Since Sept. 19, Moscow has sent almost 30 warplanes — including advanced Su-30SM Flanker fighter jets, Su-24 Fencer bombers and Su-25 Frogfoot ground attackers — to Al Assad International Airport in Syria’s northwestern Latakia province. While a dramatic turn of events, the deployment is only part of a massive buildup of Russian men and materiel in the country that became particularly visible at the end of August.
It’s clear Moscow is making important moves. Figuring out the Kremlin’s actual objectives is a more difficult proposition.
The Russians “likely have both minimum and maximum goals in Syria,” Paul Schwartz, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, posited to War Is Boring in an email. “It indicates that Russia probably had serious concerns about the ability of the Assad regime to hold on to what it still has, much less to recapture lost territory.”
Still, authorities in Moscow and Damascus insist that Russian forces are not actively warring with Islamic State or other rebel groups fighting to unseat Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad.
“I think it’s fair to say, … at this point that we still do not have an entirely clear picture of exactly what the Russians are hoping to do in Syria,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters during a daily press conference on Sept. 22. “We are hoping to further that dialogue if there is an opportunity for them to engage in the counter-ISIL fight.”
“For the moment … it is the judgment of our military and most experts that the level and type represents basically force protection, a level of protection for their deployment to an air base, given the fact that it is in an area of conflict,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at a different gathering on the same day. Kerry did not elaborate or speculate on what the new Russian elements were guarding at the base or the nature of Moscow’s overall mission in the country.
But whatever is going on, it’s safe to say things are now even more complicated in a region devastated by years of civil war, terrorism and mass exodus.
“At a minimum, they are looking to shore up the Assad regime,” Schwartz said. Moscow would want “to make sure that at least some part of Syria continues to survive under that regime should the country break up into different pieces.”
The Kremlin’s support of Assad is nothing new. In 1971, the Soviet Union cut a deal with Bashar’s father, Hafez Al Assad, to make use of port facilities in Tartus. Hafez had overthrown the Syrian government just months before signing the agreement.
With these piers on the Syrian coast, the Russian navy has a small but friendly way station in the Mediterranean — and direct naval access to one of its closest Middle East allies. The Kremlin has refused to support any peace deals, ceasefires or other “road maps” that might boot Assad from office.
“They are also seeking to counter ISIS, which has of late been making inroads in subverting Russia’s Muslim population in the North Caucasus,” Schwartz explained.
This isn’t a major departure from Russian policy. In the past four years, Moscow has sold warplanes, gunship helicopters and other heavy and light weaponry to Damascus. “The arms being sent to the Syrian army are for the purpose of countering terrorist threats that have reached insurmountable sizes in Syria and neighboring Iraq,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said.
But starting at the end of August, the Kremlin appeared to ramp up the number and size of the shipments.
“The forces provided by Hezbollah and Iran have not been sufficient to counter the growing strength of Assad’s adversaries in Syria,” Schwartz said. “[This] should not be too surprising given that the Sunni population in Syria vastly outnumbers the Alawites,” he added, referring to the minority sect which forms Assad’s power base.
In early September, independent monitoring groups and individuals began posting pictures on social media showing Russian ships laden with armored vehicles and other military equipment on their way south from bases in the Black Sea. In September, the Bosphorus Naval News blog counted seven Russian landing ships heading south, along with the destroyer Smetlivy and the intelligence gathering vessel Donuzlav.
More curiously, a video surfaced appearing to show Russian advisers either training or fighting with Syrian troops.
Then came the warplanes, as well as Mi-24 Hind gunships, heavily armed Mi-17 transports and surface-to-air missile batteries. Before the armada touched down in Latakia, Assad reportedly handed over the base at Al Assad under the terms of a dormant 35-year-old friendship treaty, according to a report from the London-based, Saudi-owned newspaper Al Hayat.
Don’t forget ground troops. American defense and security company Stratfor had already released satellite imagery showing what appeared to be clusters of T-90 main battle tanks and BTR armored vehicles at a motor pool near the airstrip. A half-dozen howitzers had sprung up near the runway. The American firm obtained the shots in partnership with AllSource Analysis — another private research group — from Airbus Defense and Space.
On Sept. 15, another video showed up on YouTube reportedly showing Russian tankers and other personnel in Latakia.
