It remains to be seen if Russia will be able to contribute to fighting ISIS in Syria through a more intensive military involvement in the conflict. However, the risks from such operation remain high.

A SU-34 jet performs a demo flight at the MAKS 2015 International Aviation and Space Salon in Zhukovsky outside Moscow. Photo: RIA Novosti

On Sept. 30, the Russian government decided to provide military support to the legitimate Syrian government. That same day it was reported that the Russian Air Force had bombed Syrian rebel positions, sparking heated debate.

Moscow had apparently warned Washington about the “closure of Syrian airspace,” and some media outlets reported civilian causalities in areas controlled by the Western-backed Syrian opposition as a result of the strikes.

Some political scientists were quick to proclaim that Syria would be the cradle of World War III. What is going on? What are Moscow’s objectives in the Middle East and can Russian military aid reverse the situation in Syria? Even more significantly, will it lead to open conflict between Russia and the West?

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Unlike the Western coalition, which operates in Syrian airspace without the consent of Damascus, Russia is there at the invitation of the lawful authorities. The decision to use force in the Middle East was taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin following a formal request made by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and a resolution passed by the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament.

Russia already had a military footprint in the country. According to some media reports, as of September 2015 there were approximately 1,700 service personnel at the port of Tartus. What’s more, the Russian Defense Ministry in early September stationed aircraft at the Hmeimim airbase, which is being used by the Russian Air Force as its center of operations.

In the middle of last month, various Russian media reported an alleged clash between a guerilla group of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and Russian marines guarding the airbase.

It was against that background that immediately following the Russian government’s decision to assist Assad, Russian aircraft went into action. Clearly, the operation had been on the drawing board for months in advance, and everything was in place for the first phase.

What military jets will Russia use to conduct airstrikes against ISIS?

Day One of the operation demonstrated that Russia is not planning to showcase its latest aviation hardware just yet. The raids on ISIS, according to Syrian media, were carried out by Su-24M “workhorses” — two-seater bombers capable of carrying a 7,500 kilogram (16,500 pound) payload, which are also in service with the Syrian Armed Forces.

In addition, the operation saw the use of SS-25 single-seat frontline bombers, which can carry a payload of up to 4,400 kilograms (9,700 pounds). Syria has no such aircraft in service, but other opponents of ISIS do, such as Iraq.

The most modern aircraft so far deployed in Syria are the Su-34 fighter-bomber and Su-30 SM heavy fighter (which postdate the collapse of the Soviet Union). Using data from Syrian intelligence, Russia’s military operations will instead utilize high-tech weaponry, including the most advanced air-to-ground missiles to carry out “surgical strikes.” Although most of this ordnance was developed in Soviet times, it has all been upgraded with satellite navigation and other tools of modern warfare.

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In late 2012 the Russian Armed Forces took delivery of the Kh-38 missile, able to destroy a wide range of targets — from armored vehicles to surface ships. Admittedly, the weapon is designed to be used with the latest Russian aircraft, such as the Su-35, MiG-35 or T-50, of which only the SU-35 has entered service so far. Whether the latest developments of Russian aviation will be given a run in Syria, time will tell.

Militants of the Islamic State group hold up their weapons and wave its flags on their vehicles in a convoy on a road leading to Iraq, while riding in Raqqa city in Syria. Photo: AP

Fueling the hybrid war in Syria

In Syria’s “war of all against all” (in the words of famous British political philosopher Thomas Hobbes), the Kremlin has stated that its operation is directed against terrorism. Nevertheless, it will be difficult to separate the “bad” rebels from the “good” ones.

Moreover, whereas Syrian government forces can wage military operations against all and sundry, the Russian military has to take into account the influential views of the West and Saudi Arabia, which are demanding that their sponsored National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces be left well alone during any air raids.

But no sooner had Russia’s first missiles been fired than reports emerged that residential neighborhoods in areas controlled by the pro-Western opposition had been targeted. In the parallel information war, such statements will always be made regardless of where the truth lies.

That said, it lets the Russian military off the leash to a certain extent, since it can always say that the National Coalition failed to provide information about the placement of its forces, for which reason its positions were hit, since radical Islamists were believed to be operating in the region.

