What exactly are the strategic intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Syria? Officials and analysts are increasingly pondering this question, as ever-growing numbers of Russian troops and advanced weaponry, including surface-to-air missiles, combat aircraft and drones, pile up in Syria at a dizzying pace – often too fast for Western and Middle Eastern intelligence services to keep up.
Those intelligence gurus, including Israel analysts, ascribe to Putin three hypothetical objectives:
1. Stabilization of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime
2. Coordination and cooperation with Iran, and the boosting of their bilateral coordination in other Middle Eastern countries.
3. Fighting radical Islamic militias, including the Islamic State and Al Qaeda’s Syrian Al-Nusra Front, and especially their Russian Muslim recruits from Chechnya and the Caucasus.
Moscow’s war on Islamic terror is seen as a primary motivation of Moscow’s strategy in Syria.
On Sept. 18, a top Russian security official, Gen. Sergei Smirnov, of the Federal Security Service, said that over 5,000 people from Russia and Central Asian countries, including nearly 2,400 Russian citizens, have joined Islamic State. He did not elaborate on their whereabouts, but those fighters are believed to be mainly concentrated in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Putin’s benign presentation of his Syrian buildup
Moscow’s military steps were high on the agenda of Putin’s summit with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu when they met at the presidential dacha outside Moscow on Sept. 21. To demonstrate Israel’s concern over the Russian deployment and its long-term implications, the Israeli leader brought with him a dozen top-ranking IDF officers, including the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkot (see also the article on those talks).
Putin gave Netanyahu a warm welcome, but was mostly evasive when it came to Israel’s security concerns.
Russia’s troop deployment has raised the possibility of clashes with US-led coalition forces fighting ISIS in Syria. In an effort to prevent inadvertent run-ins, talks were held last week between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and between US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
Should the Obama administration, Israel or any other Middle East government be worried about Putin’s intentions in Syria or seek possible ulterior motives behind the Russian military buildup in that stricken country? Moscow has his PR file ready: It is a small military force there to defend Russia’s interests; Russia is no different from the United States, Turkey, Israel and Jordan, all of whom post special forces in Syria.
So what is the fuss about?
Military steps to underpin the Russian political plan for Syria?
For example, they quote Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of the US military's Central Command, who revealed at a Senate committee hearing on Sept. 16 that special operations forces are working with Kurdish units in Syria. He claimed that those forces are only there to “advise and assist,” and are “not engaged in any combat operations.”
What’s the difference? Russia’s political and military leaders ask. After all, they say, their forces are no more engaged in combat operations than the Americans, either with the Syrian army, Hizballah, or the small Iranian contingents present in Syria. This position has been stated and restated by Putin, Lavrov, Shoigu, and even Nikolai Patrushev,
But this contention was quickly exposed as eyewash – and threw extreme doubts on all the official statements of intent coming from Moscow – when, early on Thursday, Sept. 24, a Russian 81st Marine force was revealed by our intelligence sources to have engaged in its first combat mission in Syria – joining Syrian army and Hizballah special forces attacking the Islamic State holding the Kweiris air base east of Aleppo.
Moscow also pitched its military strategy as the primary pillar for underpinning its initiative for a political resolution of the Syrian conflict.
The Russian plan is said to be designed to unfold in stages:
Assad may be eased out in stages…
- A ceasefire to be negotiated between all the parties fighting in Syria, except for the ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front – otherwise known as Al-Qaeda in Syria.
- Elections to take place under international supervision in three phases: municipal, parliamentary and, lastly, presidential elections.
- In the interim, a new administration will take office including representatives of the various opposition groups
- In accordance with the changes overtaking the ruling system in Damascus, the new Syrian administration will take over most of the powers currently held by President Bashar Assad.
- New defense and interior ministers will be appointed, acceptable to both Assad’s party and all opposition groups. Assad will devolve his powers in defense and internal affairs to the two new ministers and relinquish his prerogative to interfere in their decisions.
…But Russian troops will stay in the Alawite enclave
While accepting that this plan faces inevitable ups and downs in the course of its implementation, the Kremlin is unwavering in its determination to thwart any attempt by ISIS or Al-Nusra to cash in on the process to capture the Alawite Mounts of western Syria. This range, which runs from north to south parallel to the western coastal plain, is home to the majority of Syria’s 2 million Alawites, a minority to which Assad belongs.
Interestingly, the Russian plan skips this proviso with regard to the fall of Damascus to Syrian rebels.
It is clear that Moscow is reserving Alawite country as an enclave for the concentration of Russian troops at a base near Latakia, the capital of the range.
However, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, who were the first publication to uncover the landing of the Russian forces in Syria, estimate that Moscow’s benign-sounding explanation for its military initiative is only part of Putin’s wider plans, which almost certainly extend way beyond Syria’s borders. Those plans are examined in the next article in this issue.