Syrian rebels that overran an army installation overlooking the town of Al-Harra, west of the Golan Heights, appeared to have found evidence of Russian involvement in the conflict.
In a video that was posted on YouTube on Monday, fighters can be seen showing equipment and photographs they say proves Russian military intelligence or special forces personnel were jointly operating the base with their Syrian counterparts.
The Interpreter, which also provides a thorough analysis of the video, believes that if Russian intelligence was running operations on the frontlines of the civil war in Syria, “the area between Daraa and Damascus might be exactly where we would expect to find them, since this is an area where Assad’s allies have helped him defend in the past.”
Fighters from the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah and President Bashar al-Assad’s ally Iran have been active in the area, clearing it of rebel activity and freeing up Syrian army troops to fight farther north.
Russia has rhetorically defended Assad since the start of the uprising in his country and used its veto in the United Nations Security Council to forestall any outside interference in the conflict.
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” — painting the whole Syrian opposition as extremist, the very strategy Assad had used since demonstrations against his regime started a year earlier as part of a regionwide protest movement dubbed the “Arab Spring”. The uprising quickly morphed into an expression of Sunni discontent with Assad’s minority Alawite government and attracted more fanatical elements when the president tried to put it down with brutal force.
While Russia maintained a small naval post at the Syrian port city of Tartus, the extent of its military support for the Assad regime was less clear.
Late last year, Robert Stephen Ford, the former American ambassador to Syria, told lawmakers in Washington DC that Russian arms shipments to the Syrian government had been “substantial.” He reported deliveries had increased. “And in some cases,” he said, “they are militarily extremely significant.” Specifically, Ford said the Russians were delivering refurbished aircraft which gave the regime the upper hand over rebels lacking air defenses, let alone aircraft of their own.
Before Ford’s testimony, Russian officials had publicly confirmed that repaired Syrian Mi-25 helicopter gunships were being returned to the country.
While Western powers support the opposition against Assad’s regime, Russia sees him as a bulwark against the radical Islamists who are also fighting to overthrow him — fearing that if Assad falls, friendly autocrats in Central Asia or even Russian authority in the country’s outer provinces could be imperiled.
Moreover, if Assad were removed from power, his would likely be replaced with an administration that is dominated by Arab Sunnis who would, in turn, probably align with the Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, that are generally favorable to American and Western interests in the Middle East. Russia would thus be without leverage in the region.
In supporting Assad, however, Russia has made itself ally of not only Iran but Hezbollah as well — a group of the very sort of radical Islamists it claims to oppose. Both have troops fighting on Assad’s side in Syria.
In October last year, Russian mercenaries were also found fighting in Syria although it seems they were quickly pulled out when news of their presence became known.