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Why Russia is increasing its Military Presence in SyrIa

Are Oil Prices To Blame For Russia Bombing Syria?

In the past few days, Russia has sharply beefed up its military presence in Syria. Reports from American officials (denied by the Russian authorities) state that it now has at least 28 warplanes deployed at an airbase outside Latakia on the Syrian coast. The planes, which according to sources quoted by the New York Times include Su-24 and Su-25 ground-attack planes, reinforce what was thought to be only four Russian planes previously in the country, all of them fighters designed for air combat, not ground combat. The presence of fighters armed with air-to-air missiles is particularly odd, since none of the Syrian enemies facing Syria’s embattled president Bashar al-Assad have an air force; their only potential use would seem to be against planes belonging to the American-led coalition that is currently attacking Islamic State (IS). The planes are said to be protected by anti-aircraft systems, and there are also reported to be surveillance drones in place. Tanks, armoured personnel carriers and howitzers have also been spotted at the base.

At the same time, Russia has been increasing the number of soldiers posted to the base; satellite intelligence gathered by the Americans shows the unloading of prefabricated housing that could accommodate some 1,000-2,000 soldiers. There have been reports on social media of (understandable) reluctance among the ranks at the prospect of potentially having to face IS. Memories in Russia of the losses sustained in Afghanistan are still raw, and IS’s fearsome reputation will be adding to troops reluctance to get involved in another war far from home.

Why is Russia doing this just now? Explanations are various and there will be several parts to the answer. One is simply that over the summer it genuinely started to look as though Mr Assad was losing. IS, as well as other less extreme opposition groups, have been pushing back the border of the small statelet he still controls (small geographically, that is: it still comprises the bulk of Syria’s dwindling population.) Fear of a collapse, or a coup, that might in the worst case deprive Russia of its naval base at Tartus, the only military facility Russia still controls outside the former Soviet Union, will have been genuine. Some reports suggest that Tartus is being expanded, to be able to take the largest Russian ships.

But equally important is political and diplomatic posturing. Vladimir Putin is provisionally expected in New York next week at the United Nations General Assembly, the first time he has attended for a decade. He is also hoping for a one-to-one meeting with Barack Obama. It is important to both his domestic and his foreign audience to be able to show two things. The first is that Russia opposes regime change and will defend its allies. Mr Assad may, eventually, be eased out as part of a deal in which Russia will be a key broker, but it wants to be able to make that deal, which could well be discussed in New York, from a position of strength, not weakness. The second is to signal that Russia is a vital partner for America in the fight against IS and jihadist terror in general, which Russia has even more reason than America to fear. Such a coalition underlines Russia’s continuing status as a great power, and helps bring it back in from the cold, ending the long stand-off between Russia and America over Ukraine.

Published on:
October 2, 2015
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