Russia Capitalizes on Muddled U.S. Thinking on Syria

As Putin pours more resources into saving the Assad regime, Washington still doesn't know who or what it wants in Damascus.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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 President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Monday, June 17, 2013.
President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Monday, June 17, 2013. Credit: AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The buildup of Russian military forces in northern Syria continues, despite criticism from the West. According to military journal Jane’s Defence Weekly on Tuesday, new satellite images show the Russians expanding two more bases on the Alawite-controlled coastal strip in Syria, alongside the air base it started building recently near the port city of Latakia.

A view of Russian fighter jets and helicopters at a military base in the government-controlled coastal Syrian city of Latakia. Credit: AFP

According to Jane’s, the two new sites are a weapons-storage complex and a military complex, both north of the air base. Sources in the U.S. administration told CNN that the Russian force consisted of 15 helicopters, three ground-to-air missile batteries, nine tanks and at least 500 soldiers.

In Israel, these military preparations are regarded as part of a move that has been coordinated at least partly between Russia and Iran, and was identified back in June. Its purpose is to save the Assad regime.

The ground forces Russia has sent so far are still small, apparently mainly to protect the new Russian bases. But Iran already has 1,500 Revolutionary Guards in Syria, while Iran-backed Hezbollah and Shi’ite militias from other countries are also sending thousands of fighters to Assad’s aid. How effective this hodgepodge of forces will be remains unclear, but they are clearly meant to help Assad’s regime stop further advancement by Syrian rebels.

Assad and the Iranians are also worried about the rebel siege of two large concentrations of the Shi’ite population in Syria, near the city of Idlib. In recent weeks, talks have been underway between the sides toward a cease-fire in this area – and perhaps safe passage for some of the inhabitants – in exchange for another cease-fire in Zabadani, near the border with Lebanon and west of Damascus. So far, the talks have been unable to achieve stable local cease-fires.

At the meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday, it was agreed to establish a committee consisting of the deputy chiefs of staff of both countries. The committee, which is to convene for the first time in about 10 days, will need to coordinate aerial, naval and electromagnetic action in the Syrian area, in order to prevent an unintentional clash. However, Israel will probably want to give the Russians a relatively small amount of information, out of concern that it could reach Russia’s Syrian allies and even Iran.

Israel is aware of the increasingly significant role Russia is assuming in the region, given its massive support of Assad, its ever-closer ties with Iran and attempts to draw countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt closer to it, so as to take the lead in the international fight against Islamic State. For all these reasons, alongside the need for technical coordination, Netanyahu must take Putin’s considerations into account.

Russia now sees a window of opportunity to increase its influence, in light of both the refugee crisis in Europe (stemming partly from the increased fighting in Syria) and U.S. hesitation over Syria. Russia’s claim that shoring up Assad will lead to more stability in Syria is being listened to more closely by the EU countries, shocked at the sudden stream of refugees.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is having difficulty identifying its goals in the Syrian conflict – between the opposing challenges posed by the Syrian dictator and his Islamic State enemies. The “Assad must go” line in Washington has been replaced more recently by noncommittal statements about the need for compromise in the future. The utter failure of the United States to train forces from the moderate rebel organizations hovers in the background. At an embarrassing hearing a week ago before the Senate Arms Services Committee, Gen. Lloyd Austin III, commander of the U.S. Army’s Central Command, had to admit that only “four or five” fighters trained by the Americans among the rebels were still taking an active part in the war against ISIS.

The plan was to train up to 5,400 rebels to fight the jihadist group, but out of 54 fighters sent to battle in June, five were killed and others fled after a defeat by the Nusra Front (affiliated with Al-Qaida). Because the Americans have invested about $500 million in the program so far, it is tempting to present the rebels still taking part in the fighting as the most expensive soldiers of all time: As of now, each of them has cost the U.S. taxpayer about $100 million.

In light of the confusion in the U.S. administration, it is hardly surprising that Moscow is reinforcing its power base in Syria and the entire Middle East, and fostering more ambitions.

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