The Cable

Russia Raises the Stakes in Syrian War

Are new shipments of Russian military hardware laying the ground for combat missions to prop up the Assad regime?

The Russian Navy CCB-201 vessel (front) sails in the Bosphorus on September 5, 2013 in Istanbul, on its way for intelligence operations off the coasts of Syria. Russian naval vessels in the Mediterranean are capable of reacting to an escalation in the Syria conflict, a military source said on September 4, as Moscow fine tunes its maritime presence ahead of possible US military action. The CCB-201 vessel is deemed to be one of the largest intelligence-collection ships in the Russian fleet. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC
The Russian Navy CCB-201 vessel (front) sails in the Bosphorus on September 5, 2013 in Istanbul, on its way for intelligence operations off the coasts of Syria. Russian naval vessels in the Mediterranean are capable of reacting to an escalation in the Syria conflict, a military source said on September 4, as Moscow fine tunes its maritime presence ahead of possible US military action. The CCB-201 vessel is deemed to be one of the largest intelligence-collection ships in the Russian fleet. AFP PHOTO / BULENT KILIC

U.S. officials are concerned that a dramatic Russian military buildup in western Syria over the past week signals preparations by Moscow to fly combat missions in support of the President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, marking a potentially dangerous escalation of the four-year-old conflict.

At least four Russian Condor cargo planes and several naval ships have delivered an array of military equipment and hardware in recent days at an airfield near Latakia on the Mediterranean coast and at the Russian naval facility of Tartus to the south, officials said Wednesday.

The cargo unloaded includes portable air traffic control towers, ground equipment for servicing aircraft, “modular housing units for hundreds of people,” two tank landing ships and dozens of armored vehicles, a senior U.S. official told Foreign Policy.

“What it looks like is they are trying to establish some sort of forward operating base that could accommodate air operations,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Asked if the movement of equipment indicated Moscow was planning to conduct bombing raids with Russian attack helicopters or warplanes, the official said: “That’s the concern.” But the official added: “We don’t know what the Russians have planned.” Contrary to some initial media reports, the Russian equipment delivered so far does not include fighter planes, drones, bombs or missiles.

The Russian move represents a frontal challenge to U.S. and European efforts to isolate the Assad regime and end the four-and-a-half year old conflict. Russia’s escalation came as a particular surprise because it followed a flurry of diplomacy from Moscow and Washington designed to revive talks to end the war, which has claimed more than 200,000 lives.

Analysts said Russia, which has been a staunch ally of Syria and has shipped it advanced weapons in recent years, hoped to shore up Assad’s embattled regime and was possibly trying to discourage Western governments from taking any military action against the Assad regime in the future. Since the Syrian civil war began, Russia has sought to leverage influence with its longtime client state and regain influence in the eastern Mediterranean, a longtime goal of both Soviet and Russian foreign policy.

Secretary of State John Kerry voiced his alarm over the build up in a phone call Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the second exchange between the two in five days.

“Secretary Kerry expressed our concern about some of these activities that we continue to see,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said.

If the reports of a major buildup “are borne out, it will do nothing to stabilize the situation and indeed lead to more violence,” Kirby told Foreign Policy.

A U.S. intelligence official said Russia’s moves reflected mounting anxiety about the strength of Assad’s regime and that Moscow “may be willing to intervene directly on his behalf.”

It remained unclear precisely what Russia was planning, but the intelligence official added that “Russia has generally not exercised restraint in military confrontations.”

The expanded Russian military presence in Syria comes as the Assad regime has suffered a spate of setbacks on the battlefield despite massive support from its Iranian patrons and the pro-Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

Syrian regime forces reportedly lost control of their last air base in the northern Idlib province on Wednesday in fighting with the the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra front and other Islamist militants.

In Moscow, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said that Russia had never made a secret about providing military assistance for the Damascus regime.

“We have been supplying Syria with arms and military equipment for a long time,” the spokeswoman said. “We are doing this in accordance with existing contracts and in full accordance with international law.”

Russia has portrayed its arms deliveries to Syria as supporting the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State and other militants, and have painted Assad as a key ally in defeating the extremists.

Russia also has refused to rule out sending forces to fight Islamic State militants on the ground.

President Vladimir Putin, when asked Friday if Russia would deploy troops to Syria to battle the Islamic State, said “we are looking at various options.”

But U.S. officials say that if Russia is serious about countering the Islamic State, it should not be propping up Assad and fueling a war that has allowed the group to take root.

U.S. and NATO relations with Russia have sharply deteriorated after Moscow’s armed intervention in Ukraine, which has raised fears of a more aggressive Russian foreign policy. That has already materialized in a more muscular approach to the Russian Arctic, greater military cooperation with China, and enhanced efforts to widen existing divides inside Europe, by courting countries such as Hungary and Turkey, for example.

Russia’s stepped up activities in Syria aren’t a recent development. According to a report by Russian investigative journalist Ruslan Leviev, over the last two months, there has been a stream of Russian troops heading to the naval facility in Tartus. The report tracked social media posts from Russian members of the 810th marine brigade, including selfies taken by troops on their journey to the base.

As signs of Moscow’s buildup emerged, the United States in recent days has asked countries to refuse overflight permission for Russian aircraft heading to Syria. Bulgaria, a NATO member, agreed to the request and reportedly rejected a Russian overflight request extending to September 24.

As a result, Moscow sought a flight path over Iran and Iraq, and Russian news agencies reported Wednesday that Tehran had granted permission.

Russia has not tried to fly military aircraft over Turkey, also a member of NATO, since 2012, when Ankara grounded a plane headed for Syria that was carrying radar parts from Russia.

Russia sees the long-running war in Syria as a chance to reassert its influence in the Middle East, according to Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow at the Washington Institute.

“The West has been so indecisive on Syria for so long that it has left Russia with a key opportunity to make an impact in the Middle East,” she said. The region was in the crosshairs of Soviet foreign adventures from the 1950s through the 1980s, and interest has revived in recent years after the reelection of President Putin. Russia has opposed peace proposals that have required Assad to step down from power, Borshchevskaya said, and “Moscow hopes other countries may now begin to come around to the Russian position on Assad.”

FP’s Reid Standish contributed to this report.

Photo credit: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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