Stratfor Confirms Russia’s Expanded Presence in Syria

Summary: The rumors have proven correct. Russia is building a base in Syria. Fourteen years of aggressive US moves in the Middle East and Eastern Europe have left the former in flames and the latter unstable. Now comes the inevitable next step, as a great power rival escalates by positioning itself to respond strongly. I doubt we’ll enjoy what comes next. We can hardly complain when others follow our example.

Stratfor on Syria

Confirming Russia’s Expanded Presence in Syria
Stratfor, 10 September 2015

Summary

The projection of Russian forces into Syria could be an attempt to bolster the government of President Bashar al Assad or a means to exert pressure during a time of sensitive negotiations. Either way, it will be increasingly difficult for the Russians to avoid mission creep as they magnify support for their favored faction in the Syrian conflict.

Analysis

Satellite imagery of the Bassel al Assad International Airport in Latakia, Syria, confirms reports of sustained Russian military transport flights to the Syrian airfield, where the Russians appear to be establishing a base of operations. The satellite imagery, captured Sept. 4, shows a recently constructed air traffic control station in the vicinity of newly laid asphalt surfaces, alongside shipping container-sized structures believed to be mobile housing units. Construction is underway throughout the airport; surfaces are being leveled and new structures are being erected. Earthworks are visible along the entire length of the easternmost runway, likely part of improvements to the airfield to allow the ingress of heavier transport aircraft.

Stratfor: Russia base in Syria
Click to enlarge.

The reinforcement of the airport shows that Moscow is preparing to deploy aerial assets to Syria, if it has not already done so. To sustain an overseas presence, Moscow must establish a sustained logistical connection and have forces in place to defend it. In this case, Russia is looking to establish an air bridge, with everything that entails. Stationing Russian aerial assets — such as fighter jets and attack helicopters — inside Syria is a clear escalation of Moscow’s involvement in the country. Russia’s previous involvement was limited to the transfer of equipment, spare parts and weaponry to the Syrian government and the provision of intelligence support.

Signs of a growing Russian military presence emerged last week. Alligator- and Ropucha-class landing ships from the Black Sea Fleet, clearly laden with vehicles and equipment, were seen sailing toward Syria through the Bosporus. Photos of Russian soldiers and marines from at least two separate Russian units deployed in Syria — the 810th Marine Brigade and the 336th Guards Marine Brigade — are increasingly surfacing on social media. Russian troops have been spotted in the provinces of Latakia, Tartus, Homs and Damascus. Some Russian forces are also deployed at the Syrian Naval Academy in Latakia.

These deployments aside, Stratfor has not observed a substantial Russian presence on the battlefield, either against rebel forces or the Islamic State. As previously noted, there are signs that Russian personnel have directly engaged the rebels, but this remains uncommon. It is more likely that Moscow has embedded advisers with Syrian units on the ground rather than committed formal combat units to the fight.

Russia could be marshaling its forces and equipment in Syria ahead of the deployment of full-sized combat units that would support loyalist forces, but that is unlikely. Right now, it is more probable that the Russians are limiting their direct involvement. By establishing an air base they are in a position to deliver substantially greater supplies to Damascus’ forces, provide close air support as required, and deploy more advisers and intelligence officers to embed with loyalist forces.

Nevertheless, even this level of support is concerning for the rebel groups in Syria opposing al Assad. Russian aid to the government could erode the rebel momentum on the battlefield, just as Iranian and Hezbollah intervention did in 2013.

Increased Russian presence in Syria serves a number of purposes, but by fortifying the loyalists, Moscow hopes to better position itself in negotiations that might bring about a political solution to the conflict. Yet, by establishing a secure air bridge, Russia opens the gates for rapid intervention, should it choose. Beyond Moscow’s growing commitment, it will be increasingly difficult for the Russians to avoid mission creep as they support their favored faction in the Syrian conflict.

Confirming Russia’s Expanded Presence in Syria
is republished with permission of Stratfor.

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For More Information

A smart move by Putin: “Russia calls on US to co-operate with its military in Syria“, Financial Times, 11 September 2015.

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14 thoughts on “Stratfor Confirms Russia’s Expanded Presence in Syria

  1. I disagree with you about the effect of a Russian build-up of forces, FM.

    1) The Russians can only support their forces by passing around or through Turkey, which leaves them in the difficult position of having to placate a country that is likely to be increasingly hostile to them (because Turkey’s goals are very different from the Russian goals) in order to resupply their forces in Syria. The Turkish military is also becoming more effective because of their improving economy, practice shooting at internal and external opponents, and aid from the US trying to buy more assistance.

