of the Assad regime - both with diplomatic cover and practical support on the ground.

This support appears to have significantly increased with the deployment of some 2,000 military personnel and about a half dozen tanks - of what the New York Times describes as their "most modern" variants - at an airfield near the Assad stronghold of Latakia.

Moscow has been sending two military cargo flights a day to the airfield over the past few weeks, US officials say. Satellite images put out by Foreign Policy confirm what the Institute for the Study of War has called a "game changer" in the conflict.  

The build-up has led to a sudden back and forth of diplomatic activity and statements coming out of the US and Russia respectively. The Pentagon put out a holding statement on the "movement of people and things that would indicate that they plan to use that base there, south of Latakia, as a forward air operating base".

This intent was disputed by Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov who said that supplies were arriving for setting up a tent camp for refugees. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov then clarified "there were military supplies, they are ongoing and they will continue".
     [Moscow] supports the government of Syria in its fight against terrorist aggression
- Vladimir Putin

"They are inevitably accompanied by Russian specialists, who help to adjust the equipment, to train Syrian personnel how to use these weaponry," he added.

President Putin provided yet more clarity when he later explained that Moscow "supports the government of Syria in its fight against terrorist aggression, we provide and will go on providing it with all necessary military assistance".

Stephen J Blank, an expert on the Russian military at the American Foreign Policy Council, told the NYT that "this is the most important Russian power projection in the region in decades".

It has immediately led to concern as to a gathering "Cold War" being projected into Syria, as well as the practical issues of potential accidents between US and Russian forces operating over or in the country.

Read more: Russian oil company starts prospecting off Syrian coast

It is important to understand the long history of Syrian-Russian relations to ascertain where Moscow's strategy is heading. Since the 1950s, tens of thousands of Syrians have been educated in Russia, while Russian expertise has created much of Syria's infrastructure, with the Syrian ministry of economy estimating that the Russians are responsible for 90 industrial facilities and pieces of infrastructure, one-third of Syria's electrical power capability, one-third of its oil-producing facilities and a threefold expansion of land under irrigation - aided in part by assistance with building the massive Euphrates dam.

This recent influx of weaponry is not the first time in the recent past that global concern has been flagged as to Russian arming of Damascus.

Back in 2010 there was an uproar over Moscow supplying the pre-war regime with MiG-29 fighters, truck-mounted Pantsir short-range surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery systems and anti-tank systems.

This time around, with the regime in control of ever smaller parts of the country, the option for the Russians appears to be limited to either doubling down on backing Assad and helping to lead a counter-offensive - which could drag them into the conflict in a modern version of their Afghanistan experience - or bolster and protect the defensive lines of where the regime currently stands and potentially evacuate if need be - a sort of "helicopters from Saigon" moment.

Analysis from the Institute of the Study of War suggested that this was indeed more likely, explaining that "the recent deployment of Russian military forces to Syria will maintain a defensive posture to prevent the collapse of the Syrian regime, rather than a direct offensive posture to seize territory from anti-regime actors".
     Russian soldiers tagging themselves in social media have been popping up across Syria

Yet still others continue to suspect that Russia may join the fight against IS from within the regime's troops.

Russian soldiers tagging themselves in social media have been popping up across Syria, with the BBC able to compile stories of their movements from supply ships passing through Istanbul to uniformed Russians appearing in Aleppo.

Meanwhile, the Russians used social media to ward off the US in Syria - with the Russian embassy in the UK tweeting this week that "Moscow appreciates that US actions against IS are conducted in a way that doesn't harm Syrian govt forces' capability". 

With the White House saying that it "remains open to tactical, practical discussions" with Moscow, the chances of an escalation of the major powers inside Syria remains remote, but with more serious firepower entering the fray the rate of death and destruction may continue to rise steeply.

This, of course, means more refugees and displacement and continued tragedy for the people of Syria.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.