Moscow steps up military presence in Syria
BEIRUT - Russia has significantly ramped up its military presence in war-torn Syria under the aegis of fighting Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists, providing advanced air and ground weapons that the Syrian Army was quick to employ against the notorious group. But Syrian opposition figures and rebel groups dismiss the moves as yet another bid to prop up the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Four Russian-made fighter jets launched more than a dozen air strikes against the city of Raqqa on September 17th, where the city’s weary inhabitants were already reeling from months of sorties by both the Syrian regime and the international coalition mobilised to fight ISIS.
Hospital sources said 37 people, mostly women and children, were killed and 65 others wounded. Local observers said the firepower involved was significantly greater than that previously used by the regime. Entire city blocks were pulverised by the new aircraft.
According to Syrian political sources, the regime has begun using new Russian weaponry in Latakia province, where battles have raged between regime troops and opposition gunmen.
On the same day of the Raqqa air strikes, social media accounts close to the Syrian Army’s 4th Division led by Major-General Maher Assad, the brother of the Syrian president, claimed that “new Russian weapons have now become operational, beginning in Raqqa, to be used in eliminating the terrorists of ISIS”.
Syrian opposition sources maintain that while Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to court the West by entering the fight against ISIS, the move is a bid to shore up the legitimacy of his ally Assad, whose forces have incurred significant losses in recent months.
During a meeting in Moscow two months ago with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, Putin advocated forming an international anti-ISIS alliance in which Syrian regime forces would join troops from Turkey and Saudi Arabia to serve as the ground forces of the US-led coalition.
Some observers say Russia wants the alliance to give the Syrian Army pride of place because it is familiar with the demographics and geography of the areas where battles with ISIS are raging and because the regime has sleeper cells in those places.
While some opposition figures stress that Russia has been heavily involved in the war for several years, the recent moves do contain new elements.
Mustafa Seijari, a member of the Revolution Leadership Council in Syria, told The Arab Weekly that “what’s happening today represents a new policy by Russia, namely acting openly”.
“Either the Syrian regime is about to collapse, which prompted the Russians to announce that they would be protecting their interests in Syria or Russia is part of the international policy of dividing the country and wants its share of the cake, in an open and obvious fashion, by telling everyone, ‘This part is mine’,” he said.
Opposition sources say Moscow’s move towards a more direct role came after successive setbacks for the Syrian Army, as both Russia and Iran seek to salvage their ally — the former by providing weapons, the latter through manpower.
Arab sources familiar with the conflict said that during a visit to Iran earlier this year, Syrian Defence Minister General Fahd Jassem al-Freij requested 30,000 fighters, while the Iranians agreed to send 100,000. However, this offer was rejected because “100,000 would mean that Syria was occupied by Iran”.
A high-ranking Syrian Army officer told The Arab Weekly that “our close cooperation with Russia involves no Russian forces on the ground. There are only experts who train Syrian soldiers on the weapons provided based on agreements signed between Moscow and Damascus prior to the Syrian crisis.”
Some Syrian rebel groups are openly dismissive of Moscow’s gambit. Bassam Hajji Mustafa, a political official from the Noureddine al-Zenki Brigade, a leading militia active in Aleppo, called it a “stupid move that will end quickly — like the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan or the situation of Serbia during the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict”.
One of the most talked-about areas of Russia’s stepped-up involvement is on the Syrian coast.
Several locals, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter, talked about the steady build-up near Banias — primarily surveying and digging — supervised by individuals in civilian dress.
The activity has an echo in Latakia province to the north at the Bassel Assad airport.
Again, residents spoke of stepped-up construction activity over the last two months.
An employee, who gave his name as Kamal, said the airport was divided into two sections — one for receiving passengers and civilian flights to and from other Syrian cities, while the purpose of the second is unknown and shrouded in secrecy.
Although some of Russia’s stepped-up presence is being kept secret, the developments are impossible to hide; a Russian media delegation that recently interviewed Assad also visited the coast and met with Russian soldiers at the Tartus naval facility.