in Syria: Putin Fills Strategic Vacuum in the Middle East
On Wednesday, Russian aircraft carried out the first bombings
of rebel positions in Syria. The operation was not a surprise. It was the
latest, most dramatic episode in a significant increase in Russian support for
the beleaguered regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad that has been under
way since the beginning of last month.
This sharp increase in Moscow's aid to Assad has brought the
marines of Russia's 810th Independent Naval Infantry Brigade to the port of
Latakia, Syria's principal port city.
At least 500 of these elite troops are assembled close to the
Russian naval depot at Tartus, on Syria's west coast, having arrived from their
base with the Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol, on the disputed Crimean Peninsula,
in the past month.
Moscow is sending hardware as well as troops: 28 combat
aircraft at the last count — four Sukhoi Su-30 fighters, 12 Su-25 strike
aircraft, 12 Su-24 attack fighters — along with numerous attack helicopters,
seven state-of-the-art T-90 tanks, surface-to-air missile systems and advanced
Infrastructure work is under way, too. The focus is on the
Bassel al-Assad air base outside Latakia city. But the naval depot at Tartus is
also being expanded.
Satellite imagery recently published byIHS Jane's Intelligence
Review (in an article co-written by this reporter) shows additional
infrastructure development at the Istamo weapons storage complex near al-Sanobar,
also in Latakia province. Newly paved surfaces at Istamo were apparent.
Temporary housing for up to 2000 personnel, of a type used by the Russians, also
was visible near al-Sanobar.
All this represents a strategic move by President Vladimir
Putin, of wide import and profound implications. The Assad regime is a
longstanding ally of Moscow. This alliance goes back to the 1960s, when radical
and pro-Soviet Arab nationalists first took power in Damascus. Putin has been
backing the regime in its war with the rebellion against it since 2011.
Russia's help has already proved invaluable. Moscow's veto
power at the UN Security Council made sure that no coordinated international
action against the regime could take place in the early, optimistic days of the
uprising. The continued supply of Russian weapons made sure that Assad's
armouries remained well-stocked.
Nevertheless, the present move is of an unprecedented scale.
So why is it happening, why now, and what is Moscow seeking?
Saving an eroding regime
The most immediate reason for the sharp increase in Russian
assistance to the Assad regime is that the dictator has been losing ground to
the rebellion in recent months. Worse, from Moscow's point of view, the rebels'
gains were bringing them close to the parts of Syria whose retention by the
regime is essential for Russia.
Assad's main problem, throughout the civil war, has been the
shortage of men willing to take a bullet for him. This shortage of manpower was
a product of the regime's narrow support base. The Alawi sect, to which the
Assads belong, comprises only about 12 per cent of the population of Syria.
The rebellion, meanwhile, was based among the country's Sunni
Arabs, comprising about 60 per cent of the population. (Kurds, Christians, Druze
and Shia make up the bulk of the remainder.)
The increasingly Islamist rebellion found its ranks further
strengthened by foreign volunteers. Assad had no similar line of support from
young ideologues committed to his cause. But he did have assets and a strategy.
His main asset was the loyalty of his allies. In contrast to Western countries
that ostensibly supported the rebellion but did little practically, Assad's
Russian and Iranian allies did all in their power — diplomatically,
politically and militarily — to keep their client in his seat.
The Iranians mobilised regional assets, including the capable
Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, to join the fight and lessen the manpower problem.
The Russians were there with weapons and diplomatic backing.
In terms of strategy, the dictator sought to lessen the
problem of manpower by retreating from all areas not considered vital. The
result of this strategy has been the emergence of the de facto partitioned Syria
of today. Assad effectively has ceded huge swathes of eastern, northern and
southern Syria to his enemies.
Today, Islamic State controls most of eastern Syria. The
Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) rules a large area in the northeast and a
smaller enclave in the far northwest. Islamist rebels, including Jabhat al-Nusra,
also known as al-Nusra Front, the local franchise of al-Qai'da, rule a swathe of
the northwest. Western-backed rebels and al-Nusra control Quneitra province
adjoining the Golan Heights and much of Dera'a province south of Damascus.
The regime still holds Damascus, the western coastal area and
the line of cities to the capital's north (Homs, Hama and part of contested
The problem with the regime's strategy of retreat and
consolidation is that it can be carried only so far. At a certain point, the
erosion of the regime enclave will reach a point that makes Assad's survival no
longer viable. In recent months it has looked as if Assad was in danger of
reaching this point. This is the immediate precipitating reason for the
increased Russian intervention.
A new, more effective rebel coalition called the Jaysh al-Fatah
(Army of Conquest) declared its foundation on March 24. Backed by Qatar, Turkey
and Saudi Arabia, this alliance achieved a string of battlefield successes
against the regime in the vital northwest of the country this past northern
spring and summer.
On April 25, this force took the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughur.
This raised the possibility for the rebellion of moving the frontline into the
populated areas of Latakia province. This would have brought the rebellion close
to the Mediterranean, including to Russia's naval depot at Tartus. It also would
have called into question Assad's ability to defend any of the remaining areas
under his control.
