STOLYPIN: Can Putin really be Syrious?

By bne IntelliNews September 7, 2015

Mark Galeotti of New York University -


While Russian forces remain bogged down in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, prop up unrecognized regimes in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria, and wander (and occasionally shell) the uplands of the North Caucasus, can the Kremlin really be committing itself to a substantive military deployment to Syria? Common sense would seem to say no, but the facts on the ground are beginning to suggest the answer is a – conditional – yes. Is there a rationale to such a move, or is this simply a piece of knee-jerk international posturing? And what might it portend?

Boots on the sand

Russia has long had a limited commitment in Syria – one of its last real allies, after all, alongside such equally threadbare assets as Nicaragua, Venezuela and some grudging Central Asian “’stans.” It has a very small naval installation at Tartus, not the “naval base” some allege but a limited logistical point amounting to a pier and some warehouses. More generally, though, it is clear that Russian advisers and technical personnel have been present, especially in providing intelligence support, through flying drones – probably from Latakia air base – and manning radio-electronic interception stations. Beyond that, as Assad continues to buy Russian kit, technicians have come to train Syrians to use it, and military advisers have helped plan operations.

So far, so (relatively) limited. However, there are not clear and compelling indicators that Russia is upping the stakes. At the very time that Moscow is showing growing real concern about the scope for Islamic State (IS) to penetrate and galvanize the insurgency in the North Caucasus, it is also talking up its own role fighting jihad in the Middle East. Putin recently, while noting that Russia is “already giving Syria quite serious help with equipment and training soldiers, with our weapons” dismissed as “premature” any talk of a deeper military presence. Rather, he talked up the creation of “some kind of an international coalition to fight terrorism and extremism”.

Meanwhile, a variety of news outlets and other sources have shown Russian Naval Infantry in squad and platoon strength in Damascus, Homs and Latakia, and recordings suggest Russians crewing brand-new BTR-82A combat vehicles, a scarce sight so far even in the Motherland’s forces. Other, less open sources have whispered of teams of elite commandos in Damascus, possibly army Spetsnaz, maybe the shadowy Zaslon unit of the Foreign Intelligence Service.

Latakia, with its port and air base, appears to be one of the foci of Russia’s increasingly muscular presence, but talk of “thousands” of troops being deployed appears premature. First of all, assuming Moscow wants to retain a surge capacity in the Donbas, its expeditionary forces – the paratroopers, Naval Infantry marines and Spetsnaz – are operating at close to capacity.

The Black Sea Fleet’s Ropucha-class landing ship Tsezar Kunikov appears to have set sail for Syria, with a complement of at least 300 marines from the 810th Independent Naval Infantry Brigade (based in Crimea). Recently the Alligator-class Nikolai Filchenkov likewise travelled to Latakia, albeit with a load of trucks, materiel and combat vehicles rather than personnel, and the Ropucha-class Azov with materiel. Although it would be possible to airlift in men and vehicles, this is expensive and would tie up a large proportion of Russia’s air fleet. Instead, then, we are talking about a shift from perhaps a few hundred technical personnel and advisers – including officers from GRU military intelligence and the FSB security service – to fewer than a thousand, but including well-trained, frontline combat troops.

A Quixotic Deployment?

Why go in now, arguably at the very time the Syrian regime’s prospects appear gloomiest? Perhaps that is the point, but when it comes down to it, what is Assad to Putin? There is no evidence of a particular personal tie, and while it would embarrass Moscow if an ally fell, it is hard to regard this as more than a 24-hour wonder. There are no strategic assets to be lost – Tartus is hardly worth mentioning – and nor is Damascus’s fate central to the Kremlin’s narrative of Russia’s national interests. Indeed, given that Syria is likely to be a roiling mess for years to come, would common sense not suggest extrication more than escalation?

The answer is, of course, yes.

If Moscow wants to look like a loyal patron, at least it could offer the Assads a nice McDacha mansion in the upscale Barvikha gated community and a chance to get out before the collapse. If Moscow wants to keep a friendly regime in place, it could even try to broker some suitable “everyone-against-IS” coalition to replace Assad. Of course, to do that it needs leverage – and here the logic, such as it is, of any escalation emerges.

The first and most basic point to remember is this: the Middle East doesn’t matter to Moscow. Nor, for that matter, does Africa or Latin America. China just about does. But essentially, all of the Kremlin’s policies are directed towards the West. Even policy towards China is really meant to fill in the gaps in credits and exports left and hopefully make the West jealous enough to reopen relations. It may sound arrogant and be uncomfortable come from a Westerner, but yes: it really is ‘All About Us’.

Putin is coming to the UN General Assembly in September, itself a big deal given that his last attendance was in 2005. With the prospects of an acceptable deal over the conflict in Donbas receding, with the Russian economy expected to continue to decline, he’s looking for his own “reset” and sees it in some civilizational anti-jihadist coalition.

For some time, Moscow has hoped that cooperation against IS and terrorism in general could be the leverage point to get the West to relax its tough line over Ukraine. The appointment in March of former FSB deputy director Oleg Syromolotov to a new deputy foreign minister for counter-terrorism cooperation position was an early indication, one which has borne little fruit.

So the Russians seem to be upping the ante, making Syria a battleground not so much for the preservation of an ally – though they will hardly mind if they also manage to save Assad – but instead the formation of an anti-jihadist coalition. That way Moscow does its best to wipe out IS militants in the Middle East, before they manage also to infiltrate the North Caucasus, and also makes its case to be the West’s ally against a common enemy.

It is unlikely to work. The West will gladly take what intelligence cooperation Russia offers – even while treating the fruits with a certain skepticism – and will hardly mourn any IS fighters killed by Russian bombs or Russian guns. Just as the US and Iran have an arm’s length understanding in Iraq against IS without becoming friends, so too a Russian role in Syria is not going to create any deep or lasting amity.

Nonetheless, that this is the Kremlin’s game plan says two things. First, that it is desperate to break out of its current impasse, for all its bullish claims. Second, that it does not understand the West, that it thinks everything is for sale, and that if only it can find the right offer, the sovereignty of Ukraine, the integrity of the global international order and justice for the dead of MH17 are all on the table.

Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at the SPS Center for Global Affairs, New York University and Director of its Initiative for the Study of Emerging Threats. He writes the blog In Moscow’s Shadows ( and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.


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