Obama administration officials expressed fears Friday that Russia may be planning to significantly increase its military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The New York Times reported the Russian moves, which include “the recent transport of prefabricated housing units for hundreds of people to a Syrian airfield and the delivery of a portable air traffic control station there,” have caused great concern for Secretary of State John Kerry and other administration officials.
“The secretary made clear that if such reports were accurate, these actions could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-Isil coalition operating in Syria,” the State Department said in a statement (bold added by me for emphasis).
The airfield in question serves Latakia, Syria’s main port city on the Mediterranean Sea and the ancestral home of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The coastal regions of Syria are also home to the Alawites, a religious group which follows a branch of Shia Islam that radical Muslim groups like ISIS consider heresy; Assad is an Alawite, himself.
The Obama administration has repeatedly sought to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to join in the air campaign against ISIS. For his part, Putin has said it is premature to talk about direct Russian military action against ISIS.
“We are looking at various options but so far what you are talking about is not on the agenda. To say we’re ready to do this today — so far it’s premature to talk about this. But we are already giving Syria quite serious help with equipment and training soldiers, with our weapons,” Putin told RAI Novosti during a visit to Vladivostok for the Eastern Economic Forum.
As images on Syrian State TV purportedly show Russian-speaking soldiers in Russian-manufactured armored vehicles fighting alongside Syrian troops, and images from a Twitter page linked to al-Nusra appear to show Russian aircraft and drones operating over the contested city of Idlib, it seems direct Russian military involvement in the Syrian Civil War is not so “premature” after all.
However, it should come as no surprise to anyone that Russia has focused so heavily on supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad against the Western and Gulf State-backed rebels seeking to overthrow him. Russia has a naval base near Tartus, its only naval facility on the Mediterranean; in addition, according to The Guardian, the city of Latakia is also home to Russia’s largest electronic eavesdropping post outside its own territory.
If Putin steps up military support for the Syrian government, it would have significant consequences for the Obama administration’s insistence that Assad must step down as part of any solution to end the conflict. With direct Russian military assistance, the Syrian government could make significant military progress against ISIS, al-Nusra and the so-called “moderate opposition”, negating calls from the United States, Turkey and the Gulf States for Assad to step down. The concern, then, is how the United States would react if Russian aircraft struck fighters that belong to rebel groups it armed and trained.
The issue of Russian aircraft providing direct assistance to Syrian government troops brings to mind another potential flash-point: as calls for a no-fly zone in Syria to “protect civilians from ongoing aerial attack” increase, how would the United States and its allies react if Russian aircraft continued attacking targets alongside Syrian government troops, in direct violation of the no-fly zone?
The screenplay for the civil war in Syria is virtually identical to that in Ukraine: the United States and NATO (in the case of Syria, Turkey and the Gulf States as well) fund a rebel force to overthrow a government friendly to Russia, in a country in which Russia has a vested geopolitical interest, and both sides begin arming and funding their respective side as civil war breaks out. In both Syria and Ukraine, the risk of a proxy war escalating into an all-out war between the West and Russia is all too real.