September 13, 2015

Russian intervention in Syria - what is the endgame?

Russian Air Force AN-124 (CONDOR) and IL-76 (CANDID) transport airlifters

It has been rumored for sometime, and it has finally happened - the Russians have deployed a sizable contingent of military personnel to Syria. At least seven Russian Air Force Antonov AN-124 Ruslan (NATO: CONDOR) jumbo airlifters have moved men and materiel to an airfield just south of the Mediterranean port city of Latakia.

The AN-124 is the largest military transport aircraft in the world. The aircraft can transport 255 tons of cargo, compared to the 135 ton capacity of the U.S. Air Force C-5M Super Galaxy, although the AN-124 has a much shorter range.

The airfield near Latakia is a joint Syrian air base (actually used by Syrian Navy helicopters) known as Humaymin Air Base and a civilian airport known as Basil al-Asad International Airport. The airport is named after the President Bashar al-Asad's late older brother - it was Basil who was supposed to be the successor to their father Hafiz. Basil's death in an automobile accident in 1994 led to Bashar's ascendancy to the presidency. The familial home of the al-Asad clan is just a few miles northeast of the airfield in the city of Qurdahah.

By way of disclosure, I was the Air Attaché to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus from 1992 to 1995. In that role, on several occasions I have been to Humaymim Air Base and what was then known simply as Latakia International Airport. Coincidentally, I was also at Damascus International Airport only minutes after the automobile accident in which Basil al-Asad was killed at the airport entrance.

The Russians have requested overflight rights for their military "air bridge" between Russia and Syria from September 1 to September 24. Although they have flown at least seven AN-124 sorties, we are unsure of the exact number of flights - no doubt there will be more. The United States has pressured NATO allies Bulgaria and Greece (and no doubt others) to deny the overflight requests. The two countries have acceded to the American request - good for them.

The Russians have an alternate flight route, however. Immediately after the two NATO members refused access to their airspace, Iran offered Russia the use of its airspace for flights to Syria. Of course, that will also require overflight of Iraq, whose Shi'a-dominated government will acquiesce to Iranian "requests" to facilitate the Russian airlift.

Like any military expeditionary force, the Russians deploy with mobility and air defense assets. According to various media reports, the Russians are airlifting armored personnel carriers and tactical air defense systems with their troops - this is typical and we would do the same thing.

The Russians have deployed the BTR-82 armored personnel carrier (APC, left) and the very-capable Pantsyr-S1 (NATO: SA-22 Greyhound) air defense system with its troops in Syria. The BTR-82 is a first-rate APC, and the SA-22 is a formidable mobile gun and missile platform - the Russians build excellent tactical air defense systems.

Interestingly, one of the first confirmations we had of Russian troops in Syria were "selfies" posted on Twitter and other social media by Russian soldiers who now find themselves in northwestern Syria. The Russians have yet to stop their troops from posting photos on social media that belie the official Kremlin position - the selfies posted last year with meta data indicating their presence in Ukraine should have been a lesson in operations security.

So now the Russians are in Syria. No matter your opinion of Russian President Vladimir Putin, you have to acknowledge the decisive nature of his actions. At some point, he and his advisers - no doubt with many years of experience in Syria since they have been Damascus's primary weapons suppliers and military trainers/advisers for half a century - assessed that Bashar al-Asad was in danger of being overthrown.

The removal of Bashar al-Asad is not in and of itself a major issue for the Russians, but continued access to Syria is.

Over the past four decades, the Russians have been edged out of the region as most Middle Eastern nations turned toward the West. The one exception has been Syria - the Russian naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus is virtually the last Russian outpost in the Mediterranean. There have also been reports of Russian advisers working with Syrian military and air defense units.

I have no doubts that Vladimir Putin will want to maintain that Mediterranean presence, just as he has moved to re-establish the Crimea as a Russian navy base, and has deployed Russian navy ships to Cuba.

It is interesting that the Russians have deployed to the air base just south of Latakia. The northwestern coastal mountain range is the home of the 'Alawis, a quasi-Twelver Shi'a sect of Islam that has produced much of Syria's current leadership of the armed forces and ruling Ba'th Party. Membership in either organization has been seen as a way out of the poverty and persecution formerly experienced by the group.

When Syria was placed under a French mandate after the end of World War One, the 'Alawis were encouraged by the French to join the military as a counterbalance to the majority Sunni population. Since the "Correctionist Movement" in 1970 that brought Hafiz al-Asad to power, the 'Alawis have been the dominant power brokers in the country.

Hafiz al-Asad strengthened Syria's ties with the Soviet Union, a relationship that survived the collapse of the USSR and continues even today, although Russia's financial problems over the years have limited the amount of support provided to Damascus.

The deployment to the Latakia area may be an attempt to protect the 'Alawi homeland. Syrian rebel groups, both the Free Syrian Army and a loose alliance of Islamist groups including the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria - Jabhat al-Nusrah (the Victory Front) - have expelled the Syrian army and its supporting Iranian and Hizballah forces from Idlib province, located immediately to the east of the 'Alawi-dominated area.

The rebels have been vocal in their plans to move towards the coast and to seize Syria's three major ports (Latakia, Baniyas and Tartus) as well as the mountains that are home to most of the 'Alawis in the country. The loss of this region would be a major blow - possibly the fatal blow - to the regime of Bashar al-Asad. It is the fear of this loss and the real threat posed by the opposition forces that are likely driving the Russian deployment to this region.

Syria's armed forces are not capable of defending this area despite their control of the skies and relentless bombing of civilian areas. As they pull back for the inevitable battle for Damascus, they have ceded large areas of the country to the rebels or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Thus far, the Russians have not engaged ISIS. At some point, however, propping up Bashar al-Asad may mean the Russians will have to do just that. While it sounds good to have another ally involved in the US-led coalition's fight against ISIS, and the Russians could certainly be helpful in the short term, the problem is the endgame. The Russians want to make sure that no matter what the political solution at the end of the civil war, Bashar al-Asad or someone as compliant remains in power. That assures them access to their remaining naval facility in the Mediterranean.

Failing keeping Bashar al-Asad in power, the Russians want to have the defining voice in who runs the country. Before we start to talk to them about joining the effort against ISIS, we should remember that a previous alliance with the Soviet Union against a common enemy 70 years ago led to an endgame of fifty years of Communist repression in Eastern Europe known as the Cold War.

Secretary of State John Kerry has made several overtures to his Russian counterpart warning the Russians about their intervention in Syria. Mr. Kerry, the Russians no longer take you or the Administration you represent seriously. We have done nothing to stop Russian adventurism in Ukraine, have capitulated on the anti-missile defense system in Poland the the Czech Republic, have sat and watched as Russian ships and aircraft probe our defenses at levels not seen since the end of the Cold War, and caved in to late Russian demands in the Iran nuclear talks to lift sanctions on ballistic missiles after just a few years.

The Russians have assessed that they can do almost anything they wish and there will be no consequences from the United States. They will pursue their own objectives, whether or not those objectives are compatible with American interests.

They will be more involved, not less, in Syria. They mean to have the final say in Syria's future.