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Russia’s strategy in Syria? It may be to keep the world guessing

Syrian National Coalition President Khaled Khoja speaks in August at a news conference in Moscow after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Khoja said that "the Russian leadership isn’t clinging to Bashar Assad."

Syrian National Coalition President Khaled Khoja speaks in August at a news conference in Moscow after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Khoja said that “the Russian leadership isn’t clinging to Bashar Assad.”

(Ivan Sekretarev / AP)

Russia has been sending conflicting signals on its intentions in Syria, where President Bashar Assad, one of the Kremlin’s few Middle East allies, has suffered major setbacks on the battlefield in recent weeks and may be at risk of being overrun by Islamic extremists.

Russia has shielded Assad from United Nations censure throughout the 41/2-year war with opposition forces, some backed by the United States and other Western governments but most now under the sway of Islamist radicals sowing bloody chaos in the region and beyond.

Yet the Russian ambassador to the United Nations this week quietly withdrew Kremlin objections to a Security Council resolution authorizing a new investigative unit to determine who has been responsible for using banned chemical weapons in Syria. That inquiry is widely expected to point the finger at Assad and eventually expose him to war crimes charges.

Moscow’s easing of previously unfettered support for Assad follows reports from world leaders who have met recently with Russian President Vladimir Putin and claim they sensed he may be losing confidence in Assad’s ability to defeat the various opposition forces arrayed against him.

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U.S. intelligence officials contend that Russia has recently flown arms, military hardware and advisors into the government-controlled Latakia region along Syria’s western coast.

President Obama indirectly warned Moscow on Friday that any effort to prop up the Assad government was “doomed to failure.” Western leaders blame the Syrian autocrat for the power vacuum in his war-racked state that has allowed Islamist extremism and violence to flourish. Obama made his first comment on the Russian moves into Syria when asked about the buildup at a town hall meeting with U.S. troops.

Some security analysts poring over satellite images of the air and naval reinforcements see the moves as Putin gearing up to deploy Russian fighters directly into combat to bolster Assad’s flagging forces. Others speculate, however, that the military buildup might be intended to protect Russia’s naval base at Tartus — its only military foothold on the Mediterranean — or to secure an escape route for Assad to Latakia, his ancestral homeland, should he be toppled and driven out of Damascus.

Some veteran observers of Putin’s shifting tactics in the Syrian crisis say the Kremlin’s increasingly discordant diplomatic and military maneuvers might be meant to keep Western adversaries guessing.

“He’s in a box, and he’s terrified about some of the situations he has unleashed that have gotten beyond his control,” Andrew Weiss, a former White House advisor on Russia during the Clinton administration and now vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said of Putin. “His usual tactic in these situations is to do something that will throw everyone off balance.”

The Russian leader is to address the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 28 and may be creating a diversion in Syria to “change the conversation” from his internationally condemned aggression in Ukraine, Weiss said.

Assad’s forces this week abandoned their last military base in Idlib province to fighters from Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front. To the east, Islamic State militants have seized control of sprawling Raqqah province, squeezing the government out of Syrian territory stretching all the way east to the Iraqi border. With much of his country in the hands of heavily armed rebels and radical foreign-led militias, Assad’s ability to turn the tide of the war is newly in doubt, possibly giving the Kremlin pause to rethink its strategy and objectives.

U.S. intelligence officials said last week that satellite reconnaissance photos showed Russian forces apparently building a new air base near Latakia and ferrying in troops, weapons and temporary housing. Two tank-landing ships and combat aircraft have also been sent to Syria in recent days, said the officials, who requested anonymity, saying they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the surveillance.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon joined the chorus of international security officials sounding an alarm over the Russian buildup on Thursday, when he told a news briefing in Jerusalem that Russia already has dispatched an “active force” to set up an air base. But like the U.S. officials, Yaalon conceded that the Russians’ intentions were not yet clear.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has brushed off the reports of an expanding Russian presence in Syria as longstanding military and political cooperation with an ally.

“Russian military personnel have been in Syria for many years,” Lavrov said Thursday. “Its presence is linked with the supplies of weapons for the Syrian army, which is bearing the brunt of the war against terrorism, in particular, the Islamic State, and other extremist groups.”

Putin hinted last week that he was pondering direct airstrikes against Islamic State but said his government had yet to make a decision.

Lavrov, who has been on an obvious but so far fruitless diplomatic mission to bring Syria’s warring factions together for peace talks, has also suggested Moscow could work with the U.S. and European and Persian Gulf states whose air forces have been trying to contain the spread of terrorism in Syria.

But Russia’s insistence that Assad be included in a postwar government of national unity has been a nonstarter for the other countries fighting Islamic State, which see a prolonged war as long as Assad is around and widening exposure to the violence and brutality of Islamist extremists.

Anna Vassilieva, a professor of Russian studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, sees the Russian reinforcement in Syria as a move to protect itself in the event its embattled ally is deposed.

“This time it is seriously not just about Assad; it’s about Russian national security interests. Putin has been watching the failure of the West to deal with ISIS for a while,” she said, using an acronym for Islamic State. “The West doesn’t have a strategy — it’s all too complicated. So Putin decided to prepare.”

If Assad’s forces are overrun and the militant-dominated opposition fighters take Damascus, she said, “extremism will spread and Russia’s [overwhelmingly Muslim] underbelly in Central Asia through Afghanistan will be on fire.”


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