In Syria, signs of a new and wider war
BEIRUT - There are disturbing signs that the chaotic and perplexing war in Syria is taking on new dimensions, drawing outside powers ever deeper into a conflict that seems to constantly change complexion and threaten wider turmoil.
At the same time, the Islamic State (ISIS), which is increasingly the target for foreign powers — some of them on opposing sides in a war that sometimes seems bewilderingly unfathomable — has sharply escalated its attacks on a global scale, hitting countries as far afield as France to Bangladesh and there are fears in Thailand that it is plotting attacks there as well. That can only fuel the Syrian conflict.
In Syria, the Russians, who conducted an armed intervention in September to rescue their key Arab ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, from certain military defeat, have expanded their initial air base outside the Mediterranean port of Latakia from where they have launched air strikes against rebel forces.
In recent days, Russians have also taken over and extended a Syrian Air Force base at Shaayrat outside the strategic central city of Homs to step up air strikes in that region. The aim is to prevent ISIS cutting the critical M5 highway linking Homs and Damascus.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, said the Russians have been extending the runway at the military airport at Shaayrat, 40km south-east of Homs city, and are building another runway.
This indicates Moscow plans to step up air strikes in the central region where ISIS is active. Kuwait’s Al Rai daily reported that Moscow wants its ally Iran, which has thousands of fighters from Hezbollah and Shia militias made up of Iraqis, Afghanis and Pakistanis in Syria and led by senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders backing Assad, to take the ISIS-held towns of Qaryatayn and Palmyra that can threaten Shaayrat.
Russian officials said November 30th their top-line Su-34 fighters, for the first time, carry air-to-air missiles for self-defence after Turkish F-16s shot down an Su-24 for violating its airspace six days earlier. Russia has also deployed its formidable S-400 air-defence system to protect the Latakia base from possible Turkish, or even US, air attack if the crisis deteriorates.
On November 17th, Russia called in its strategic bomber force to pound rebel strongpoints with bombs and cruise missiles in long-range missions from southern Russia, in a significant military escalation. These have been augmented by missile salvos from Russian warships in the eastern Mediterranean and the Caspian Sea.
There was another strike on December 8th with at least two Kalibr cruise missiles fired from the Kilo class submarine Rostov-on-Don in the Mediterranean against ISIS targets in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the first combat launch of cruise missiles from a Russian submarine. These weapons could be deployed again if Russia maintains the increasingly hectic tempo of its air war.
In recent weeks, Russia has more than doubled its fleet of combat jets to 70 and increased the number of warships in the eastern Mediterranean from seven to ten, including a cruiser armed with the S-400 and capable of covering all of Syria.
According to US sources, Russia has as many as 5,000 military personnel in Syria, more than double the original deployment. Hundreds of military advisers are reportedly embedded with Syrian regime forces, and officials are talking about an operation that could last years rather than the few months cited in September.
In recent days, Russian air strikes have been expanded to the front in southern Syria bordering Israel and Jordan.
All of this suggests the Russians will be supporting major regime offensives in the coming days. It means Russian President Vladimir Putin, incensed by Turkey’s November 24th plane downing, is throwing his forces into ground combat, reversing a pledge not to put boots on the ground in Syria.
US President Barack Obama seems to be doing the same thing, deploying a 100-man special operations force in Iraq to operate inside Syria to kill or capture ISIS leaders and planners — reversing his much-criticised policy of not committing troops to another Middle East imbroglio.
In what appears to be an acknowledgement that the US-led campaign of air strikes against ISIS, unleashed in August 2014 after a jihadist blitzkrieg, cannot alone crush ISIS, Obama’s new focus on ground forces “cracks open the door” for wider US combat operations in Iraq and Syria, as one senior US official told NBC News on December 2nd.
With Russians and Iranians, as well as Hezbollah and Tehran’s international brigade of Shia mercenaries, battling across Syria, the war can only get more complicated.
With the entry of British and French strike jets triggered by the November 13th ISIS slaughter in Paris and reports that the United States is preparing an air base of its own at Rimelan in north-eastern Syria as a conduit for supplying Kurdish-led rebel forces, the skies too are becoming increasingly perilous.