Putin authorised to use military forces abroad, launches Syria air strikes

By bne IntelliNews September 30, 2015

bne IntelliNews -


Russian war planes launched strikes against Islamic State (IS) and other armed opposition forces in Syria on September 30, hours after President Vladimir Putin received fast-track approval from parliament to take military action in the conflict.

The aerial assault was an anti-terrorist action conducted in accordance with international law, state news agency RIA Novosti quoted Putin as saying. 

"Russia's participation in anti-terrorist operations in Syria is being carried out on the basis of international law and in accordance with an official request from the Syrian president," the president said from his Moscow region residence at Novo-Ogaryovo. "The only true way to combat international terrorism … is through pre-emption, [by] fighting and destroying terrorists in territories that they already occupy, instead of waiting for them to come to our homes."

Russia's Federation Council upper chamber of parliament approved the widely anticipated use of the country's military forces in Syria in the morning, a day after Putin made a call before the United Nations general assembly for concerted international action against terrorism and the advancing IS forces in Syria. 

The request to approve military action in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was unanimously approved by the 162 members of the council of Russian legislators, although senior officials stressed that it only referred to air strikes in Syria and not the use of troops on the ground.

"The operation's military goal is exclusively air support of the Syrian armed forces in their fight against ISIL," Ivanov said, adding that the use of ground forces was "out of the question", RIA reported.

With Putin's popularity at a record high in Russia, the parliamentary approval was seen as a brief formality as Russia follows up recent preparatory work on the ground in Syria, including building airstrips and reportedly deploying as many as 2,000 military personnel.

The Kremlin also underscored the legality of its latest action with statements on the use of Russian military force outside the territory of the Russian Federation "on the basis of universally recognized principles and norms of international law”, the Kremlin said on its website.

Decisive potential

Despite US opposition to Moscow's support for President al-Assad, Russian aircraft targeted eight Islamic State positions, including arms, transportation, communications and control positions, according to the Russian Defense Ministry. 

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter immediately challenged Putin's claim that Russian military action was aimed at quashing the IS movement, saying that "it does appear that they (Russian airstrikes) were in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces," he told reporters, using an another acronym for the Islamic State. "The result of this kind of action will inevitably, simply be to inflame the civil war in Syria," Carter said.

Ivanov said earlier that Russia will only use its airpower in Syria and target the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), otherwise known as IS, at the Syrian president's request. The operation is limited in time, but the types of the weapons available under the permission were not disclosed, Ivanov added.

This theoretically left the possible use of troops open, while the Russian air power alone will significantly bolster the Syrian government operations in key areas and potentially prove decisive in a civil war that has dragged on for more than four years. 

The last time Putin asked for permission to deploy national forces abroad was before Russia's annexation of the Crimea peninsular in Ukraine in February 2014. This time the request is clearly linked to Russia's increased military support for the Syrian government, a key ally and purchaser of Russian military hardware in the region. 

Russia has been openly sending materiel to Syria in recent weeks as Putin attempts to turn the screws on the West and force the EU and US to negotiate over the various points of conflict between the two sides, but on Russia's terms.

Russia already has sizeable numbers of troops in the country, according to reports in the Russian press, with media tracking the movements of soldiers using geolocation on selfies posted to Russian social media. While they have until now been confined to barracks, Putin's formalisation of the use of military force is a clear threat to the West that this may now change.

The timing of the decision is also clearly symbolic. Putin gave a relatively mild speech, by his standards, to the UN assembly on September 28 and then had 90 minutes of talks with US President Barack Obama, in their first face-to-face meeting in two years. While described as open and frank, the meeting failed to produce any firm agreement on the Syrian crisis in particular.

Sabres out

The decision to authorise the use of force is a step beyond sabre rattling, and can be regarded as the actual unsheathing of the sabre. Whether Russia goes on to take a full-power swing remains to be seen.

However, the form of the aid to Assad is also reminiscent of the "no fly" zone imposed on Libya by the UN that resulted in the ousting and death of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, where Russia abstained from the vote, despite protesting against the decision. This allowed the West to provide support to rebels fighting against the regime and turn the tide of that conflict. 

Moreover, Putin's decision allowing Russia to effectively act unilaterally in Syria comes a day after the president called for a broad international coalition to fight terrorism – the main message of his UN speech. That call was echoed by several leaders from the Middle East in their own addresses to the UN. This decision suggests Putin found little common ground in his subsequent talk with Obama and is now threatening to take matters in Syria directly into Russia's own hands if the West is not prepared to cooperate. 

The three former Soviet Baltic republics will be nervous as well following news of the Federation Council's move, as Russia has a significant military forces stationed just over their borders. However, since Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are members of Nato, Russia is unlikely to undertake any military venture there, as this would trigger Nato’s "Article 5" clause that requires all members of the alliance to come to an invaded country's aid.

Article 5 has only been invoked once: on 9/11 the US formally informed its Nato partners that it was "under attack" by "foreign" forces (ie. a non-Nato member). A Russian attack on the Baltics would be cast in the same light and because of the obvious consequences the Kremlin has called the idea "crazy".

It remains unclear what the green light for Russian foreign military intervention means for Ukraine, which is fighting a war in the east of country against pro-Russian separatists, who are backed with Russian arms as well as troops on the ground.

In an interview with The Independent, Ukraine’s head of the armed forces, Colonel-General Viktor Muzhenk, said there is a significant enemy military presence – “more than 40,000” – that remains inside the separatist enclaves despite the Minsk II ceasefire agreement that went into force August 29, and “all of them are answerable to a Russian chain of command”.

“I don’t believe Russians will withdraw their troops, hand over control of the border, or allow free elections in Donbass, no, absolutely not,” he told the paper. “I can only assess what is happening at the moment and there is currently little evidence of movement on any of these fronts.”

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