Russia announced Monday that so-called “volunteer” ground forces would join the fight in Syria, a move that could potentially tip the balance in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after four years of civil war.
The move hearkens to the use of Russian soldiers to seize Crimea from Ukraine in the spring of 2014 and aid given to help pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine. An estimated 600 Russian military personnel are already on the ground in Syria, reports The New York Times.
The announcement comes amid warnings from NATO that Russian warplanes had twice entered Turkey’s airspace over the weekend. The incursion prompted the United States and NATO to criticize Russia; Turkey threatened to respond.
While Russia's defense ministry said the incursion had been accidental and didn’t last long, NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg called the two incidents “very serious,” reports Reuters.
“It doesn’t look like an accident, and we’ve seen two of them over the weekend,” he added.
Such saber rattling threatens to inflame further tensions between Russia and the United States and its NATO allies. It also highlights the risk of unintended incidents in the increasingly crowded skies over Syria.
Russia last week launched a bombing campaign against what it claims are Islamic State targets in Syria. But the US says Russia is mainly striking anti-government rebels in support of its ally, President Assad. The Russians reportedly even bombed at least one US-supported rebel group.
The lack of coordination and conflicting priorities “opens the possibility, however unlikely, of the Americans and Russians coming to blows,” reports the Associated Press.
But as The Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi reported last week, there may also be an upside to Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict. One key factor will be how far Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to go to protect Assad.
“If the plan is to take whatever military steps necessary to maintain Assad in power, then it’s Afghanistan redux” for Russia, says Philip Gordon, who until recently was President Obama’s special adviser on Mideast affairs.
“But if the point is to prevent the catastrophic collapse of Assad” – then once that limited goal was accomplished, Russia might be ready to work with the United States and other powers toward a political transition and an end to Syria’s civil war, he adds.
“If that’s the case, then it could be a positive,” Mr. Gordon says.
Agence France-Presse reports that Russia’s strategic goal is to carve out a rebel-free zone for the Assad regime and shut out Western forces. Simply by entering Syrian air space, Russia has made it harder for US-led forces to impose any restrictions on Syrian warplanes and helicopters.
"You can't allow a raid against Assad and his planes if there is the slightest risk of hitting the Russians also,” Michel Goya, a military historian at Sciences Po University in Paris, told AFP. “There was talk of imposing a no-fly zone against Assad, now that's finished, it's dead.”
"The priority for the Russians is to protect 'useful Syria,'" Mr. Goya added, referring to the densely populated western and coastal parts of the country where its industry and agriculture are concentrated.