The Kremlin appears to be stepping up its role in the Syrian crisis, possibly laying the groundwork for a new strategy against ISIS in the region.


A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during fighting with the Syrian Army in Azaz, Syria. Photo: AP

The news of Russian troops appearing across Syria has appeared in numerous media outlets around the world in recent days. Some suggested that just as in previous years, Russian specialists are merely training Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army to use Russian equipment that Moscow keeps sending to Syria, while others went as far as to suggest that newly-arrived Russians are fighting on the front lines alongside the Syrian army.

Only a few months ago, a variety of reports suggested that Russia could have been changing its Syria strategy and was about to abandon Assad. Several Arab newspapers, for instance, reported in late spring that Russia withdrew its diplomatic staff from Damascus and stopped honoring its agreement with Syria to maintain Russian-made fighter jets.

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The two facts offer a very different perspective on what Vladimir Putin’s intentions with regards to Syria are. So what is Moscow really doing in Syria and are Russian soldiers really fighting for Assad?

Despite a handful of reports claiming that Russian troops were seen taking part in action in Syria, engaging in direct fighting is off the table for the Kremlin, at least for now. First, Moscow can’t afford another major deployment of troops, both financially and politically. After Ukraine, Moscow knows the price of such a policy all too well.

The U.S. reaction to initial reports of Russia boosting its presence in Syria was quite harsh. White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested that Russia’s involvement would lead to an escalation in the conflict and even to direct confrontation with the coalition taking on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). Direct involvement in this crisis is also risky due to Western sanctions that theoretically could be toughened over Syria.

In order to achieve meaningful results on the ground, Russia would need to send thousands of well-trained troops to Syria as well as a significant amount of military equipment. Presently there are well less than one thousand of Russian personnel operating in the country, and judging by recent images of Russian landing ships crossing the Bosphorus, only a handful of trucks and armored personnel carriers. The financial burden of engaging in fighting in order to help Assad’s army regain ground without any guarantee would be extremely heavy on the Russian budget.

But probably the most important reason why Russia would think twice before sending its troops into battle in Syria is that it would certainly be used for PR purposes in Russia’s North Caucasus by ISIS to recruit new Russian-speaking fighters. But it would be even more detrimental to the Kremlin if ISIS captured a Russian soldier in Syria whose brutal execution would set large groups of Russians against the Kremlin’s irresponsible strategy.

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What is Russia’s goal in Syria?

There is no denial that in recent months Russia has slightly intensified arms deliveries to the Assad government. In fact, the latest data shows that in the first 8 months of 2015 Russian southbound landing crafts passed the Bosphorus 39 times, compared to 36 times in the same period of 2014. The reason why these deliveries are making so much noise this time is that the cargo on these ships is being transported on the top deck, most times under covers but sometimes even out in the open.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also confirmed that Moscow continues to provide military equipment per previously signed contracts; in addition, Moscow continues to send Russian military specialists to train the Syrian army to use this equipment. Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, also noted that if more Russian support for the fight against ISIS in Syria were needed, Moscow would be ready to consider providing it.

Some reports suggest that most equipment that Russia delivers to Syria these days is intended for the military base in Latakia. According to some sources, Russia and Syria reactivated the 1980 “friendship” treaty that sees Moscow taking over the Latakia air base.

Russia has reportedly delivered its newest BTR-82A armored personnel carriers (APCs), Ural trucks and shipments of firearms to the Syrian government. It has also allegedly started assembling prefabricated buildings for 1,000 military specialists in Latakia. As well, Russia could be setting up a mobile air traffic control unit.

If true, Russia’s decision to take over the air base in Latakia could be interpreted within its attempts to establish a broad anti-ISIS coalition that would include both the Syrian government and Iran. While it is still unclear what the outcome of the negotiating process is, Moscow may be taking steps to prepare the ground for a possible joint operation against IS. The Russian-controlled air base could be used by the coalition to launch air strikes against ISIS or as a stopover. This way, at least publicly, Western governments would have to deal with Russia instead of Assad.

By increasing its military presence in Syria, Russia may also be raising the ante in the ongoing negotiating process, in which so far Moscow’s sole strength was its amicable relationship with the Assad government. By setting up a fully operational air base in the Alawite stronghold of Latakia Russia hopes to match U.S. military capabilities in Syria and boost its standing by having actual military specialists on the ground.

It is highly misleading to say that Russian forces take part in fighting in Syria or that Moscow’s strategy is something out of the ordinary. Russia has been continuously delivering cargo to Syria, both humanitarian and military.

While the frequency of deliveries likely increased in recent weeks, it was probably done intentionally ahead of Vladimir Putin’s visit to the UN General Assembly later in September. While it’s not yet clear what statements regarding Syria he might make at the UN, Vladimir Putin may propose a new format for the U.S.-led coalition in which Assad would have a role to play and Russia would provide logistic support.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.