Russia likely will use the military force it’s deploying in Syria to launch airstrikes – and possibly ground operations – against the Islamic State in a bid to bolster President Bashar Assad and thwart U.S. efforts to exclude the Syrian leader from renewed peace efforts, U.S. officials and independent analysts said.
Such a gambit holds grave risks for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia could be sucked into a foreign war that’s claimed some 250,000 lives, uprooted half of Syria’s 23 million people, and shows no sign of ebbing any time soon. In a repeat of the disastrous 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, a stream of body bags could erode Putin’s standing at home.
Yet Putin may be betting on major payoffs: stealing a diplomatic march on the United States by compelling Washington to consider some kind of voice for Assad in a peace deal, gaining Russia a military foothold in the Middle East, and re-establishing Moscow as a key international player in a region where it’s wielded little influence since the Cold War ended.
“If he (Putin) loses in Syria, he’s out of the Middle East for sure. If he wins, Russia is back big time,” said Randa Slim, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank. “The risks can be high, but the prize can be high.”
Putin on Tuesday strongly defended the Russian deployment and his support for Assad, casting the regime as the strongest force in Syria that is battling the Islamic State, which controls large swaths of the country and neighboring Iraq.
“We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression,” Putin said in televised remarks at a security conference in Tajikistan. “We have provided and will provide necessary military and technical support and call on other nations to join us.”
The Russian buildup follows a series of serious setbacks suffered by Assad, who has been losing territory and manpower to his opponents, and the conclusion of the nuclear deal with Iran, whose advisers and Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, have failed to dislodge rebels from key city on the Syria-Lebanon border after a three-month offensive.
The buildup coincides with the waves of refugees, half of them from Syria, flooding into Europe. As a result, the search for a political settlement of the Syrian civil war is taking on fresh urgency.
We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression”
Russian President Vladimir Putin
Using the Russian military buildup to boost his leverage, Putin is expected to push for new peace efforts at the Sept. 28 opening of the U.N. General Assembly, the first time he’s scheduled to attend the annual conclave of presidents, kings and prime ministers in 10 years, experts said.
As part of this approach, some experts expect Putin to portray the Russian military force in Syria as part of a proposed “counter-terrorism front” that would include the Assad regime, Iran, as well as the United States and its European and Arab allies.
“Without an active participation of the Syrian authorities and the military, it would be impossible to expel the terrorists from that country and the region as a whole, and to protect the multi-ethnic and multi-confessional Syrian people from destruction,” Putin said in Tajikistan. “Pooling forces in the fight against terror takes the priority now.”
Since the Russian buildup began about two weeks ago, President Barack Obama has shown no sign of abandoning his stance that Assad “must go” and be barred from a transitional government of regime and moderate opposition elements that would run Syria until elections could be held.
“What we have made clear is that a political transition is necessary and Assad’s departure is necessary,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Tuesday.
By keeping Assad in power, the administration argues, Russia is aligning itself with a war criminal, prolonging the war and helping the Islamic State recruit new fighters.
Russia’s decision to “double down on the leadership of Bashar Assad is a losing bet,” said Earnest. The United States, he continued, would welcome Russia’s participation in the 60-nation U.S.-led coalition that’s been conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State and training and advising Iraqi security forces.
Russian forces in Syria: six T90 tanks, 36 APCs, 15 towed artillery pieces, some 200 Marines
A year of U.S.-led airstrikes has pushed the Islamic State back in some northern areas. But Obama’s $500 million program of training and arming an opposition group to fight the Islamic State – but not Assad – has been a failure, and moderate rebel political leaders remain badly divided.
The administration may start finding itself under pressure, not just from the Russian military intervention in Syria, but from Washington’s European allies, to shift position and consider giving Assad some kind of voice in a new peace process, experts said.
The closest U.S. ally, Britain, recently proposed that Assad be allowed to stay in power for six months during a transition period. Other European governments, anxious to staunch the flood of refugees, also could shift their positions in a bid to advance a new peace initiative.
“The administration is going to have to be prepared to consider how to preserve some elements of the (Syrian) military and civil service and what the successor coalition government would look like and who would be included in it,” said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “But I can’t see there being any viable solution that would include Assad remaining in power.”
There appears little that Obama can do to halt the Russian military buildup, experts said, pointing out that Russian military transports simply flew over Iraq and Iran to reach Syria after Bulgaria shut its airspace at U.S. urging.
Moreover, they added, some administration officials privately may welcome the Russian deployment because keeping Assad in power is preferable to a takeover of Damascus by the Islamic State or the Nusra Front, al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate.
The Russians have made a decision to move in and they won’t move out.
Jeffrey White, former DIA analyst
“We’re not going to confront the Russians,” said Jeffrey White, a former senior Defense Intelligence Agency analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Russians have made a decision to move in and they won’t move out.”
While Moscow has for years supplied military advice and arms to Syria, the buildup at an airbase – known as the Bassel al-Assad International Airport – near Assad’s stronghold city of Latakia represents what U.S. officials called a “significant” escalation in Russia’s involvement in the war.
An average of two giant Condor transport aircraft have been landing every day for the past 10 days at the facility, while cargo ships have been docking at a Russian base in the port city of Tartous, said a U.S. official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
The deliveries have included pre-fabricated housing for 1,500 people, six advanced T-90 tanks, 36 advanced armored personnel carriers and 15 artillery pieces. Some 200 Marine commandoes have been deployed to guard the facility, which will be a tempting target for the Islamic State, whose ranks include rebels from Russia’s Chechen Republic, or other opposition groups.
While no attack aircraft have yet been detected at the facility, some U.S. officials and other experts expect that some soon could be deployed to launch strikes on the Islamic State.
“I wouldn’t be surprised by their conducting air operations to show they have skin in the game,” said Schiff. “I would be surprised if they were ready to have boots on the ground in a combat role. I think that would be a big roll of the dice for Putin.”
Some experts, however, pointed to recent reports citing Russian social media and online videos as indicating that Russian troops already may have been in combat. And the U.S. official pointed out that the T-90 tanks, the most modern fielded by the Russian army, are offensive weapons.
“The T-90s are a definite escalation. They are an advanced piece of hardware with an offensive purpose. Its piece of equipment that I would entirely expect be operated by Russian and remain in Russian hands,” said Chris Kozak, a research analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, a policy institute.
Even so, he continued, he’s not sure that Putin is prepared to risk ground operations.
White, however, said that he believed that Russian ground forces eventually will go into combat against the Islamic State.
“They are building up a logistics and operations base in Syria and some combat forces are already in place,” he said. “It could be argued that they are to defend the base. But they are building the base up for a purpose and that looks like it’s to be able to conduct offensive and defensive operations of some scale.”