As more Russian aircraft, tanks, artillery and troops arrive near the Syrian port city of Latakia, McClatchy reports: The buildup is Moscow’s first major military operation outside of the former Soviet Union since the 1979-89 occupation of Afghanistan. As such, it represents a dangerous gamble for Putin because his intervention to bolster embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad offers a powerful incentive to Syrian rebel groups to collaborate in attacking the growing Russian military presence.
“A challenge for Russia is (that) maintaining a presence on the ground may require a robust force that could come in direct combat with various forces in the region,” said a U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
Stephen Blank, a former Russian expert with the Army War College who is now with the American Foreign Policy Council, a policy institute, said that the longer the Russian force is on the ground, the greater the chance that Syria “could become a quagmire” for Putin.
“The Russians think they can keep their intervention limited, but I doubt it the longer it goes on,” said Blank.
His warning was reinforced by a vow by the new head of Ahrar al Sham, the largest of the Sunni Muslim groups fighting to topple Assad, to target the Russian troops.
“We owe it to you to restore freedom to Syria after the invasion of the rejectionists from all corners of the Earth,” said Abu Yahya al Hamwi in a speech recorded on a video delivered to supporters somewhere in Turkey and posted on the Internet. “Today they are bolstered by their allies, the Russians, and the fate of this invasion shall be defeated.”
“Rejectionists” is a derogatory term that Sunni extremists use for Shiite Muslims. In citing it, Hamwi was referring to military advisers from Shiite-dominated Iran and Shiites from Afghanistan and Pakistan fighting on behalf of Assad, who is an Alawite, a Shiite offshoot that dominates the Syrian regime.
Ahrar al Sham, estimated to have 35,000 fighters, is the largest component of the Islamic Front, a coalition of rebel groups that recently cooperated with al Qaida’s Syrian arm, the Nusra Front, in conquering northern Idlib province, raising the possibility that they could launch joint operations against the Russians.
Russia has long supported Assad with military advisers and weaponry. But the Russian buildup at an airfield near Assad’s stronghold of Latakia is a huge escalation in the effort to prop up the Syrian leader, who’s suffered a string of losses and manpower shortages in fighting that has killed an estimated 250,000 people and uprooted half the population of 23 million. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Syria, and the migrant crisis it has spawned, has been a major focus of Mr. Kerry’s trip to Europe. After a meeting Saturday morning with Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary, Mr. Kerry said that it was vital to pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis but that Moscow was not putting enough pressure on President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to make him negotiate seriously.
“We need to get to the negotiation,” Mr. Kerry said at a joint news conference with Mr. Hammond. “That’s what we’re looking for, and we hope Russia and Iran, other countries with influence, will help to bring that about, because that’s what’s preventing this crisis from ending.”
“Right now, Assad has refused to have a serious discussion,” Mr. Kerry added, “and Russia has refused to help bring him to the table in order to do that.”
Mr. Hammond and Mr. Kerry each emphasized that Mr. Assad could not remain in power if there was to be a durable solution to the conflict, but they said that the timing of his departure during a political transition in Syria would be a matter of negotiation.
“It doesn’t have to be on Day 1 or Month 1,” Mr. Kerry said. “There is a process by which all the parties have to come together and reach an understanding of how this can best be achieved.”
“I just know that the people of Syria have already spoken with their feet,” Mr. Kerry added. “They’re leaving Syria.” [Continue reading…]