This had to be stopped. The Russian deployment is part of a
concerted effort to stop it. Moscow is set to shore up the regime's crumbling
In his speech at the UN General Assembly this week, Putin
spoke of Assad's armed forces as those who were fighting "terrorism face to
face". But it should be understood that the immediate danger to Assad's
regime in Syria's west is represented not by Islamic State but by the rebel
Jaysh al-Fatah coalition. Since Russia's goal is the preservation of the regime,
Moscow's efforts to protect Assad are set to be directed against the Syrian
rebels rather than Islamic State, whose main forces are located farther east.
This was reflected in the choice of targets in the bombing raids on Wednesday.
So Russia's intervention represents a sharp increase in the
dimensions of a longstanding policy rather than a radically new departure for
Moscow. Putin's intention throughout has been to demonstrate the value of
alliance with Moscow by showing how he protects his friends (and, while he's
doing it, to hold and expand Moscow's only naval base outside of the former
How far will Putin go?
According to Sergey Ivanov, head of Russia's presidential
administration, the goal of the Russian deployment is "strictly to provide
air support for the (Syrian) government forces in their fight against Islamic
Putin undoubtedly is concerned about Islamic State's rise and
what its proliferation could mean for the restive Caucasus region and central
Asia. One of Islamic State's main military commanders, Abu Omar al-Shishani, is
of Chechen-Georgian origin, and volunteers from the Caucasus are among the most
brutal of the jihadi fighters in Syria.
But the deployment of the Russian forces in Syria indicates
beyond doubt that the main concern of the Russians is to defend Assad against
the rebels. The proclamations against Islamic State are a feint to add moral
authority to the defence of the dictator.
In so far as Islamic State represents a threat to Assad, it
does so in the Damascus area and in the Homs province. Islamic State forces
are pushing across the desert, past Palmyra, nudging against Homs province and
in some parts of Damascus, including Qadam and the Yarmouk camp.
But the Russians are not deploying in any strength in this
area. Their deployment is on the western coast, a considerable distance from
Islamic State but close to the lines of Jaysh al-Fatah (and taking in Russia's
naval assets in Tartus). The Russians have begun flights of Pchela-1t unmanned
reconnaissance vehicles out of Latakia. These UAVs are conducting patrols over
rebel-held territory to the immediate east of Latakia, not over Islamic
Given the scale of the deployment, there are no indications
that Russia is set to take part in a major campaign to reconquer areas lost to
the Assad regime. Rather, as it appears, the Russian intention is to prevent the
rebels from pushing further into regime-held areas.
This will enable Moscow to preserve its assets in western
Syria (it has little interest in or need for land farther east). No less
important, it will enable the Russians to keep the Syrian war going.
Putin sees the eastern Mediterranean as the back yard of the
West. In strategic terms, maintaining assets in an ongoing conflict in the
West's back yard is a natural goal as a means to offset the West's holding of
assets in Russia's back yard: the former states of the western Soviet Union,
most importantly Ukraine. So Russia's determination to keep Assad in the game
has a logic far beyond Syria. But almost certainly it does not include the
costly and probably unachievable goal of winning complete victory for Assad.
The bear is back
The intervention is the latest bold move by a Russian
President who perceives a strategic vacuum in the eastern Mediterranean,
deriving from the US desire to avoid major commitments in the area. The failure
to act following the regime's use of chemical weapons in 2013 and half-hearted
efforts by Western countries on behalf of the rebels reflect this Western
determination to stay out as much as possible. In such a situation, Putin is
likely to have calculated that a firm move on his part on the regime's behalf in
Syria would be without negative international consequence for Russia.
Framing the intervention in terms of the joint opposition to
Islamic State would further contribute to lessening any chance of Western
objection. As of now, this assessment seems to have paid off. The West appears
to be backing off from its previously stated goal of demanding Assad's
departure. The result of Putin's move and Western acquiescence to it is to
introduce a new and powerful strategic player into the Middle East.
Russia appears to be making additional moves to consolidate
its cooperation with other forces aligned with Syria. This week, Iraq announced
an agreement with Moscow for sharing intelligence on Islamic State. Supporters
of the so-called resistance axis in the region (which includes Iran, Iraq,
Assad's Syria, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad) are depicting the
Russian intervention as part of a larger process in which Moscow is concluding
an overall alliance with this axis. One of these, Ibrahim al-Amin, editor of
pro-Hezbollah newspaper al-Akhbar , has named the new alliance as the
4+1 bloc (Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria plus Hezbollah).
Moscow certainly would deny the establishment of any such
alliance. And it is notable that Russian diplomacy in the region has included an
attempt to keep channels of communication and cooperation open with the enemies
of Iran and Assad, including Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The precise contours and implications of Putin's intervention
into Syria are not yet clear. Russia's economy is weak and this may well prevent
Moscow doing much more than keeping its allies in the game. But what may be
asserted with certainty is that Russia has returned as a determined and visible
player on the ground in the Middle East for the first time since the collapse of
the Soviet Union.
Moscow looks poised to call the next round of shots in the
contiguous area that once comprised the now collapsed states of Iraq and Syria.
This represents a new strategic reality in the Middle East. For now, it's Moscow
rules in the eastern Mediterranean.