Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1263, (17 - 30 September 2015)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1263, (17 - 30 September 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Russia tempts fate

With Russia airlifting men and materiel to Syria, it seems the country has not learned from its 1980s experience in Afghanistan, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly


The Russians have long shipped military hardware to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, but they have tended to keep quiet about it. Now they are no longer trying to cover their tracks.
Over the past two weeks, Russia has sent sophisticated weapons along with troops and military experts to Syria. According to local activists, Moscow is also building a modern airbase inside Latakia Airport in the country’s Alawite heartland.

According to Reuters, Moscow is sending an advanced anti-aircraft missile system, the SA-WW, to Syria which will be operated by Russian personnel, according to Western officials.

Syrian sources say the Russians are building an observation tower and housing facilities for their personnel at Latakia Airport. They add that Russian cargo planes have brought in sizeable amounts of military hardware to Latakia, just as Russian navy units have landed infantry troops at a base in Tarsus.

US officials say the Russians are sending men and materiel to Syria, but that their intentions are not clear. Lebanese sources told Reuters that Russian troops have begun participating in combat operations with the Syrian army. Earlier reports spoke of the Russians delivering six MiG planes to the regime, a move that observers fear may exacerbate the ongoing conflict.

Moscow has not reacted to the reports, but Western capitals are said to have refused to allow Russian cargo planes to overfly their territory on their way to Syria.

The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, speaking in Moscow, said that his country is sending military hardware to Syria to help the Al-Assad regime fight the Islamic State (IS) group. But the dispatch of anti-aircraft missiles to the regime does not seem to bolster this claim, as IS has no aircraft.
Over the past few months, Russian officials have urged Syrians, both from the regime and the government, to unite against IS, a position that has been less than convincing for the opposition.

Lavrov admitted that Russia is airlifting Russian servicemen to Syria, claiming that they will be training the military on the new hardware. He did not specify the number of Russian troops involved in the effort.

The US position on the Russian moves has been cautious. US President Barack Obama said that Moscow’s support of Al-Assad is “unhelpful,” but didn’t delineate a US reaction to the moves.
Syrian opposition member Sayeed Moqbil believes the Russians must be acting with US acquiescence, however. “I find it hard to believe that the Russian military presence in Syria is taking place without US knowledge and blessings,” he said.

Moqbil said that the Russians should have known better than to become more involved in the conflict. “The Afghan and Iraqi cases among others show that direct foreign intervention fails and can only lead to massive losses,” he added.
Georges Sabra, a key figure in the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), says the Russians are stepping into the void the Americans have left behind.

“The main task of the Russian mission is not to fight terror but to keep Al-Assad in power. Moscow is filling the US void in the region,” Sabra said. He added that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to “use Syria as a bargaining chip in talks with the Americans about Ukraine.”

Some analysts have suggested that the Russian intervention is an indirect message to Iran that Moscow cannot allow it to have the upper hand in Syria. According to this view, the Russians are trying to position themselves in an advantageous position ahead of a period of end-game diplomacy.

Khaled Al-Nasser, a key NCSROF figure, said that Russia wants to accomplish by “military means” what it has failed to achieve through “diplomatic means.” The Russians “want to break Iran’s hold on the regime, so that they can have a say in the upcoming settlement,” Al-Nasser said.

Louay Safi, a NCSROF spokesman, believes that the Russians want to help the regime carve off a mini-state in the coastal area of the country. “The recent Russian move is all about creating a sectarian pocket along the Syrian coast in case Al-Assad and his clique have to pull out of Damascus,” he said.
According to Safi, the Russians are now building a bridgehead to enable them to move more “Russian troops into the coastal areas whenever needed.”

The regime, Safi said, wants the Russians to offer this kind of protection, as the Iranians — if given that role — would impose a tight religiosity on it that the Alawites could not possibly tolerate.
“They may be allied with Iran, but Al-Assad and his cronies will not be able to live under the stifling moral code” that Iran supports, Safi added.

Russian diplomats have been trying to put together a regional alliance against IS, with the Iranians and Saudis working together, but the idea has not taken off. In recent talks in Washington, Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz told Obama that the real sponsor of terror in Syria is Al-Assad and that removing him from power would be the first step towards defeating IS.

Syrian opposition members, who have long been sceptical about Moscow’s intentions, are incensed by the Russian deployment in the coastal areas. “Russia has spared no efforts in deceiving, dividing, and maligning the Syrian opposition, and now it has shown its true face,” Al-Nasser said.
With its boots on the ground, Moscow has now upped the ante in Syria. This may help it improve its odds at the negotiating table if the endgame in the country is near. But it may also, as those who remember the former Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s have noted, be tempting fate.

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