Russia’s increasing military presence in Syria now appears to be a matter of fact rather than just speculation. US-Russian cooperation in solving the Syrian crisis, though, is likely to remain limited.
A Syrian Kurdish sniper looks at the rubble in the Syrian city of Ain al-Arab, also known as Kobani. Photo: AP
Reports of Russian military presence in Syria are growing increasingly more detailed, suggesting that Russia is laying the groundwork for a military campaign to support the Assad regime.
In early September, Israeli newspapers wrote that Russia had allegedly started “a military intervention in Syria.” The U.S. intelligence analysis center Stratfor published satellite photos, while a British tabloid ran a video showing Russian military shipments to Syria. The New York Times reported a delivery to an air base south of the Syrian city of Latakia of six Russian T-90 tanks, 15 howitzers, and 35 armored personnel carriers, as well as 200 marines and ready-made construction kits for assembling housing for 1,500 people. Other sources also mentioned Russian fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles.
Additionally, there have been reports in the Russian media about Russian contract soldiers complaining to the Kremlin’s Council on Human Rights that they are about to be sent to Syria against their will.
Despite this surge in news reports about Russian military backing for Syria, the Russian government rebuffs any allegations about preparations for a military campaign in Syria. It only confirms that it is helping Syria militarily by providing military equipment and instructors to train Syrian soldiers to use it as well as personnel to service it.
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has underscored that Russia has been assisting Syria for a long time and will continue to do so in order not to allow the repetition of the Libya scenario.
Earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared at the Eastern Economic Summit in Vladivostok that, “Russia as of yet does not intend to join the military operation against the fighters of the Islamic State in the Middle East. To say that we are prepared to do it today is… premature.”
Yet, at the same time, other government representatives have made statements that Russia would consider rendering Syria military assistance if the Syrian government asks for it, further stirring western concerns.
Is Russia preparing for a military campaign in Syria?
It is no longer a question, but a fact, that the Russian military presence in Syria has been growing. Those in Russia who blamed the United States for “all these defamations” and accused the Western media of attempts – ahead of Putin’s speech at the UN General Assembly – to “discredit Russia” and make it appear guilty for the U.S.-led coalition’s failures, have been proven wrong.
The Russian government itself has recently confirmed the surge in military shipments to Syria. On Sept. 24, Western media sources reported that Russia is about to start bombing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) positions in Syria.
Additionally, Russian military maneuvers are being conducted near the Syrian coast in two rounds in September and early October. And large-scale mock combat drills against terrorists have taken place in September in the Orenburg Oblast in Central Russia – with participation of all branches of the Russian Armed Forces, including, for the first time, the Air-Space Defense units.
Some pundits in the United States see similarities between Ukraine and Syria. They do not rule out the possibility of Russia engaging in a “hybrid war” or even a broad military operation to help retain the Assad regime in power.
Syrian civilians found their homes destroyed during clashes between the Sunni-dominated Free Syrian Army and Syrian soldiers loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad, in the town of Hejeira in the countryside of Damascus, Syria. Photo: AP
The Head of the Center for International Security at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO), Alexei Arbatov, believes, however, that large-scale deployments of Russian forces in Syria are unlikely. The logistics of transporting troops to this far-off destination would be too difficult.
The Russian air potential in the region, according to Arbatov, is much smaller than that of Turkey. Moreover, the Russian forces are short on high-precision weapons required for this kind of warfare, when the frontline is ill defined and the adversary forces are dispersed, with some of them hidden deep inside the territory.
Besides, unlike the case with Ukraine, where the Russian role has been explained as protecting the kin, it would be hard to explain to the population a more active military engagement in Syria. Yet even in the case of Ukraine in spring of 2014, the majority of Russians were against direct military involvement. And according to a poll conducted recently by Russia’s independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, 83 percent now oppose sending Russian soldiers to Syria.
What are Russia’s intentions in Syria?
Many Russian and international analysts see Russia’s interest in Syria as driven by the desire to reinstate its great power status and ensure its recognition by the world’s key actors. The operation of the Western-led coalition of 60 countries is largely believed to have been inefficient, with the ISIS enlarging its control of the Syrian and Iraqi territories, seizing Western-supplied ammunitions, and recruiting new combatants from other countries.
The Kremlin is also keen to become a key participant in resolving today’s biggest international crisis, as well as to regain its influence in the region where the Soviet Union was once a major player largely perceived as being on the side of the oppressed against the oppressors.
The Russian government seems to believe genuinely that the United States has deliberately seeded chaos in the region to ensure its reign. Now that the Frankenstein of ISIS – which was arguably created with American assistance – has sprung up, Russia would like to see the United States recognize the need to refocus its strategy from overthrowing Assad’s regime to helping create a broad alliance of Syrian and international forces against ISIS.
Assad’s regime has long been Russia’s ally, and has relied on Russian and Iranian support. Russia’s only remaining foreign military base, though reportedly very “basic,” is in the Syrian city of Tartus.
Experts in Russia further believe that if ISIS is not stopped, this will increase dangers for the countries of Central Asia and the Trans-Caucasus, which are Russia’s neighbors to the south.
These experts claim that If you do not go after ISIS, it will go after you. Moreover, about two thousand Russian citizens are said to be fighting within the ranks of ISIS (as are like-minded citizens of some other European countries as well), and the Kremlin has all reasons to fear what they might do upon returning back to Russia.
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The Russian authorities, though their stakes in Syria are higher than just building bridges with the United States, hope that the discussion over Syria will serve as an impetus for a change of the agenda in dealing with the West, and the United States in particular.
