The implications of Russia’s military buildup in Syria

Jeffrey White writes: Russia appears to have begun a significant, direct military intervention in Syria. Extensive reporting, including some attributed to U.S. government and intelligence sources, indicates that Russia is building a joint air-ground expeditionary force in Latakia and Tartus provinces along the northwestern coast, far surpassing the scope of its longstanding advisory and arms-supply role. If this force develops along the reported lines, it could be a game-changer in the war. It could also have major implications for Israel’s ability to conduct air operations over western Syria and Lebanon, and for U.S./coalition operations against the “Islamic State”/ISIS and other terrorist organizations in Syria.

Moreover, if the Russian presence becomes established, it will be increasingly difficult to remove. As in Crimea and Ukraine, the United States — much less any other country — seems unlikely to challenge Russian forces militarily. And while these forces will probably suffer casualties and could become bogged down in Syria, Moscow may well accept that as the cost of keeping the Assad regime in power and frustrating Washington.

Russia’s moves in Syria are seemingly based on a larger geopolitical strategy that counts on little interference from the United States and its coalition allies. The intervention appears to be a deliberate strategic effort to support the regime with direct military force, most likely spurred by the assessment that Bashar al-Assad’s forces are failing and that the support provided by Hezbollah and Iran is inadequate. The decision was likely made in coordination with Tehran, which is reportedly boosting its own military assistance to the regime. Other probable goals include safeguarding the regime’s western heartland, protecting and expanding Russian naval and air access to Syria, and increasing Moscow’s overall influence on the situation. More broadly, Russia appears committed to exercising its influence in the Middle East, and Syria provides an opportunity.

In some ways, the deployment looks like Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea: ambiguous early moves cloaked by misleading leadership statements on their purpose, accompanied by an incremental buildup of forces using cover provided by preexisting Russian activities and facilities in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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