Russia continued this week to disengage from Syria and pull back from its support for President Bashar Assad.
In our last issue, DEBKA-Net-Weekly 555 of August 31, we disclosed exclusively Russian President Vladimir Putin’s resolution to move his government, navy and air force out of the way of the explosion of hostilities he predicted would ensue from US or Israeli war action against Iran or Western-Arab-Muslim intervention in Syria.
After whisking Russian warships barring one out of the Syrian port of Tartus and the eastern Mediterranean, Moscow has since taken five more steps to complete Russia’s disengagement from the embattled country:
1. The Russian early warning stations and intelligence field stations scattered across Syria were closed down. They include the Al Harrah electronic and surveillance station south of Damascus opposite Israel’s Sea of Galilee. Russian engineers have disassembled the stations and packed their most secret and sensitive electronic and surveillance cores into sealed boxes which stand ready for shipment at Damascus military airport and the naval port in Tartus.
The loss of these high-tech eyes and ears in mid-war has hit Assad where it hurts him most:
Russian early warning stations closed
– The electronic station near Damascus gave his army early warning of incoming Western and Arab air attacks – not to mention notice of Israeli warplane incursions into Syrian air space from the Mediterranean in the west or from southern Turkey in the north.
Syrian radar can only pick up aircraft drawing near the Syria coast or its borders – but not naval, air or military movements far out at sea or deep inside Turkey, Jordan or Israel.
Russia’s desertion has therefore left Syria highly vulnerable to aerial attack.
– The Syrian air defense system relied for guidance on alerts coming in from those Russian early warning stations. Without them, the entire system is practically useless, capable now of hitting interlopers only at very close range.
– Up until now, Russian intelligence field stations gave the Syrian military command its most reliable and accurate coverage of rebel movements. Not all the data they collected was given to Assad and his army chiefs, but after it was sifted, the Russians took care to arm him with the information they considered critical for his regime’s survival.
Now Assad is deprived of an independent non-Arab intelligence service and totally dependent on Iranian and Hizballah clandestine sources, which he does not entirely trust.
Ship carrying missile defense systems for Syria turns back
2. Hundreds of Russian military personnel still in Syria have not yet been ordered to leave, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources report. They are however assembled at three locations and told to wait on three hours’ notice for evacuation. Their officers have been told to await orders from Moscow or weigh the situation developing on the spot and make their own judgments of the urgency to evacuate.
Each group is equipped with the means for exiting Syria whether by land or air.
3. Putin ordered a Russian warship carrying SA-17 missile interception batteries for Syria to turn around and head for home port. Their acquisition would have provided Assad with the mobile, medium-range surface-to-air missile systems he needed for fending off attacks by cruise missiles, smart bombs, fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Without them, he has little defense against these advanced weapons.
4. Moscow also refused his urgent request for a supply of Yakovlev Yak-130 aircraft (NATO name: Mitten).
This subsonic two-seat advanced jet trainer/light attack aircraft is used by the Syrian air force to bombard rebels entrenched in big cities and densely populated areas. Its relatively slow speed helps the crew single out urban targets.
Moscow initiates dialogue with Syrian rebels
5. The Russians have gone so far as to open a secret channel to Syrian rebel and opposition groups outside the Free Syrian Army, which Moscow regards as being under the thumb of US intelligence services. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources, most of their rendezvous take place in Paris.
The Russians are trying to find out from opposition figures whether their deeply divided factions and groups are capable of getting together to establish a transitional government in Damascus, that would let Bashar Assad and his family step down with dignity and go into exile, together with any military chiefs and government officials wishing to leave.
Those talks this week hit an insurmountable obstacle when Syrian opposition leaders brusquely turned down a Russian demand for an Alawite to head the transitional governing council in Damascus after Assad’s exit from the country.
The Syrians also had a question for the Russians: Would they support the creation of a Syrian Alawite state along the Mediterranean coast?
They were told that this depended on the character of the regime installed in Damascus.
Moscow is clearly anxious to prevent Syria being taken over by a radical Islamist-dominated government.