The Kremlin expects the United States to recognize Russia’s role and significance in finding a solution for defeating ISIS and, consequently, in dealing with other global problems. Additionally, there is an element of distracting attention, both externally and within the country itself, from what is happening in Ukraine, and of improving Russia’s image internationally.
In his speech at the 70tn UN General Assembly on Sept. 28, Putin is expected to elaborate on Syria. As of Sept. 24, the presidents of Russia and the United States have finally reached an agreement to meet in New York, and the dialogue is clearly needed.
Is U.S.–Russia cooperation in Syria possible?
The United States and Russia, since the start of the Syrian crisis have had almost opposing views on the situation. The United States claims that Damascus provoked violence, was responsible for the civil war and massive deaths in the country, and that ISIS was the result of Assad government’s crackdown on its opponents. In contrast, Moscow alleges that President Assad is the legitimate leader of the state and the Assad forces have been fighting with Islamists including those sent from abroad.
Several hours after the first publications on Russia’s military surge in Syria, Obama’s Press Secretary Joshua Ernest said that, although the U.S. administration does not have confirmation of the new Russian deployments to Syria, the United States is concerned about the information. The White House believes that Russia’s military assistance to Assad is destabilizing and counterproductive.
A Free Syrian Army fighter with a weapon enters an underground cave in Maarat Al-Nouman, Idlib province. Photo: Reuters
Can U.S.-Russia differences over Syria be reconciled? After all, even with such differing approaches, the two sides did agree, back in 2013, on the chemical disarmament of Syria, which was largely successful. This agreement, at the last moment, stopped a pending U.S. intervention of Syria in the spring of 2013. But for cooperation to take place now, the United States would need to see Russia’s participation in Syria as an element beneficial for the overall solution.
Meanwhile, Obama has declared that the U.S.-led coalition will carry out air strikes not only against the Islamic State, but also against the Assad army if it attacks the forces of the so-called “moderate opposition.”
The United States has been training and sending to Syria fighters for the opposition forces. Yet after reaching the agreement on the Iranian nuclear program, Washington, as some experts believe, might reconsider its position toward Assad. If before the latter had been seen as Iran’s only ally in the region, now the United States, according to some experts, no longer insists on having him gone.
Another powerful game-changer is the unprecedented surge of refugees to Europe, which neither Europe nor the United States anticipated and are unprepared to deal with. The blame is largely put on the West, seen by many as having stirred up conflict in the region from which people are now fleeing. The way out would need to include bringing peace to Syria, which is the largest contributor to the flow of refugees.
It seems that Russia has so far succeeded in compelling the United States to talk to it about Syria. For the first time in seven months, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu conducted an hour-long telephone conversation. This being a sensation in itself since they had not spoken for seven months and military cooperation had been frozen since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis.
The topic of their discussion was Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry also conducted three telephone conversations with his Russian counterpart Lavrov on the topic. Kerry stated on Sept. 19 that Russia could help the U.S. fight ISIS, yet the next day he said, after meeting with the German foreign minister, that they both agreed that, “Support for the (Syrian) regime by Russia, or by any other country, risks exacerbating the conflict and only hinders future cooperation toward a successful transition.”
Vladimir Dvorkin, chief researcher of the IMEMO, has emphasized that the Russian army could not take part in the coalition even if it wanted to, since the weapons systems of the two sides lack operational adaptivity. Moreover, troops from both sides have not trained for joint operations, and would thus face many insurmountable barriers, including language problems.
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“The coalition is an already existing mechanism into which Russia now will not be able to fit in,” he said, adding that If Russia does start an operation in Syria, it should only focus on defending Assad, not combating ISIS.
Carnegie Moscow Center’s Dmitri Trenin does not rule out that the only thing that Russia and the United States might be able to agree on is to not place themselves, unnecessarily, in each other’s way in Syria – given the ongoing “cold confrontation” between them.
Two intertwined paradoxes
Now that U.S. Republican and Democratic candidates alike are building their 2016 presidential campaigns on the criticism of the Obama administration, in particular for its lack of assertiveness in foreign policy, Russia is seen as an opportunity to further manifest Obama’s alleged weaknesses.
It might appear to them that the slogan of “breaking Russia” presents more opportunities to build upon than a perspective of improving relations with Russia and resolving the Ukrainian or Syrian crises. In other words, certain U.S. politicians perceive Russia as a not-so-important country that is creating a major problem. It is thus seen as an opportunity to assert U.S. leadership and world domination rather than to search for a solution.
The other problem is that some in Moscow might be trying to present Russia – at least militarily – as a more important country than Washington believes it to be – in order to push the United States toward a settlement. To this end, Russia has been building up its military capabilities, engaging in saber rattling, and even “reminding” that it possesses nuclear weapons.
Yet some members of the Russian political elite seem to believe that Syria provides a chance for a turnaround in Russia’s relations with the West as well as for repositioning Russia globally, with a focus on its constructive leadership. They deem that the situation in Syria is in such a deadlock, that perhaps the political establishment in the United States would be willing to abandon its political games. It might then be ready to engage in serious deliberations as to what would be needed to really resolve the crisis and not only use it to gain points in a political struggle.
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The problem with this argument is that it is not political games, or not the political games alone, that are pushing the White House – as well as the presidential candidates, both Republican and Democratic – toward confrontation with Russia, but their largely-held belief that the Kremlin is engaged in “aggression” and needs to be stopped in its expansionism.
In this situation, even if the United States agrees to work together with Russia on Syria, this would be a one-off episode, not leading to broader cooperation or a major change in its position toward Russia.