Why Russia has boosted its military presence in Syria now

By propping up Syrian President Assad, some analysts say, Russia maintains influence in the region. The moves have raised alarms in Washington.

Ivan Sekretarev/AP
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with veteran Syrian exiled opposition figure Haitham Manna in Moscow last month. The meeting was part of Russia's new effort to help mediate the Syrian conflict. In more recent weeks, Moscow has boosted its military presence in Syria.

Mounting evidence suggests Russia is significantly increasing military assistance to the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in what is seen as a bid to solidify Moscow’s position in one of few Middle Eastern countries where it still has influence.

The move, analysts say, capitalizes on a low-risk opportunity created by the United States’ reticence to get more closely involved in the Syrian conflict, which has lasted for more than four years and claimed the lives of nearly a quarter million people.

The reports of a Russian military buildup in northwest Syria have raised alarms in Washington. Over the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry telephoned his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to warn that Russia’s military assistance “could further escalate the conflict.”

On Tuesday, Bulgaria announced it would forbid over-flight rights to Russian aircraft bound for Syria. Greece is mulling a US request to do the same.

In response to the heightened attention toward its moves in Syria, Moscow on Wednesday confirmed the presence of “military specialists” in Syria, but said it was in accord with ongoing “military-technical cooperation with Syria.”

Still, some analysts say Moscow’s ambitions in Syria run much higher than simply fulfilling existing military contracts.

“My view is that this is a strategic move aimed at shoring up the [Assad] regime and giving Moscow more influence on the situation in Syria,” says Jeff White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analyst who now works at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

US reluctant to become involved

Russian President Vladimir Putin last week admitted that Moscow has provided “serious help” to the Syrian Army. And while he added that a direct military intervention by Russian forces in Syria was “so far premature,” he would not rule out such a move in the future.

The Obama administration has shown reluctance to become heavily involved in Syria’s grueling conflict, limiting its engagement mainly to combating the extremist Islamic State group through air strikes and a faltering program to “train-and-equip” vetted rebel forces. Mr. Putin could seek to capitalize upon Washington’s aversion to another Middle East entanglement to push Russia’s military expansion in Syria, analysts say.

“Russia sees Bashar's continued presence as a powerful rebuke to Washington.... They see nothing in the Obama administration's handling of the Syrian crisis that discourages them from going for it,” says Fred Hof, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Statements from Moscow downplaying the enhanced military assistance, exploiting the hesitancy of the US administration, and taking advantage of existing Russian military facilities in Syria could "cloak [Russia's] action in ambiguity and slow any US reaction," says Mr. White.

"My sense is that unless the Russians drop a Guards Airborne Division into Idlib, the administration won't do much," he says. "It will study the problem, send Kerry to meet Lavrov, threaten sanctions, and then conclude that what the Russians are doing is really not much different to what they have done in the past, and after all Syria is a sovereign country."

Russian reliance on Assad

Syria’s relationship with Russia reaches back to the Soviet era. Russia continues to operate a small naval depot at Tartus on the Mediterranean coast, one of only two warm water facilities for the Russian Navy.

“Currently, the Russians believe that it’s only Assad that can guarantee the survival of Syria as a state,” says Nikolay Kozhanov, a fellow at the Russia and Eurasia program at the London-based Chatham House and nonresident fellow at Carnegie Moscow Center. “And given the difficult situation on the fronts, definitely the increased [military] supplies is one of the measures taken by the Russians to guarantee his survival.”

The Syrian regime has suffered a series of battlefield setbacks this year, losing ground in the north, east, and south. The extremist Islamic State has carved out a huge swathe of territory in the north and east of the country and is inching closer to Damascus. The Syrian military is showing signs of exhaustion after four years of war, and Damascus is increasingly relying on a network of loyalist militias and foreign Shiite fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan – all supported by Iran, Assad’s other key ally.

Signs of enhanced Russian military support include Syrian TV footage last week of an advanced Russian armored fighting vehicle, carrying markings and a camouflage pattern not normally found on Syrian Army vehicles, in action against rebel forces in Latakia province. Russian voices in the background are believed to belong to the crew of the vehicle.

Other signs include online pictures of a Russian reconnaissance drone allegedly operating in the skies above Idlib province, and an increase in suspected shipments of Russian weaponry to Syria from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, according to analysts who track maritime traffic. Russian social media sites have carried numerous photographs of Russian soldiers deployed in Syria, not just at the Tartus naval depot but further afield.

Memory of Afghanistan a constraint

Prefabricated housing units for hundreds of people reportedly have been delivered to a military air base at the Basil al-Assad airport, 12 miles south of Latakia in northwest Syria. Agence France Presse quoted US intelligence officials as saying that at least three Russian aircraft have landed at the airport in recent days, two of them giant Antonov 124 cargo planes.

While the heightened activity points to a greater Russian military commitment to the Assad regime, it remains uncertain if it will lead to a sizeable deployment of Russian combat forces. The bloody Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s still resonates in Russia and dims support for foreign military engagements, says Mr. Kozhanov.

“There is a possibility that the Russians would use force, but limited to special operations forces. That’s possible under certain conditions, namely if the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate,” he says.

Still, for now, the US is watching Russia’s moves closely and with unease.

“Key will be how the Russian presence develops,” says White, the former DIA analyst. “Right now, it looks mostly like preparations for expanding Russian facilities … and maybe some force protection.... What comes next is the question.”

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