Russia Seen Expanding Role in Syrian Conflict

Rumors swirl about Russian forces in Syria weeks after a high Iranian official visited Moscow.

Soviet-made Mil Mi-35 attack helicopters take off from the airport of Kabul, Afghanistan, May 27, 2009
Soviet-made Mil Mi-35 attack helicopters take off from the airport of Kabul, Afghanistan, May 27, 2009 (USAF/Parker Gyokeres)

Russia may be stepping up its support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as his regime is struggling to put down a four-year uprising in which major powers have picked opposing sides.

The Daily Beast‘s Michael Weiss reported last week that Russian officers were seen in Damascus, the Syrian capital, meeting with Iranian and Syrian counterparts.

Iran is Assad’s only other ally. The Middle East’s Arab states and the United States back the Sunni-led opposition against his family’s dictatorship.

On Monday, Lebanon’s As-Safir newspaper said Russians were on the ground to inspect Syrian military airports. But it cautioned that there had been “no fundamental change” in Russia’s involvement, saying personnel was “still operating in the framework of experts, advisors and trainers.”

A Syrian request for twenty new Mi-28 attack helicopters had also yet to be granted, according to As-Safir.

The two-seater is a more agile and sophisticated gunship than the bulky Mi-24 which the regime has regularly deployed against rebels.

A The New York Times report on Saturday was more alarmist, suggesting that Russia was preparing to deploy fighting forces to Syria. It has sent prefabricated housing units, capable of sheltering as many as 1,000 military personnel, and a portable air traffic control station to Latakia, it said — a key city in the coastal heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect.

Russian forces have been noticed in Syria before. The Atlantic Sentinel reported last year that rebels said they had found proof of Russian intelligence operatives or special forces operating in Syria.

The former American ambassador to Syria, Robert Stephen Ford, has told lawmakers that Russian arms shipments to the Assad regime were “substantial.”

“And in some cases,” he said in 2013, “they are militarily extremely significant.” The Russians were delivering refurbished aircraft, Ford said, giving the regime the upper hand over rebels who lack air defenses, let alone aircraft of their own.

Russian officials confirmed in 2012 that repaired Syrian Mi-24 helicopters were shipped back to Syria but denied any new equipment was sold.

The recent moves come on the heels of a senior Iranian official’s visit to Moscow. Major General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary Quds Force, flew to the Russian capital in August. It is unknown with whom he met there and what was discussed.

Soldiers of the Quds Force have been active in Iraq and Syria, supporting both states’ Shia-led governments and fighting militants of the self-declared Islamic State, a fanatical Sunni group.

Since the start of the uprising, Assad has insisted that the rebellion against him is composed wholly of radical Islamists. Although his regime has helped make that characterization come true by locking up and killing peaceful and non-fanatical opponents and largely ignoring the most extreme elements in the opposition until it no longer could, Russia has toed the same line. As early as 2012, President Vladimir Putin censured Western countries for wanting to “use militants from Al Qaeda or some other organizations with equally radical views to achieve their goals in Syria.”

Whereas the West has called on Assad to step down, Russia sees him as a bulwark against violent Islamism, fearing that if he falls, friendly autocrats in Central Asia and even Russian authority in the country’s Muslim-majority provinces could in danger. It has repeatedly used its veto in the United Nations Security Council to forestall outside interference in the Syrian conflict that could hasten Assad’s demise.

But there is evidence that Assad actually abetted the Islamic State, the most brutal of the Islamist forces with designs on the whole Muslim world.

The more likely outcome in case of Assad’s removal is a Sunni-majority government taking over most parts of the country, supported by neighboring Arab states such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia that are allied to the West. Russia would then no longer have influence in the Levant region.