- REUTERS/Michael Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremli
Some of the Russian troops reportedly being sent to Syria are from the same brigade that helped annex Crimea, according to a lengthy investigation conducted by Ruslan Leviev, a specialist in social-media intelligence.
The Kremlin has declined to comment, but, if true, “the deployment of an elite unit from Crimea, which inaugurated Russia’s standoff with the West, is an intriguing choice,” writes The Daily Beast‘s Michael Weiss.
“Moscow has spent enormous resources moving troops into Crimea and eastern Ukraine over the past year. Moving even some of them out of the area to a different conflict zone, particularly one outside of Europe, gives the lie that sanctions and diplomatic isolation have forced the Kremlin into compromise,” Weiss writes.
“Rather, Russia appears ready and willing to take on multiple wars at once,” he adds.
Russia initially said that it had only deployed “military experts” to Syria to help government forces learn how to use Russian military equipment.
But the Israeli defense minister and Reuters have confirmed that the Russians are taking part in the fighting on the side of Syrian President Bashar Assad and building up their military presence in the western coastal province of Latakia.
Boris Zilberman, a Middle East and Russia expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Business Insider by email that he thinks it makes logistical sense that Russia would deploy a brigade from Crimea to Syria, since the eastern Mediterranean is the responsibility of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet.
“It wouldn’t make sense to deploy these types of troops from Kamchatka [in far east Russia], for instance,” Zilberman said. “Also, seeing as how they’ve have recently participated in the annexation of Crimea, they are probably more combat-ready than others.”
- Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters
An intelbrief released by The Soufan Group affirms that Putin’s latest incursion into Syria on the side of Bashar Assad is deliberate and aligned with Russian interests.
“While Russia has provided military assistance to Syria for decades, the recent apparent increase in support is noteworthy in both its timing and future implications,” the brief reads. “It is difficult to overstate Russian determination not to lose its influence in Syria via the Assad regime, which provides Russia with a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern base that cannot be replaced elsewhere.”
Russia’s naval supply base in Tartus, in Latakia Province on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, is the only warm-water port it has retained since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported in 2012 that “Russia’s greatest strategic and geopolitical interest in Syria is the use of a deep-water port at Tartus,” which is “the receiving point for Russian weapons shipments to Syria” and has allowed the Russian navy to expand its presence in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
- Google maps
If the Assad regime were ousted, RFERL noted, Russia would likely be stripped of its rights to use the base.
The strategic importance of another warm-water port – the naval base at Sevastopol, Ukraine, that houses Russia’s Black Sea fleet – factored in to Russia’s takeover of Crimea.
“Operating from Sevastopol, the Black Sea Fleet provides Russia with the ability to project power in and around the Black Sea, while also serving as a potent symbol of Russian power,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted last year.
- Pavel Rebrov/Reuters
Over the course of the 55-month Syrian conflict, Russia has provided the Assad regime with supplies – including guns, grenades, tank parts, fighter jets, advanced antiship cruise missiles, long-range air-defense missiles, military officers as advisers, diplomatic cover, and lots of cash.
It now appears that Russia is willing to go further to ensure the Assad regime’s survival: Russian drones and fighter planes are surveilling non-ISIS rebels in the country’s north – Assad considers all rebels “terrorists” or “extremists” – and Russian armored-personnel carriers with Russian-speaking troops were involved in fighting.
Russia has also set up an air-traffic-control tower and brought housing units for up to 1,000 personnel to Latakia in the country’s west, and Reuters reports that two tank-landing ships and additional aircraft have arrived.
“Putin is taking steps to shore up Assad and at the same showing that he is willing to go further than the US and coalition partners to meet his stated regional goals,” Zilberman said.
- Alexei Nikolsky/Reuters
For years, Assad has argued that he is fighting terrorism when, in fact, the US and others have accused him of facilitating the rise of ISIS.
Adopting Assad’s narrative, Russia claims to have aligned itself with the regime in the name of combating terrorism and extremism.
The US State Department isn’t buying it.
“Russia is not a member of the coalition against ISIL, and what we’ve said is that their continued support to the Assad regime has actually fostered the growth of ISIL inside Syria and made the situation worse,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Wednesday, using an acronym for the Islamic State (aka ISIS or Daesh). “If they want to be helpful against ISIL, the way to do it is to stop arming and assisting and supporting Bashar al-Assad.”
New York University professor Mark Galeotti, an expert in global affairs and Russian and Slavic studies, told Business Insider that Putin is likely just using the military buildup to pressure the US into joining some “grand anti-ISIS coalition ahead of Putin’s visit to NYC and the UN later this month.”
As geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, noted to Business Insider in an email, “Assad has lost significant territory over the past months; Putin is not about to tolerate his ouster.”