October 5, 2015

Russia's “Syrian Gambit” — the East Is a Delicate Thing

Despite the fact that the socio-economic problems in Russia keep growing and are becoming critical, its leadership remains committed to adventurism in foreign policy. Continuing its military aggression against Ukraine and thus exacerbating its relations with the West, Moscow is “diving” deeper and deeper into another armed conflict, this time in Syria on the side of B. Assad's regime (of anti-American and anti-Israeli orientation).

Even before the 2012's unrest in the country, Moscow had traditionally supported the regime of Bashar al-Assad, one of Russia's traditional partners in the Middle East. For example, in exchange for support of Russian interests in that region, Moscow kept supplying Syria with weapons and ensured their use. In its turn, Russia got an opportunity to place in the port of Tartus its Navy logistics center (the one and only on the Mediterranean Sea), and a powerful electronic intelligence center near the Israeli border.

When the armed confrontation in Syria began, and the USA and its partners' pressure on it intensified, Russia activated significantly its assistance to B. Assad both, in the political sphere (including within the framework of the UN), and in terms of significant increase in military supplies to answer the needs of the Syrian security forces. For this they use large landing ships of the Black Sea Fleet and other Russian Fleets, commercial cargo ships (including the ones under foreign flags), as well as aircrafts of military transport aviation and the Air Force and of the Ministry of Emergency Situations of the Russian Federation (including the air transporters of the super-heavy class — An-124 “Ruslan”).

At the same time, until recently in Syria there stayed a relatively small number of Russian military servicemen, first of all the staff of the RF Navy logistics center and Russia's center of electronic intelligence, as well as professional services of military equipment and experts-instructors and representatives of special services, who do not take a direct participation in hostilities.

Since the beginning of August this year, the situation has changed fundamentally, and Russia directly participates in the armed conflict in Syria. In particular, in late August — early September Russia sent to Syria units of its airborne troops, as well as an Air Assault Battalion of the 810th Separate Marine Brigade and an Engineer Company of the 68th Separate Marine Engineering Regiment of Coastal Forces of the Black Sea Fleet.

At the same time, the RF throws over military equipment, including T-90 tanks, armored personnel carriers BTR-82A, self-propelled artillery systems “Gvozdika”, KAMAZ vehicles, GAZ-66 armored transporters “Tiger”, unmanned aerial vehicles “Eleron-3CB” and “Pchela-1T”, stations EW P-330P “Piramida”, as well as small arms with ammunition.

Besides, simultaneously with conventional weapons, for the needs of the Syrian government troops, Russia handed over to B. Assad's regime several dozens of combat aircrafts and helicopters.

Under the order of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Russians have started choosing and sending to Syria pilots and airfield technical staff of the Fourth Army of the Air Force and Air Defense of the Southern Military District of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.

In Syria have always arrived (by various ways) many Russian mercenaries (according to the Israeli and Arab media — a few thousand people), from illegal armed groups in the East of Ukraine included. According to Ukrainian and international experts' estimates, this is one of the reasons for the significant reduction in the intensity of hostilities in the conflict zone of the Donbas.

At this, the Russian leadership does not hide strengthening its military activity in Syria, explaining it by “...the implementation of previously signed contracts for the supply of arms and military equipment to the Syrian side,” “...Russia's inalienable rights to conduct military exercises in the Mediterranean Sea”, as well as by “...the need for the Russian Federation's joining the international efforts to counteract the Islamic extremism”.

At this, having carefully analyzed the situation around the Syrian problem, “Borysfen Intel's” analysts have come to the preliminary conclusion that Moscow pursues more serious purposes in this issue.

Firstly, Russia is trying to prevent the fall of B. Assad's regime, which is invariably losing its positions due to the active offensive actions of the Syrian opposition and the armed forces of the “Islamic State” and pressure on it from the United States, the EU and their partners from the region. Thus, today, the Syrian government forces have lost control over most of the country except Damask and the coastal province of Latakia inhabited mainly by Shiite population (Alawites) supporting Assad, as well as a number of individual central and southern regions.

In this regard, the Russian military units in Syria perform tasks on defense of the logistics point of the Russian Federation's Navy in Tartous and of strategically important objects of the Syrian regime. Besides, they are implementing a comprehensive program for restoration, modernization and expansion of the airfield network in the territories controlled by B. Assad's, to be used to provide air transportation of Russian cargo to Syria and to base military aviation (both, the Russian Air Force, and the Syrian government forces).

The largest of these bases is being built at the airfield near Latakia, where they are upgrading and modernizing airfield technical equipment, building a new runway, parking areas for planes and helicopters and a residential town for 1.5 thousand people. To protect the air base, there have been delivered about 10 T-90 tanks, 30 armored personnel carriers, 15 howitzers and air defense systems. Besides, they are expanding capabilities of the international airport of Damascus, and of the aerodromes Al Hamidi in the southern province of Tartous and Jableh — in the west of Syria.

Russian military experts provide repair and maintenance of the Syrian Army's military equipment of the Russian (Soviet) production. They also provide assistance in training of the Syrian military. September 30 (the day when the Federation Council allowed the Kremlin to conduct military operations on the territory of foreign states), Russian combat aircrafts began air strikes on positions of rebels and Islamists.

Russian mercenaries are also directly involved in the fighting in Syria on the side of B. Assad's regime, in particular near Damask and at strategic defensive positions on the borders of the provinces of Latakia and Homs. At this, they quite actively use the Russian military equipment (including modern samples), which Russia supplies to Syria.

