What are the real objectives behind Russia’s startling military intervention in the Syrian civil war?
Some military and intelligence circles in the West believe that the new deployment is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s answer to the open and secret agreements concluded last month between the Obama administration and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for military cooperation in Syria. Putin has always said that Russia would respond to any US military intervention in Syria, and so he has. However, others reject this theory. In their view, Moscow has acted in direct consequence of the decision by the world’s leading superpower and its president, Barack Obama to disengage America from the Middle East. No self-respecting rival would miss this kind of strategic opportunity, they say, certainly not Putin.
A third group of strategic analysts claims that Putin has been carefully plotting his move into Syria for years with six objectives in view:
1. Stabilization of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Putin is not propping Assad up because he cares about the dictator’s personal fate, but because the Syrian dictator, to avoid permanent over-dependence on Iran and Hizballah, is opening the door to provide the Russians with a solid foothold in the Middle East.
Inroads on American influence with Mid East allies
2. Preempting US and European military action against Assad
Putin suffered patiently as the Obama administration strived to isolate Moscow over its grab for the Crimean peninsula in mid-2014 and Russian support for the insurgency in eastern Ukraine. He then pounced apparently out of the blue to turn the tables on Washington.
Russian diplomacy is already making good progress in forging ties with America’s strategic partners in the region – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and even America’s strongest ally in the Middle East, which continues to be Israel, notwithstanding its differences with Washington.
A straw in the new wind blowing through the region came from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s trip to Moscow Monday, Sept. 21, in a bid to establish coordination between IDF and Russian forces in Syria.
(See a separate article in this week’s issue)
3. Continuous steps to expand Moscow’s influence
All his steps in and around Syria attest to Putin’s goal of isolating Washington and establishing a dominant influence in an area stretching from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf, via the Mediterranean Sea. This goal first surfaced strongly in the Georgia conflict of 2008. Then came the takeover of Crimea and the Black Sea in 2014 and the jump to the Mediterranean coast in recent weeks.
An arsenal in Syria bristling with long-range weaponry
4. Deployment of advanced weaponry
The aforementioned push for Russian expansion explains the sophisticated arsenal building up in Western Syria, which would be major overkill if its sole purpose was to shore up the Assad regime.
DEBKA Weekly’s military experts list the advanced Russian weapons pouring into Syria at this moment.
The Russian Air Force has sent the Su-27 Flanker and the Su-30SM, a fifth-generation bomber considered superior to the US-made F-22 Raptor.
The SU-27 is capable of flying from the main Russian base near the Syrian city of Latakia to the Strait of Hormuz, a distance of 2,151 kilometers (1,161 miles). It carries Oniks-Yakhont supersonic anti-ship and land attack missiles that can hit any target in the region.
The Su-30SM, meanwhile, can perform 4.5-hour combat missions within a range of 3,000 kilometers, but it can also fly for up to 10 hours and reach targets 5,200 kilometers away when using an aerial refueling system. In another major development, a Russian Typhoon-class nuclear submarine, the Dmitri Donskoy TK-208, is currently off the coast of Syria. The submarine, reputed to be the biggest in the world, carries 20 SS-N-30 (called Bulava RSM-56 by NATO) ballistic nuclear missiles, and up to 200 nuclear warheads.
Deft interface of intelligence input and strategic plans
5. Solidification of Russia’s foothold in Middle East
Russian weaponry of this high level of sophistication is far beyond Moscow’s requirements for defending its interests in Syria. In fact, say our military analysts, this arsenal corresponds to Washington’s aim in the days that the US Fifth and Sixth Fleets deployed aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf.
Putin plans to complete his new deployment by Oct. 1, just days before the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier exits the region.
The US Navy does not plan to replace it with another aircraft carrier in the Middle East and Gulf region before the arrival of the USS Harry Truman two months later. US Navy sources say there is no exact date for its arrival, so Putin has won several months for cementing Russia’s military and naval presence in the region.
6. Strengthening of intelligence
An important if not critical factor emerging from these events is the advances made by Russian intelligence compared with US clandestine services. In many respects, which we will not detail now, the espionage and data collection systems run by the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, are doing a better job than their American opposite numbers – especially the CIA. In recent years, the Russians have become skilled in interfacing intelligence input with their political and military steps, adding a realistic and valuable dimension to Putin’s strategy.
ISIS runs out of new terrain – hence push on Damascus
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources have drawn on Western and Middle Eastern intelligence circles with Russian military and intelligence contacts in Syria to begin sketching the Russian leader’s next military steps in Syria.
Russian tacticians predict that the Islamic State is currently preparing for a move on Damascus, to seize at least parts of the Syrian capital, because it has run out of territory for the caliphate’s further expansion.
To the east, the jihadis are blocked by Iran and its contingents in Iraq; in northern Iraq, their way is barred by the autonomous Kurdish republic’s peshmerga army; and. in northern Syria, by the Kurdish YPG/YPJ militias; in the western Iraqi province of Anbar, Jordanian special forces are on their tail; and a phalanx of Turkish troops defends their country’s borderlands.
ISIS for the first time finds its room for expansion closing in on two pathways, namely to central and eastern Syria.
Destroying Russian Islamists fighting in Syria
Our sources report that Russian military planners have written off the Deir ez-Zour area of eastern Syria, site of the largest Syrian Air Force, as condemned to falling to ISIS. They are focusing on saving Damascus. The ground battle to defend the Syrian capital is being fought by the Syrian army, Hizballah and pro-Iranian Shiite militias.
Russian warplanes are on hand to provide air cover and bombard ISIS forces and Syrian rebel groups.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources expect the Russians to borrow tactics employed successfully by Syrian Kurds in their battle to regain their town of Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border, supported by around 700 US air strikes in the first six months of the year.
It will therefore not be surprising to see Russian bombing raids against ISIS and other rebel groups in the next few days.
But the Syrian operation would be nothing more than a sideshow for the main performance. As soon as Assad attains full control of Damascus, Russian guns will turn against the Al-Nusra Front. Our sources report that on Wednesday, Sept. 23, a group of around 1,500 Chechen, Uzbek, and Tajik fighters solemnly pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda's Syria wing Nusra Front.
Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (Muhajireen Brigade) made the pledge in a statement distributed by supporters online. The pledge is a boost for Nusra Front against its rival Islamic State.
If the Obama administration holds back from a serious effort to defeat Daesh, Putin has no intention of sharing its burdens. In Syria, he has his eye firmly fixed on destroying the hundreds of Chechen and Caucasian Islamists who have joined the Al Nusra rebels or fighting in other rebel groups, including the Islamic State. It is for that mission that he is deploying thousands of Russian marines in Syria with air support.