    2) American efforts in the region usually go astray because of a difficulty in understanding the varying factions and an inability to foresee consequences of their actions. This will be at least twice as hard for the Russians, the Russians haven’t had a serious set of advisors in the region since the fall of the Soviet Union. A bit of history to support this conclusion, the Vietnamese word for Russian translates to “American without money,” reflecting the bitter Vietnamese experience with the Russians in the 70’s and 80’s after the Americans left and the Russians came

    3) The Russian economy is already in major trouble due to the low price of oil and European sanctions for Ukraine. This latest action is going to make both situations worse as the Saudis and the Europeans respond to the latest aggressions (as seen from their point of view)

    4) The Russians have no experience facing fourth generational warfare with less than overwhelming firepower, which cannot be available in Syria because the West is watching and Turkey will not allow large military forces to pass through their country. This means that most of the benefits the Assad government hopes to gain WILL NOT appear but the Assad government WILL be seen as a neo-colonial regime; which is usually the death-knell of a government fighting against an insurgency (and this government is fighting against at least two insurgencies)

    In summation, I agree that Putin is following the lead of the US but will also fail to gain anything resembling a benefit. The downside risks are quite a bit larger than any possible gain and this is, at best, a foolish gamble. It is possible or even likely that ISIS will capture a bunch of Russians and put them on trial or hold them hostage, showing off Russia’s weaknesses at a time when Putin seeks to be seen as strong.

    This is a catastrophic blow for the Syrian government, causing it to lose the last shred of respect from its people and will spur the insurgencies and their supporters to greater efforts.

    I had higher hopes for Syria when Basher Assad first came to power but he has clung to the old ways and will die by them.

    1. “which is usually the death-knell of a government fighting against an insurgency”

      Things have moved past that. Nowadays it is, or so I have been told, Alawites and some others fighting against sunni jihadists of various stripes. Basically anybody who is not going to be put to the wall if the jihadists win has stopped actively supporting the government since quite some time.

      “This latest action is going to make both situations worse as the Saudis and the Europeans respond to the latest aggressions (as seen from their point of view)”

      Aside from some british and french pols with dubious motivations and perhaps some in eastern Europe who would cheer an Everest size meteor hitting earth as long as it struck Russia first nobody is that eager to bash Putin over Assad support. Well, maybe some pundits but that’s it.

      I bet the notion of russians getting into Syria is causing orgasms in some quarters in Washington. Now they can pull off a repeat of Afghanistan and use the “moderates” of Al Nusra to get back at Putin. Figure out a way to strangle the PRC as well and they will have their “New American century” with the US towering like a colossus over a world reduced to ruins and vassals. If the blowback reaches home they get to give themselves even more power on the domestic side too.

    2. Marcello: “Things have moved past that. Nowadays it is, or so I have been told, Alawites and some others fighting against sunni jihadists of various stripes”

      Doesn’t make any difference, the guys who get supported by the foreign troops usually get creamed unless the foreign troops are allowed to use their superior firepower to kill everybody around them with no fear of consequences, which won’t happen in Syria.

      “Aside from some british and french pols with dubious motivations”

      You’re not thinking broadly enough, I’m talking about more sanctions and more embargos, not physical action. Because of the low price of commodities these days, it won’t cost the Europeans anything and will eventually bring the Russians to their knees.

      “I bet the notion of russians getting into Syria is causing orgasms in some quarters in Washington”

      Yes, sigh, I agree. This is why I think this is such a stupid move for Russia. The Chinese are a completely different ball of wax but the Russians have really put their foot into this one and I doubt those arrogant neo-con jerks are going to be willing to let the Russians off easily. It would probably be smarter policy to leave the Russians a back door they can use to exit semi-gracefully but the US doesn’t think in those terms any more.

    3. Pluto,

      “unless the foreign troops are allowed to use their superior firepower to kill everybody around them with no fear of consequences, which won’t happen in Syria.”

      Our touching faith in firepower is quite amazing given the large number of counterinsurgencies since WWII by foreign armies run with indiscriminate use of firepower (short of nukes & strategic bombing). Don’t tell an Algerian that they have independence only because the French showed restraint in their use of firepower (esp after watching The Battle of Algiers).

  2. “Doesn’t make any difference, the guys who get supported by the foreign troops usually get creamed”

    Did the kurds in Kobane fold when the americans provided some limited support? Why should the alawites do the same? It’s their back to the wall, if their enemies win.

    “You’re not thinking broadly enough, I’m talking about more sanctions and more embargos, not physical action. Because of the low price of commodities these days, it won’t cost the Europeans anything and will eventually bring the Russians to their knees.”

    Nope, the sanctions over Kiev caused some harm to some sectors of the European economy and there was considerable feet dragging in a number of countries. The broad political will for an other round over Syria simply is not there.

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