Secondly, directly interfering in the Syrian armed conflict, Russia is trying to demonstrate its readiness to cooperate with the West in the struggle against the spread of Islamic extremism in the Middle East and creation de facto of prerequisites for that. Thus, V. Putin's regime is trying to improve its international image and to “restore” its relations (which have deteriorated significantly as a result of Russia's armed aggression against Ukraine) with the USA and EU.

That is what the Kremlin has in mind, putting forward the initiative to create (with its participation) a broad international coalition to combat the “Islamic State”. At this, the Russians offer the United States and the EU to take the Ukrainian issue out of “brackets” of their relations with Russia in order to work together to solve “more important issues” affecting vital interests of both the parties (including activation of the IS in the North Caucasus of the Russian Federation).

Using these approaches, the Russian government is trying to pave the way for lifting of Western sanctions imposed against the RF and to force the USA and the EU together to put pressure on Ukraine to ensure that it complied with Russia's conditions of “settlement” of the conflict in the Donbas. Russia hopes that the West will also recognize “the Crimea's belonging to Russia”. For Moscow, all this is especially important because of the critical deterioration of the economic situation in the country.

Thirdly, interfering in the situation in Syria, Russia has an opportunity to implement now in the Syrian territory the previously tested “strategy of support of the managed conflicts in the former Soviet territories”. With the help of this method provoking the large-scale flow of refugees to Europe from the combat zone in Syria, the Russian leadership is using an additional lever of influence on the European countries. This today's problem has been considered by most EU countries as one of the main threats to their security, — greater than consequences of Russia's armed aggression against Ukraine. This way Moscow is distracting the European Union's attention from the Ukrainian issue, trying also to create additional “common ground” with the West.

The controlled conflict in Syria also increases Russia's ability to influence the implementation of energy projects in the region that do not meet the Russian Federation's interests. In particular, this refers to long-term plans for construction of new gas pipelines via the Syrian territory from the Middle East to the Mediterranean. The development by Israel and the EU of strong gas fields in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea near the island of Cyprus is getting complicated too.

Fourthly, Russia's combat actions in Syria are giving V. Putin's regime a good information excuse to distract Russian population's attention from Ukraine, as Russians are getting increasingly disillusioned with the Kremlin's policy. In particular, as compared with last year, today the number of supporters of the Russian annexation of the Crimea has decreased from 70 % to 59 % and tends to further decline. At the same time, the number of those who oppose Russia's military actions in Ukraine is more than 70 %. In turn, this is reflected in the rating of Vladimir Putin, which fell from 89 % to 83 % during August-September this year alone. All this is forcing the Russian leadership to find a new form of maintaining the neo-imperial (and, accordingly, the pro-government) moods of the Russian population. The events in Syria are that form.

At the same time, Russia's direct intervention in the Syrian conflict provokes a number of significant threats to the Russian Federation itself.

Thus, support for B. Assad's regime, and especially strengthening of the Russian military presence on the Syrian territory and the development of appropriate infrastructure demand from Russia quite large financial resources, further exacerbating its budget problems.

Another negative issue, sensitive to the Putin regime, is the injuries and deaths of Russian military servicemen in Syria. According to Middle East News Agencies, as a result of the IS militants' attacks on the Russian military facilities on Syrian territory, since the beginning of September dozens of Russian marines, paratroopers and special forces of the GRU of the General Staff have been killed. Besides, a significant number of Russian military equipment has been destroyed, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters and even a few military transport aircraft.

This is evidenced by the arrival in Sevastopol of “cargo-200” from Syria. The Russian leadership usually silences such facts, but they always cause a loud resonance in the Russian society, getting especially aggravated in the situation of the already incurred losses of Russian troops in Ukraine.

Such losses will increase, as the Islamic extremists are planning to expand the armed struggle in Syria. At this, the leaders of the “Islamic State” have made a special statement on the intention to direct their actions on the Syrian territory directly against the Russian military contingent and to create for Russia “another Donbas” and a “second Afghanistan”. In their address to the soldiers' mothers of Russia, they put all the responsibility for Russia's irresponsible and adventurist policy on Putin, who makes Russian soldiers die for someone else's interests.

In fact, due to the “Islamic State's” having declared jihad to Putin's regime for his support of B. Assad, the war in Syria is being transferred to the territory of Russia. This is evidenced by activation of subversive and terrorist activities of Islamic extremists in the North Caucasus, forcing the Russian leadership in order to stabilize the situation in the region, to divert resources, in particular from Ukraine. Like in the first and second Chechen wars, we should expect intensification of subversive and terrorist activities of Islamic extremists in other regions of the Russian Federation. Especially because in the armed formations of the IS there are up to five thousand Russian citizens who can return home.


Does the Russian leadership realize these problems? Of course, it does. However, it may still hope to block them by achieving the above-mentioned objectives, the main of which is the renewal of relations between Russia and the United States.

There are no grounds for such hopes to come true. The USA is not set to “exchange Ukraine for Syria” (as it was not going to do it with Iran), nor to create any individual coalitions with Russia to solve the Syrian problem. In this regard, the USA offers Moscow to join the existing international coalition against the IS and promise V. Putin's regime new sanctions for its support of B. Assad.

These Russia's actions in Syria confirm the Russian leadership's policy of adventurism and irresponsibility and its being unable to predict possible consequences. That is, like in the case of the armed aggression against Ukraine, Russia falls into another geopolitical trap, which only complicates its domestic and international situation.

By the way, against the background of the Russia's population's falling confidence in the policy of the Russian Federation's leadership, more than 60 countries are in favor of depriving Russia of the right of veto in the UN Security Council.