Is Russia Preparing Military Intervention to Back Assad in Syria?

September 3, 2015

In the past 36 hours, Israeli and American media have been reporting that Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing to dispatch Russian military forces to Syria, to bolster the Bashar Assad government and conduct new military operations against the Islamic State and other jihadist rebel forces. The original report on the planned Russian deployment of fighter jets, pilots, and support personnel came from the Israeli websites Ynet and Debka, both of which could normally be considered unreliable. But US intelligence sources pointed out that Russian officials have been secretly negotiating with Israel, on "deconfliction" protocols and overflight access in the event of Russian air force operations. The same US source indicated that Russian and Iranian officials have been meeting over the worsening Syrian situation. Russia, according to these accounts, has been critical of Iran's approach to the Syria situation, which has concentrated on protecting those areas of Syria near the Lebanese border that are vital to the security of Hezbollah, rather than defending the sovereignty of the country as a whole and the need to preserve a unified Syrian state under the duly elected Assad government.

The US source estimated that Russia would have to deploy at least 2,000 airmen and support personnel. The decision to directly deploy military forces in Syria against ISIS, if confirmed, reflects the conclusion by Putin and top Kremlin advisers that the diplomatic initiatives alone will not bring the conflict to an end and defeat ISIS. Putin is aware that the US military considers the defeat of ISIS to be the number one priority in both Syria and Iraq.

The Israeli news reports of the pending Russian deployment were bolstered yesterday by a lengthy article in the Daily Beast by Michael Weiss, a well-known Russia-hater. Under the headline "Russia Puts Boots on the Ground in Syria," Weiss cited recent press accounts of Russian deployments of ground forces into Syria, adding, "One report has even alleged that Russian pilots are gearing up to fly missions alongside the Syrian air force, dropping bombs not just on ISIS but on anti-Assad rebels who may or may not be aligned with the United States or its regional allies." Weiss quoted the Ynet article by Alex Fishman, who cited Western diplomatic sources, who say "thousands of Russian military personnel [sic] are set to touch down in Syria, including: Advisors, instructors, logistics personnel, technical personnel, members of the aerial protection division, and the pilots who will operate the aircraft."

Weiss had to admit that the Russian intervention would not be shocking, given the failure of the US-led operations so far. He also cited the Syrian government-linked Al Watan newspaper, which reported on Aug. 26 that Russia is planning to construct a second naval facility in Jableh, on the Mediterranean coast 15 miles south of Latakia. The paper reported that Russia is weighing direct military intervention or, alternatively, a UN-sponsored international peacekeeping force.