Reports of the alleged troop buildup in Syria of a “Russian expeditionary force” to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, first appeared last month (August) in Israeli and Ukrainian online publications. The Kremlin denied these accounts, but seemingly halfheartedly (Kommersant, September 8). On September 4, speaking to journalists in Vladivostok after returning from a visit to Beijing, President Vladimir Putin announced he was working to form “an international coalition to fight ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—more recently renamed the Islamic State, IS]” and has been discussing this over the phone with US President Barack Obama and Middle Eastern leaders. According to Putin, the Russian military command was involved in contacts to organize some cooperation “on the battlefield.” The Islamic State is the main enemy and not the al-Assad regime, Putin insisted, though agreeing that “some political changes in Syria are needed, possibly new parliamentary elections.” While the United States and its allies are bombing IS forces with little effect, according to Putin, Russia is “not yet” ready to join such actions. Moscow is sending al-Assad’s forces arms, munitions and equipment as well as providing training, “while considering other options,” but direct military involvement “is not yet on the table.” Putin several times repeated this “yet” and insisted: “We must act jointly to succeed. If we act unilaterally and quarrel about semi-democratic principles and procedures in these territories, we will end up deadlocked” (Kremlin.ru, September 4).
Last month, at a meeting in Doha, Qatar, with US Secretary of State John Kerry and Arab diplomats, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov promoted the so-called “Putin plan” for the Middle East: the forming of a broad-based international coalition to fight the Islamic State menace. Western and Arab countries that form the present anti-IS coalition must, according to Lavrov, join forces with Kurdish, Iraqi and Syrian government (al-Assad) troops; the Iranians, Hezbollah and Russia may also join. This all-inclusive anti-IS coalition would unite air forces (possibly including Russian) and ground troops. The “Putin plan” implies that the new broad anti-IS coalition must obtain a formal mandate from the United Nations Security Council. With Moscow on board, such a mandate could be forthcoming. In mid-September, Putin plans to address the UN General Assembly, in New York, to promote the anti-IS coalition. However, in Doha, last month’s pitch by Lavrov failed: Both Kerry and his Arab counterparts offered the Russian foreign minister the cold shoulder, since the “Putin plan” is clearly aimed at preserving the al-Assad regime (Kommersant, August 4).
The Kremlin seeks to preserve the al-Assad regime to guarantee continued Russian military and intelligence presence in Syria—the last foothold of a once massive Cold War deployment in the region. Russia has a naval supply base and garrison in Tartus, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. Russian instructors and military advisors are embedded with Syrian forces. In 1984, there were over 9,000 Russian (Soviet) service personnel in Syria—mostly anti-aircraft combat units. While fighting in Syria and Lebanon in the early 1980s, tens of Russian officers, including three generals, perished and hundreds were wounded, according to official Russian defense ministry sources (Militera.lib.ru, 2000).
Today, the Russian deployment in Syria is much smaller—hundreds of personnel—though it includes a combat unit in Tartus in the form of a marine company from Sevastopol. This past August, Moscow increased its shipments of weapons, supplies and munitions to al-Assad’s forces by sea and by air, mostly using an airbase near the coastal city of Latakia. The latest Russian arms shipments have reportedly included small arms, grenade launchers, trucks and Russia’s newest armored personnel carriers (APC)—the BTR-82A, which had been spotted in Syria. Washington has expressed concern: Kerry phoned Lavrov to warn that a Russian buildup of weapons and the reinforcement of al-Assad’s forces would promote more bloodshed, while possible unilateral Russian combat military deployments may risk possible armed clashes with the US-led coalition forces (Kommersant, September 10). The United States has reportedly asked Bulgaria and Greece to close their airspace to Russian overflights to Syria in an apparent attempt to stem military supplies arriving. Greece allowed the flights to continue, but Bulgaria effectively closed its airspace, reportedly demanding that Russian cargo jets land for inspection to prove they are indeed carrying “humanitarian supplies” (Interfax, September 9).
Without Bulgarian consent, the Greek okay is worthless, but Moscow may use an alternative route: over Iran and Iraq. Iran has announced it will allow Russian overflights to Syria. Russia can also use the sea route through the Bosporus, loading weapons and men on Black Sea Fleet land-assault ships, which the Turks cannot board to inspect (Interfax, September 9). Putin’s strategic objective, however, is not to bring several new APCs or other equipment to Syria; these would change little on the battlefield, where al-Assad’s forces are slowly, but surely losing. Putin wants the creation of an anti-IS “broad coalition” that could legitimate and secure President al-Assad. Moreover, Putin wants a broad understanding with Washington and the West: a revamped international antiterrorist coalition could defuse the confrontation over Ukraine, leading to sanctions relief and the eventual tacit recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and domination of the rest of Ukraine as part of the Russkiy Mir (the “Russian World”).
Many in the West seem ready to embrace “Putin’s plan.” Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has arrived in Moscow to meet his old friend Putin to promote a rapprochement between Russia and the West on the basis of jointly fighting the Islamic State. In this mission, Berlusconi reportedly has the support of the present Italian government (Kommersant, September 9). Former French president and leader of the Republican opposition party, Nicolas Sarkozy, declared: “Provoking a new cold war with Russia is a grave mistake. Moscow may help fight ISIS and find a solution in Syria. Putin must return to the G8 and there should be a dialogue” (Vzglad, September 10). To save al-Assad and find a new understanding with the West, Putin could possibly send several jets to join in attacking the Islamic State, but any ground-offensive combat mission in Syria would be unpopular in Russia and so less probable. Russian forces will almost certainly never again reach Cold War levels in Syria. The leaks about the coming massive Russian deployment to Syria could have been orchestrated by the Kremlin itself to blackmail the West into accepting “Putin’s plan” as an alternative to the purported threat of Russia going it alone and causing havoc.