What are Russia’s intentions in Syria? In military matters, it is best to look at capabilities, writes Professor Dr Amatzia Baram.
In recent weeks, Russian troops have been busy refurbishing an airbase near Latakia and port facilities at Tartus, both on Syria’s western coast. Russian marines have deployed at the airbase, equipped with T-90 tanks, some artillery and up to 20 BTR-82A armoured personnel carriers.
It is clear that these forces, even if reinforced, suffice only to protect the new assets near Latakia, rather than to push the Islamist opposition back into the desert. Even so, they are badly needed to bolster government forces in the area, where the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad has already made inroads among the population – about 40 per cent of whom are Sunni.
The air component is more substantial: 12 Su-24 medium-range bombers, 12 Su-25 ground support aircraft, four Su-30 multipurpose fighters and four Su-34 strike fighters, plus 15 helicopters and two batteries of ground-to-air missiles. It is unlikely all this firepower is intended for local defence. Judging from the September 30 airstrikes on the inland cities of Homs, Hama and Idlib, this force is targeted at the anti-Assad forces in Western Syria, with the idea of supporting a government ground offensive deeper into opposition-held territory.
There is no evidence this offensive is necessarily directed against Islamic State, whose main strongholds are much farther to the east. Russian officials insisted several times in September that Islamic State would not be the sole target. President Vladimir Putin, in his request to parliament to authorise military operations, referred simply to ‘terrorists,’ presumably meaning any Islamist opposition he considers dangerous to Assad’s government.
Russia appears to have two objectives in Syria, for which the fight against Islamic State serves as useful cover.
One is tilting the military balance back towards the exhausted Syrian army, by providing air support more effective than anything the regime’s depleted aviation can muster. This may not suffice to win back Central and Eastern Syria, but it could repel the opposition in the northwest and protect the vital road connecting the Alawite area with Damascus.
The other goal is of even greater value to Russia: regaining a military presence in the eastern Mediterranean. Mr Putin had been pressuring President Assad to reestablish Tartus as a naval logistical base for years, but the Syrian leader dithered. Now, with his military crumbling, Mr Assad is ready to pay for his deliverance. At long last the Russian president will be able to restore the Soviet-era Fifth (Mediterranean) Fleet, which was withdrawn to the Black Sea in 1992 as a cost-saving measure. In his competition with the United States, Mr Putin regards this foothold as a necessary counterbalance to the American Sixth Fleet. Russia may also be able to force Mr Assad to allow the construction of a new naval base at Banias, midway between Tartus and Lanakia.
Mr Putin is less worried about Islamic State in particular than by the threat posed to Russia by Islamic groups in general. For him, the remedy is supporting secular leaders like Mr Assad – a tactic that also happens to be congruent with his other interests.
Russia’s military actions to date appear to have the limited aim of maintaining the land bridge between the Alawite regions in the northwest and Damascus. It is far from clear that Russia is ready to take serious military or political risks to secure the Syrian capital, let alone territory farther south – even if they are important to Mr Assad’s rule. It should be pointed out that southwestern Syria is vital to the government’s other key allies, Iran and Hezbollah, which depend on support bases in Lebanon.
Recently, an unusual Russian special-forces detachment arrived in Damascus. The Zaslon [Screen] unit is attached to Russia’s SVR, or Foreign Intelligence Service. Its most recent analogous deployment was to Baghdad in February 2003, when the Russians got wind of the impending US-led invasion of Iraq. Zaslon’s job then was to evacuate the embassy, retrieve sensitive equipment and burn any documents they could not ship out. This raises interesting questions about its purpose in Damascus.
Mr Putin’s resources are too scant to ‘liberate’ Syria. What he can do is protect President Assad and his Alawite strongholds along the coastal mountains, and perhaps hang on to Damascus. This way Russia bolsters its negotiating position. Even if Moscow eventually decides that Mr Assad must go, a strong territorial base should allow a hard core of the pro-Assad elite to stay in power. And unlike the opposition, they will be keen on keeping the Russian fleet close by.