The Russian embassy school broke up in mid-term Tuesday, February 14 and the children were sent home – an unusual occurrence which Maria Zakharova, deputy spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, explained as having been prompted by concern for the diplomatic children’s safety amid Syria’s persistent tensions.
That day too, the families of Russian diplomats and other officials in Syria were packed off home.
This too was explained: The head of the Russian intelligence agency (the SVR), Mikhail Fradkov, stated that after the twin car bomb attacks in Aleppo Friday, Feb. 10, thousands of Russian citizens in the country faced the peril of terrorist attacks, including kidnappings. The spy chief warned that two hostile parties, the anti-Assad Syria Free Army (SFA) and Al Qaeda jihadists, might well take Russian hostages to extort from Moscow such concessions as the termination of its backing for President Bashar Assad and the evacuation of its naval, air and marine units from Tartus port.
Mme Zakharova maintained that the Russian embassy in Damascus and the Consulate General Aleppo were functioning as usual.
What she did not disclose was that to guard these institutions, Russian Special Forces (Spetznaz) units in civvies had been ferried into Syria aboard the flights which evacuated the Russian families.
Amid the flurry of Russian movements, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had this to say: “Ultimately, it’s going to be important to convince the Assad regime that they are leading Syria into the outcome that we all deplore. We do not want to see a civil war in Syria,” she said. “No one (meaning the Russians) wants to see a civil war in Syria. So we have to encourage the Assad regime, and those who support it, to understand that there’s either a path toward peacemaking and democratic transition – which is what we are promoting – or there’s a path that leads toward chaos and violence, which we deplore.”
A Russian presence in Syria to keep the lid on the Caucasus
Clinton’s appeal fell on deaf ears in Moscow.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had run ahead of her and determined that Syria is already in the grip of civil war. To save the Assad regime and Russian interests in Syria and the Middle East at large, he had decided to elevate the Syrian conflict to a state of regional confrontation as the prelude to a superpower contest in the global arena.
To get the process moving in that direction, it was necessary to keep the Syrian army battling the rebel Syrian Free Army, backed on the quiet by Russian intelligence and Special Forces, a proactive role Moscow would abstain from publicly acknowledging.
From Red Square, this formula was seen as promising favorable results on three levels of Russian interest, domestic, Syrian and inter-power.
1. On the domestic front, the Kremlin believes that holding back from intervention in the Syrian crisis would have lowered its standing in the eyes of the Russian Caucasus and its restive minorities, who are keeping a close watch on Moscow’s handling of this affair.
Most directly concerned are the majority Circassian populations of the Autonomous Republics of Adyghea, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria, many of whom have family ties with members of the Syrian Circassian minority (some 250,000 souls).
Until now, most members of this community were loyal to Assad, many serving in the Syrian Army. But as the uprising mutates into a full-blown sectarian war, they will be forced to make choices between the feuding sides, so stirring their own national sensitivities. Their nationalist awakening could spill over from Syria and raise the entire Caucasian up against the central government in Moscow.
Moscow feels compelled therefore to keep its hand on the lid of the Syrian stewpot by on-the-spot military and intelligence oversight
(An added irritant: The large Circassian diaspora is campaigning against the 2014 Winter Olympics taking place in Sochi, where one of the worst episodes of Tsar Alexander II’s genocide of the that people took place. They claim the Olympic Stadiums and village are being built on the mass graves of the murdered victims.)
Most of Syria’s military might unused against the uprising
2. On the Syria front, Bashar Assad has so far kept his heaviest hardware – conventional and unconventional – out of the fray. Infantry, armored and artillery units, special forces and security police are being used to cow the opposition, their tactics condemning anti-Assad elements to isolation, siege, indiscriminate bombardments of residential areas, mass murder and mass arrests.
But he has so far avoided engaging his entire 400,000-strong army or his air force, missile units and chemical and biological weapons assets in the offensive – possibly to avoid crossing the lines which drew NATO and Arab powers into the Libyan conflict, certainly not out of squeamishness. He is believed to have large stockpiles of chemical weapons including nerve agents and mustard gas with Scud missiles capable of delivering them as well as tens of thousands of portable anti-aircraft missiles.
Those assets remain in barracks, hangars, silos, storage depots and arsenals, readily available if he is driven into a corner. He has never rescinded the threat to burn Tel Aviv if Damascus falls. Both are unlikely prospects as things stand today. He has managed to overpower and destroy most of the centers of insurrection after eleven months of bloody assaults.
But while ahead of his foes, Assad has not completely crushed the revolt. Without deploying more military assets, he cannot interrupt the flow of weapons to the rebels from outside the country, nor realize closure with clear-cut winners and losers.
And so Assad will fight on until he finally eradicates the challenge to his rule.
That being so, Russian leaders are determined to maintain a presence in Syria and a role in the decisive battle yet to come. They also harp on their constructive influence on the Syrian ruler, claiming credit for persuading him to hold a referendum on the constitution on Feb. 26. DEBKA-Net-Weekly discloses Assad also promised Moscow to hold a general election in three months.
Moscow contests US “oil belt” and missile shield
3. On the global front, Moscow regards Syria as a hub of the inter-power contest for Middle East oil and influence, which also involves Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Bashar Assad’s survival is critical to Russia’s effort to stay in the game because his downfall and the rise of a pro-Western regime in Damascus would give the Americans a tremendous triumph.
Already, the US controls Libyan and Iraqi oil resources. With Assad out of the way, the Americans would consolidate their “oil belt” by gaining Iraqi oil direct access to a Mediterranean outlet.
Moscow is also deeply concerned by the strengthening of the US missile shield.
This concern was seriously aggravated Friday, Feb. 10, by the successful first joint US-Israel-Turkish test of the interoperability of the US Aegis, backbone of the US missile interception system in the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, and Israel's Arrow 2 and Block 4 ballistic missile defense systems and, most importantly, their radars.
Two top line US AN/TPY-2 X-band stations are based on Mount Keren in the Israeli Negev opposite the Egyptian border and at the Turkish Air Force’s southeastern base in Kurecik. The two American radars worked in what was described as “perfect and exceptional coordination” with the new Israeli Arrow’s EL/M-2080 Super Green Pine radar.
It took Moscow four days to find an answer. Russian Air Force Commander Alexander Zelin announced on Feb. 14 that several new S-400 Triumf air defense systems were to be stationed around its borders before the end of the year. “This time they will be deployed in air defense units guarding [Russia’s] border regions,” he said.
Two S-400 regiments currently protect Moscow’s airspace. Zelin did not specify where the Triumf’s were to be deployed, but DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources say some will certainly be located in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, as part of the Russian response to the planned European missile shield initiative, which Moscow considers a threat to its national security.