What exactly is Russia trying to achieve in Syria?

Pro-Syrian regime protesters chant slogans beneath a large Russian flag and a picture of President Bashar Assad during a demonstration, where anti-Syrian regime protesters and supporters of the Islamic group Jamaa Islamiya were also protesting, in front the Russian embassy, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012. Source: AP

Pro-Syrian regime protesters chant slogans beneath a large Russian flag and a picture of President Bashar Assad during a demonstration, where anti-Syrian regime protesters and supporters of the Islamic group Jamaa Islamiya were also protesting, in front the Russian embassy, in Beirut, Lebanon, on Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012. Source: AP

AP
Reports that Russia is increasing its military presence in Syria have become a major topic in global media. Moscow denies this information, but admits the supply of weapons to the Assad regime. RBTH spoke with experts about the real objectives Moscow is pursuing in Syria.

According to Western media reports, Russia has sent an expeditionary force to Syria and begun the construction of a military airbase near the international airport in the province of Latakia in the north of the country.

Moscow denies these reports, but at the same time concedes that it has been providing military and technical assistance to the Syrian leadership.

“We have always supplied equipment to them (Syrian authorities) for their struggle against terrorists,” Maria Zakharova, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, told The New York Times.

“We are supporting them, we were supporting them and we will be supporting them.”

 

Washington’s concerns

Information about the strengthening of Moscow’s military presence in Syria could not help but cause concern in Washington, which since August last year has led an international coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group that controls wide areas of Syria and Iraq.

On Sept. 5, Secretary of State John Kerry called his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov to discuss the issue. According to Kerry, the increase in the number of Russian troops and equipment in the region may lead to a further escalation of the conflict and more deaths of civilians, an increase in the flow of refugees and the risk of confrontation with the coalition fighting against ISIS in the region.

Washington has also asked its NATO ally Greece to close airspace to flights by Russian aircraft bound for Syria. The Greek Foreign Ministry confirmed the receipt of the U.S. request and said that it would consider it in the near future.

 

Building an image in the region

Experts link the alleged strengthening of Russia’s military presence in Syria with the need, first of all, to help embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“More than four and a half years ago, Moscow took the course – and consistently adheres to it – to support the legitimate regime in Syria as represented by Bashar al-Assad,” said Tatyana Tyukayeva, a lecturer of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia and an expert of the Vneshnyaya Politika analytical agency.

“Against the backdrop of the U.S. policy on the preparation of groups of the Syrian opposition, Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s support of the opposition that features extremist groups, and also because of Assad’s statement that regime forces are experiencing difficulties due to the shortage of personnel and weapons – information about Russia’s strengthening of its military contingent in Syria looks logical. Acting in such a way, Moscow consolidates its image as a reliable partner which does not change its position, which is important for the region.”

Daniel Pipes, President of the Middle East Forum, disagrees. In comments made to RBTH, he noted that Russia’s actions in Syria are directed not to support the regime of its partner Assad, but “to win goodwill among the Iranian leadership and to irritate the Americans." Iran is the main ally of the Syrian regime in the region, and Iranian forces have often been seen fighting on the side of Assad’s troops.

 

Saving Assad and more

“While obviously Moscow would be happy to help support one of its few remaining allies in the world, I am not convinced that the sole aim is to support Assad,” said Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University.

“Instead, I suspect that this reflects both a growing genuine concern about ISIS, as we see more signs of its penetration into the North Caucasus, and also a hope that Russia can break its current diplomatic deadlock with the West through becoming part of an anti-ISIS coalition.”

Experts note that the talk about the need for a broad coalition for carrying out a ground operation has been going on for a long time.

“The main component of the Russian initiative is Damascus’ participation in the anti-terrorist coalition as one of the few players in the region that is really interested in the victory over Islamic State and that has been fighting – not unsuccessfully – against the militants for several years,” said Tyukayeva.

“Our proposal is to gather all the efforts together — all the international players, all Syria’s neighbors, all members of the opposition coalition, all of those who are involved,” said Maria Zakharova to The New York Times.

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