Putin on the warpath in Syria
BEIRUT - Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in Syria, in part an ambitious move to stake out a strategic presence in the Middle East as the Americans withdraw, escalated sharply with the first air strikes on Islamist rebels, greatly heightening the risks he is taking by getting involved in this unpredictable conflict.
Russian and Syrian officials reported September 30th that targets in Hama, Homs and Latakia provinces were attacked, although it was not immediately clear how many of the estimated 34 warplanes and 26 attack helicopters Russia has deployed at a high-security base outside the Mediterranean port of Latakia were involved.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the four-and-a-half-year-old war, said 27 civilians were killed in Homs province, where control is split between rebel and regime forces. Regime forces are under heavy pressure in Latakia and Hama governorates.
The raids were launched shortly after the arrival of six Sukhoi Su-34 fighter bombers at the Russian base over the last few days. US defence officials said a Russian general manning a joint intelligence centre in Baghdad with Iran and Iraq advised the US embassy in Iraq of the sorties an hour before they began.
The raids had been expected for several days. Putin has declared he plans to hammer the Islamic State (ISIS). However, there is no known ISIS presence at the targets hit in the initial air assault.
Russia’s intervention earlier in September surprised the Americans, although they now appear to be pondering cooperation with Moscow against ISIS following a September 28th meeting in New York between Putin and US President Barack Obama.
The primary Russian objective is to ensure Syrian President Bashar Assad holds on to the roughly 20% of the Syrian territory he still controls and that his pro-Moscow regime does not collapse.
“Having proven their bona fides in combating terrorism, and having secured Assad in Latakia governorate, the Russians would be in a better position to push everyone towards a solution in Syria that ultimately keeps Assad in place,” observed Beirut-based analyst Michael Young. “That’s easier said than done, but the Europeans are so overwhelmed by Syrian refugees that they may be willing to consider it…
“The Russians’ intentions are cynical, but their single-mindedness may pay off. What they really see is that on the other side of the aisle they have an Obama administration that has proven utterly incompetent in Syria. The highway is open and the Russians will ride it until they get what they want.”
Despite Putin’s grand ambitions of restoring Russian power, the memory of the catastrophic 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and how the humiliating withdrawal by the Red Army a decade later helped bring down the Soviet Union still haunts the Kremlin.
The Syrian war is the most dangerous in the Middle East because it has become part of the confrontation between expansionist Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab world led by Saudi Arabia. Getting dragged into that ever-widening conflict could be as disastrous for Putin as Afghanistan was for Leonid Brezhnev.