Russia Sending More Weapons, Possibly Troops to Syria

Photo composition by Thursday Review

Photo composition by Thursday Review

Russia Sending More Weapons, Possibly Troops to Syria
| published September 18, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Top Russian officials call the military build-up inside Syria “defensive in nature,” but U.S. intelligence experts and international military analysts say that Moscow’s rapidly escalating interest in Syria is anything but defensive.

According to news reports from the Associated Press and Reuters, Russian President Vladimir Putin is weighing additional options for intervention in Syria, including the possibility of sending Russian troops to assist the Syrian Army in its multiple fights against ISIS and anti-Bashar al-Assad rebel groups.

This comes on top of revelations on Thursday and Friday that the Syrian army has taken delivery of eight new Russian helicopters—four of them state-of-the-art attack choppers, the other four are fully-armed transport and infantry insertion helicopters. NBC News and other sources are reporting that the arrival of the helicopters has been observed using satellite imagery and drone photographs, and has been verified by intelligence sources on the ground in Damascus. The helicopters have arrived along with a contingent of Russian personnel charged with training the Syrians in the use of the attack choppers.

Putin’s consideration of adding ground forces to the region comes only days and weeks after Russia delivered numerous other heavy weapons to Damascus, including fighter aircraft, artillery and ground-based rockets. Moscow has also sent more than conventional weapons, according to some military analysts; reports from both the Middle East and from sources in Russia say that Putin also authorized sending new, state-of-the-art weapons, though those same sources are unclear on what capability the “new” weapons might have.

In addition, some news sources in Europe and in Russia are reporting that Putin is strongly considering sending additional fighter jets to Syria. The delivery of the fighters could take place as early as next week. Satellite photos also show Russian naval vessels engaged in “exercises” in the Mediterranean Sea just off the west coast of Syria. Among the Russian ships engaged in the Mediterranean: five or six guided missile cruisers, and at least two destroyers.

Taken as a whole, military experts say, the heavy Russian build-up indicates a distinct pattern—and more importantly, an intention by Moscow to intervene directly in the war in Syria.

One uncomfortable and dangerous possibility, according to some weapons experts, is that Putin is using the Syrian army to field-test high-tech ground-based, aerial, and infantry weapons which might later be used in conflicts along Russia’s long western frontier with Eastern Europe. Russia has been supporting a nearly two-year old militant army fighting inside the Ukraine, a civil war which has now cost the lives of more than 13,000 people and which has effectively cut the nation in half. Some NATO analysts have suggested for months that Russia has been developing a new range of weaponry for deployment among infantry and mobile artillery units—all part of a long-range plan to prepare Russia for possible military interventions in Eastern Europe. What better theater in which to test the effectiveness of these weapons than in Syria, where the real world conditions of actual battle play-out on a daily basis.

But aside from the possibility that the Russian weapons are part of a massive field-testing, many foreign policy analysts see Putin’s recent interventions on behalf of Assad as a direct and brazen attempt to gain a strategic foothold in the Middle East, and use that to exert control over an area rich in both oil and strategic importance. To Syria’s north is Turkey, a key NATO ally and a crucial bulwark—for now—against the spread of the Islamic State into Europe.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem told some reporters this week that Russian troops and military advisors have been training Syrian Army units in the use of the weapons in ground operations, and that he expected these weapons to be game-changers in the near future. Al-Moualem also confirmed that there are discussions at the highest levels in Damascus and in Moscow regarding the possibility of Russian troops fighting alongside Syrians in the Middle East. Al-Moualem’s statement seems to contradict comments by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, who by phone told U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Thursday that the weapons build-ups and the possible troop deployments were entirely defensive.

Syria’s bloody civil war is now in its fifth year and shows little sign of abating. The war has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of lives, and has also spawned one of the biggest humanitarian crises of the century, with some 2.5 million Syrian refugees on the move across Turkey, and hundreds of thousands now migrating across Eastern and Western Europe.

Putin’s recent bold interventions into Syria, and the talk of an escalation in Russian support—including ground forces—complicates an already deeply fractured region now being torn apart by civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, also commonly called ISIS. The United States and its allies in the region, including the U.K., Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and others have been waging a continuous air war against ISIS in Syria and in Iraq. Debate continues to rage over the effectiveness of that air campaign, which in some regions has stopped or slowed the growth of ISIS, but in many areas has done little to dislodge ISIS from the towns and cities now under its control. The U.S. is also offering limited backing to Kurds in northern Iraq in their ground fight against ISIS, and has deployed more than 2,200 U.S. personnel to Baghdad and nearby areas to retrain the Iraqi army in its fight with ISIS.

Islamic State territorial control extends to about 40% of both Syria and Iraq, including areas in both countries along the borders with Turkey, in the north, and Jordan, in the south and west. White House officials and Pentagon spokespersons have denounced Russia’s recent interventions in Syria, and worry that more firepower will further de-stabilize an already fragmented region. There are also fears that by supplying Bashir al-Assad with more weapons, especially high-tech weapons, Assad’s armies will be able to quickly escalate its fights with rebel groups.

But what most worries intelligence analysts and foreign policy experts in the U.S. is that Putin may be seeking to inject his will within the complex and often volatile region of the Middle East. Syria shares borders not only with Turkey, but also with Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel, in the south.

Carter’s phone conversation with Shoygu has been described by Pentagon press spokespersons as “constructive” and geared toward the “shared desire for de-escalation,” but many analysts believe that the core of that talk may have included worries by Carter that Russia will precipitate heightening violence in Syria. Russia has asked for cooperation with the United States in its military efforts, and has urged U.S. collaboration to avoid “unintended incidents.”

Recent satellite imagery of the area around the large port city of Latakia shows the military build-up operating at full speed, with new images each day of weapons and equipment being offloaded from ships to docks—vehicles, trucks, artillery, helicopters, crates, ammunition, personnel. This build-up, experts say, represents a clear intention by Assad to escalate the fighting in a bloody civil war now approaching its fifth year of violence.

Along with the other huge stockpile of weapons, materials and manpower sent to Syria, Reuters is reporting that Moscow may also send state-of-the-art anti-aircraft rocket systems to Syria. Though ISIS has at the moment no real air capability, the anti-aircraft systems would mitigate the chances of pilots among the so-called Free Syrian Army from intervening on behalf of the anti-Assad forces. News reports indicate that the anti-aircraft systems would be manned only by Russian personnel, not Syrian troops.

Russian officials have complained over the last few days that the U.S. should not act as if it had been blindsided by the Russian build-up in the region. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the NATO and the U.S. are to blame for the breakdown in communication between Washington and Moscow, which took place largely as a result of Moscow’s interventions in the Crimea and the Ukraine. Lovrov said that NATO and the United States should strongly reconsider such attempts at blackballing, and urged NATO to reopen relations with Moscow in order to avoid “undesired, unintended incidents.”

Related Thursday Review articles:

Destruction of Palmyra Intolerable, UNESCO; Thursday Review; September 3, 2015.

ISIS-Linked Attacks Indicate Success of Militant Outreach; Thursday Review; June 29, 2015.