Of course, the pro-Western opposition is unlikely to convey information about its forces to a major ally of Damascus — not even through the Western coalition’s information center in Baghdad. Meanwhile, it is clear that the National Coalition — unable to seize power during three years of civil war — is not the main goal for Russia, however much Moscow supports Damascus.

It is far more important to put an end to the ISIS expansion. However, ISIS has long been a transnational organization, controlling part of Iraqi territory, too. Without the option of destroying ISIS bases outside Syria, Russia’s operation will be insufficient. At present, the Russian Air Force has no agreement to operate in Iraqi airspace.

Russia’s military involvement in Syria: Repeating the West’s mistakes

The Kremlin runs the risk of repeating the mistakes of the Western coalition, whose operation against ISIS has yet to deliver any tangible outcome. The fact is that the radical Islamists have long since adopted the tactics of sabotage and guerrilla warfare.

They have few bases and support centers. Operating in small groups, they “seep” into government-controlled territory. The group’s Achilles’ heel could be the illegal oil trade, but so far the West, Baghdad and Damascus have been powerless to stop it.

Another important factor is the grain trade, since ISIS controls most Iraqi and Syrian crop-growing regions. But will Russian planes really incinerate oil tanks and trucks loaded with grain, and strike large farms and oil fields?

It would no doubt hurt ISIS financially, but involve heavy casualties among the civilian population and provoke indignation in the West. However, Russia would indeed benefit if global prices for two of its major exports increased. The only snag is that such strategy would be ineffective.

A few destroyed caravans and cars will hardly prompt unscrupulous merchants in league with ISIS to think twice. Meanwhile, accurate information in respect of every illegal transport operation is virtually impossible to come by — especially when buyers of cheap oil are plenty and ISIS end customers (via intermediaries) include Damascus itself.

At the same time, a well-coordinated operation involving Syrian ground troops with Russian air support would facilitate the dispersal of rebel forces and the return of key areas to Damascus, which would in any case weaken ISIS and other radical Islamist groups. That would place Russian pilots in harm’s way, but given the militants’ lack of surface-to-air firepower, the risks are manageable.

Political implications of Russian military involvement

The political aspect of Russia’s operation in Syria outweighs the military. Unlike the Western coalition, the Kremlin is operating in full accordance with international law. Its actions are sanctioned by the legitimate government of Syria and targeted against international terrorism, which the West is also fighting.

Read Q&A with Columbia University's Robert Legvold: "Syria is now in the middle of a new, more dangerous Cold War"

According to this logic, Washington and its allies can do nothing but recognize the wisdom of Russia’s actions and agree to share intelligence. To that end, a meeting was promptly scheduled for Oct. 1 between U.S. and Russian military chiefs at the initiative of both sides.

Clearly the participants have to reach an agreement on zones of responsibility and the exchange of information. However, it is unlikely that the Kremlin has official permission to conduct strikes on Iraqi soil, which, as noted above, complicates operations in support of forces loyal to Assad, since the radical Islamists will simply redeploy across the border to regions they control in Iraq.

Yet Moscow has resolved one important issue regarding its support for Damascus. The Western coalition is now very unlikely to strike at government forces, since it could provoke a clash with the Russian Air Force, which is effectively serving as a kind of “umbrella” for the Assad regime.

In addition, the slowly crumbling National Coalition is clearly an ally in name only. During the course of the three-year war, the Syrian government has demonstrated remarkable resilience and vitality, and Russian support over the coming months will only strengthen its positions.

The West is essentially at a fork in the road: either it can admit to being wrong on Syria and grudgingly reconcile itself with Bashar al-Assad, or it can apply force to counter Russian support for Damascus. The latter scenario could see the start of an undeclared war in the Syrian sky, in which Russian planes are shot down by Western air defense systems knowingly supplied to anti-Assad rebels, and U.S. missiles are fired dangerously close to Russian troops.

It would be more advisable for the West to sit tight and see how the situation develops. Will Russia get bogged down in Syria, like the United States did in Iraq and Afghanistan? Are there clearly defined objectives on completion of which the operation will end? One thing is sure: Only through joint efforts can ISIS be stopped and regional stability restored.

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