Russian air strikes in Syria provoke regional powers

Friday 09/10/2015
Air strikes will intensify and could last \'three to four months\'

BEIRUT - The Russians have been pounding rebel forces in Syria since September 30th and the signs are that the air strikes in President Vladimir Putin’s self-declared war on the Islamic State (ISIS) are likely to go on for many weeks, widening a conflict that is already bewilder­ingly complicated by pushing un­easy regional powers into more di­rect involvement.

On October 2nd, Alexei Pushkov, a close Putin ally and leader of the foreign affairs committee of the lower house of Russia’s parliament, told France’s Europe 1 radio that the air strikes will intensify and could last “three to four months”.

Pushkov said he believed the Rus­sian campaign could make “major progress” in contrast to attacks by a US-led coalition — largely carried out by American aircraft — that have targeted ISIS since August 2014 but haven’t delivered a knock-out blow.

The Americans and their Euro­pean allies fear that the Russian air campaign will not achieve any better results against ISIS but will antagonise regional powers that support rebel groups being hit by Putin’s jets, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey, to step up sup­port for their proxies and further escalate the conflict.

Putin’s high-profile intervention has incensed regional Sunni-led powers, which want to see Assad toppled and charged as a war crimi­nal for his slaughter of his mainly Sunni opponents in Syria. These constitute most of the estimated 240,000 people who have been killed since the civil war erupted in March 2011.

Assad is a key ally of Shia Iran, which is locked in a deepening ideological power struggle with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab powers. There had been moves by these states towards supporting a political transition in Damascus but that dissipated when Putin sent his forces in Latakia to rescue Assad.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, embracing the kind of aggressive regional policy they have for dec­ades eschewed in favour of more cautious, risk-averse pursuits, are already committed to a war in Yem­en against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels that could inhibit a military response in Syria.

But regional analysts suggest that the Saudis and their allies may be prepared to ignore Western prohi­bitions on transferring advanced weaponry, including anti-aircraft missiles, to their proxies to blunt the Russian air campaign — a devel­opment that could sharply escalate the Syrian conflict.

“This is going to be a dangerous place,” warned Daniel Levy, Mid­dle East programme director at the European Council on Foreign Rela­tions. “The degree to which Tehran and Riyadh are now in confronta­tion mode across a number of re­gional hot spots is worrisome. Who can now act as the de-escalating mediator?”

Qatar, apparently with the agree­ment of Riyadh, is reportedly air­lifting weapons to Turkish bases for delivery to rebels in north-west Syria to hold off an expected regime offensive backed by Russian air power.

Tensions heightened October 4th and 5th when NATO-member Tur­key reported that Russian aircraft twice penetrated its airspace over Hatay province on Syria’s northern border. That incensed Turkey and drew sharp criticism from NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. He was implicitly holding out the possibility of NATO action to defend a member state if Russian violations continue.

On October 2nd, Turkey and Sau­di Arabia, along with key European and Gulf states that are members of the US-led coalition, urged Russia to halt its air strikes. They declared the raids “will only fuel more extrem­ism and radicalisation” because they are targeting non-ISIS groups.

The Russian strikes triggered at least two attacks on Putin’s Latakia air base, although both appeared to be pinprick hit-and-run raids, caus­ing little damage and no casualties.

Ahrar al-Islam, a jihadist group linked to al-Qaeda, claimed it fired several truck-mounted Grad artil­lery rockets into the base on Sep­tember 28th. In a video posted by the group, a commander named “Omar” said the Russian-built mis­siles had been captured from a regime base and were the first of many broadsides. “These are your goods,” he taunted the Russians. “They have been returned to you.”

Ahrar al-Sham unleashed a rocket attack on the base on October 2nd. Meantime, the Russian base, pro­tected by 500 men of Russia’s Naval Infantry Brigade with a dozen top-of-the-line T-90 tanks and heavy ar­tillery, is within range of more pow­erful missiles possessed by Jaysh al-Fatah, a loose alliance of Islamic groups that has been advancing towards Latakia from neighbour­ing Idlib province. The alliance is backed by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. If the Russians support re­gime assaults to push back Jaysh al- Fatah, it will almost certainly trig­ger escalatory action from the Gulf states, which support the coalition. That might lead to Putin sending in more forces.

That’s something that Putin prob­ably does not want to do, although there are unconfirmed reports of Russian personnel being airlifted to Syria. In the end, it may come down to Russian reinforcement or a humiliating withdrawal, an em­barrassing echo of the Soviet Red Amy’s retreat from Afghanistan in 1989.