The Corner

National Security & Defense

Syria: Putin Steps Up

What passes for a US administration is now having to face the prospect of increased Russian support for Assad, long a Moscow client.

The New York Times:

…A Russian troop transport plane, probably an Ilyushin model, also landed at the same airfield in Latakia over the weekend. That aircraft, which flew over Greece and Bulgaria, is believed to have carried Russian military personnel.

“They’re clearly establishing some sort of forward operating base,” the American official said.

There have also been unconfirmed sightings of Russian Spetsnaz special forces at the Syrian Naval Academy, officials said.

…The flights have highlighted the deepening differences between the United States and Russia over Syria. While the Obama administration has argued that Mr. Assad’s brutal crackdown against his opponents fueled the sectarian passions that strengthened the Islamic State, the Russians still appear to see the Syrian president as a bulwark against extremists, at least for now.

Western officials say that Russia’s intentions are not entirely clear. Although Mr. Putin spoke in Vladivostok last week about the need to form a coalition against the Islamic State, Iran and the Syrian government appear to be the only potential members so far.

One possibility is that Russia is not only trying to support the Syrian government but is trying to expand its role inside Syria so it can influence the choice of a new Syrian government in case Mr. Assad is ousted. Another theory is that Russia is putting itself in a position to defend a rump state should Mr. Assad be driven from Damascus and find refuge in a stronghold near the coast. None of these possibilities are mutually exclusive.

On Saturday Mr. Kerry called Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, and warned Russia not to expand its military role in Syria. On Monday, a spokeswoman for Mr. Lavrov said that the Kremlin had long provided military assistance to the Syrian government in its fight against extremists and expressed surprise at Mr. Kerry’s warning.

But on Tuesday, Mr. Kirby repeated the criticism of Russia’s role.

“Russia is not a member of the coalition against ISIL, and what we’ve said is that their continued support to the Assad regime has actually fostered the growth of ISIL inside Syria and made the situation worse,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “If they want to be helpful against ISIL, the way to do it is to stop arming and assisting and supporting Bashar al-Assad.”

That, I’m afraid, is simply wishful thinking. And ISIS is not going to be wished away. The ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition (such as it was) has failed. The ‘containment’ of ISIS from the air is failing. There is no willingness (for good reasons and bad) to commit US ground forces. That leaves Assad’s military and, across what’s left of the border, Iraq’s. Neither look likely to displace ISIS. Turkey is playing all sides. The Kurds (independence and enhanced military support for them already, please) are the only benign, and reasonably effective, fighting forces in the region, but they are unlikely to want to stray too far from Kurdish territory. The only other forces around are the Iranians (as Shia, it won’t be easy for them to win over the Sunni now under ISIS rule) and, now perhaps, the Russians, whose track record in Chechnya doesn’t suggest much ability to win Muslim hearts and minds. At the same time, the Russians may, thanks to their technical and military edge, be able to orchestrate more progress against ISIS on the ground than the US-led coalition has been able to do from the skies.

This Washington Post report covers similar territory. And notes this:

By preparing to deploy Russian ground and air forces to Syria, Mr. Putin is acknowledging a truth that Mr. Obama has refused to accept: Any political agenda for Syria’s future is meaningless unless it is backed by power on the ground. Mr. Assad will depart, as Mr. Obama has been predicting and urging him to do for four years, only if the balance of military force makes an opposition victory inevitable and imminent.

And who is that ”opposition” meant to be?

Reuters has more:

Russian forces have begun participating in military operations in Syria in support of government troops, three Lebanese sources familiar with the political and military situation there said on Wednesday.

Leading from behind has consequences.

To say that there are no easy solutions  to this mess is an understatement. Assad is Assad and Putin is Putin. Neither are friends of the United States. Neither can be trusted in the slightest. Both have a great deal of blood on their hands.  But ISIS, if it is successful in embedding itself as a state, may be even worse,

I can’t, at this point, help remembering this comment made by Churchill after Hitler turned his armies on his Soviet accomplices:

If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.

Necessity isn’t pretty. 

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