But despite this unconfirmed footage and Stratfor’s labeling, it’s difficult to tell if Russian or Syrian troops are in charge of the vehicles. After seeing Moscow’s methods in disputed regions of Ukraine, Russian “volunteers” nominally integrated with Syria’s military could take this armored fleet — and the warplanes and choppers — out on operations against any number of groups.
“There are Russian military personnel in Syria, they have been there for several years,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov casually admitted at a press conference on Sept. 10. “Russian military personnel are there in order to help the Syrians master the equipment and prepare it for use in the anti-terrorist fight.”
“I would take these reports with a grain of salt,” Schwartz said of reports that Moscow’s soldiers were out on the front lines in Syria. “It is more likely at this point that some may be embedded in Syrian combat units to act as military advisers.”
Regardless of who owns the planes and the tanks, Russian troops don’t have to do anything to add a new and potentially dangerous wrinkle to an already painfully complex situation. Just being there changes the calculus.
And that could easily be the Kremlin’s grand design.
“Their larger goals are to deter establishment of a safe zone in Syria, to deter foreign intervention intended to force Assad’s removal and to make sure their interests are taken into account in whatever settlement ultimately emerges in Syria,” Schwartz said. “They also may hope to convince the U.S. and its Middle East partners to work with Russia as part of a broader coalition to defeat ISIS, hoping that in the process this would move the former to shift their policy away from unseating Assad.”
By just threatening to get in the way the Pentagon’s ongoing aerial bombardment, Moscow has forced Washington to pick up the phone and chat. On Sept. 18, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter dialed up his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoygu to ask, among other things, what was going on in Syria, according to an official press release.
Going by archived statements, the last time Shoygu got a call of any note from the Pentagon was more than year ago. In August 2014, Chuck Hagel had got on the line to complain about Russian actions in Ukraine.
The possibility of Moscow’s jets in the skies and troops on the ground opens up the possibility for all sorts of dangerous incidents as Washington tries to get a grip on its strategy in both Syria and Iraq. An American-led coalition is currently bombing both countries.
In Iraq, the presence of coalition warplanes is having a major effect on how Islamic State operates. But in Syria, efforts to follow-up the strikes with trained rebels on the ground have failed disastrously, with dozens of Western-backed troops surrendering and turning over their weapons to the Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra, according to multiple media reports.
American commandos have launched at least two raids into the country. In July 2014, special operators failed during an attempt to rescue foreign hostages, including American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid work Peter Kassig. Islamic State later murdered these men and others.
Almost a year later, commandos sneaked into eastern Syria. In the raid, the elite troops captured an Islamic State leader known as Abu Sayyaf and his wife.
While Moscow’s force might still be relatively small, the Pentagon will have to include Russian troops — advisers or otherwise — into the risk assessments for any air strikes or commando missions. The long-range SAMs might make coalition pilots even more cautious than normal.
“I would not be surprised if U.S. and Russian officials are talking about this very topic in great detail,” Schwartz said. “But incidents and encounters cannot be ruled out, so the two may also be discussing ways to limit their respective areas of operations to specific regions.”
The Pentagon is hardly unfamiliar with how frustrating these restrictions can be for commanders. During the Vietnam War, fearing a broader war, the Pentagon imposed strict rules during bombing runs to prevent pilots from inadvertently killing Soviet or Chinese trainers.
America’s allies might run into similar problems, too. Most notably, Turkey is bombing both Islamic State and the Kurdish Workers’ Party — better known by the acronym PKK — along its shared borders with Syria and Iraq.
“This is very dangerous,” Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said of Moscow’s buildup during a televised interview on Sept. 21. “God willing, Russia will not insist on ways and methods that will increase the tension.”
After four long years of fighting, Syria has many more factions and bad actors with their own agendas and goals. Adding Russian forces to the mix is hardly guaranteed to be a stabilizing turn of events.
Washington and its allies could possibly work to find common ground with Russia on the situation, Schwartz pointed out. But this would likely require the United States to give up one of its core demands — whether Assad stays or goes.
“At the current time, there is no indication that this shift is happening,” Schwartz said.
With Russian troops on the ground, the Kremlin might not see any reason to give up its friend any time soon, either.