Between wind-surfing sessions and waiting for his Nobel Peace Prize, Secretary of State John Kerry took time over the weekend to chat with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergy Lavrov. The topic of conversation was Moscow’s heightened military presence in Syria.
Like the proverbial blind hog that stumbles across an acorn, Mr. Kerry (along with the rest of the Obama foreign policy team) have suddenly realized that Vladimir Putin is significantly increasing military support for the government of Bashir Assad. While Moscow has been training and providing logistical assistance for Assad’s army for many years, Putin’s support appears to be entering a new phase, with recent reports of Russian troops fighting alongside Syrian forces; the delivery of additional equipment and supplies, and claims that Moscow is preparing an airfield to serve as an operations hub in Syria.
From the U.K. Telegraph:
Russian drones over Syria last week (photo posted at Twitter account linked to Syria Al Qaida affiliate and published by U.K. Telegraph)
Why the sudden escalation by Putin? There are several factors at work. First, the war continues to go badly for Bashar al-Assad; as ISIS steadily gains ground, Mr. Putin and his military advisers may have decided they had no choice but direct intervention, otherwise, the Syrian regime would face near-term collapse, giving terrorists full control of the country and its military resources.
Moscow may also be concerned about Assad’s weakened grip on weapons of mass destruction within his arsenal, specifically, chemical and biological rounds. There have been several chemical attacks by ISIS forces in recent weeks; on-line postings from various terror groups suggest the weapons came from Syria’s military stockpile. The introduction of Russian troops could improve security of Assad’s remaining assets.
But Moscow may have another strategy in mind, with regard to Syrian WMD. Russia currently holds the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council and it has delayed efforts to assign blame for chemical attacks in Syria. Putin’s decision to stonewall the inquiry may reflect efforts to hide the responsibility for recent attacks, particularly if Russian advisers and combat forces played any role in carrying out those strikes.
Another possibility? Assad is planning a heightened chemical warfare campaign against insurgents, and will utilize Moscow’s technical expertise to carry it out. If more chemical attacks are in the offing, Putin certainly doesn’t want UN inspectors nosing around the countryside, or debating responsibility at hearings in New York or Geneva. However, the timeline for that sort of strategy is very limited, since Russia will hold the Security Council presidency for only one month, before handing it off to Spain in October.
Russia will also gain brownie points among allies (and potential allies) in the region by stepping up to defend a client state. While the U.S. makes–and breaks–promises, Vladimir Putin looks like a man of his word, something that isn’t lost on other countries looking for support against ISIS. So far, he hasn’t committed enough forces to make a difference militarily, but the Russian leader understands the power of symbolism and its importance in the Middle East. Against the backdrop of a U.S. retreat in the region, even a token deployment by Moscow projects an image of power and strength.
The Syria expedition can also serve other purposes. As Moscow’s military presence grows, it would not be surprising to see a deployment of the S-300 air defense system, ostensibly to protect Russian forces from ISIS drone strikes, or attacks by captured Syrian military aircraft. Never mind the terror group’s capabilities in these areas are virtually non-existent; the manufactured “threat” will allow Moscow to extend protection for Iran’s nuclear facilities to the edge of Israeli airspace, greatly complicating any potential strike by the IAF. It has long been postulated that Israeli fighters would cross Lebanon and southern Turkey to reach Iran; the presence of S-300 batteries in northern Syria might force the Israelis to abandon that route, forcing them to fly across Jordan and Saudi Arabia, or take a long, over-water route across the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and into the Persian Gulf.
In any event, Putin has once again out-maneuvered the U.S., at minimum cost. He has accurately assessed the weakness and fecklessness of the current administration and is prepared to maximize his opportunities over the last 500 days of Obama’s Presidency. It would be nice to say our Commander-in-Chief has some sort of counter-strategy, but he doesn’t. Barack Obama helped make a hash of Syria and now he simply doesn’t care. There’s a library to build and more rounds of golf, far more pleasant tasks for his last 16 months in the Oval Office.