President Vladimir Putin, condemned by NATO for annexing Crimea, is now defying the U.S. in Syria by sending more and deadlier arms to help Bashar al-Assad score a string of advances against insurgents, military experts say.
Assad’s army, seeking to end a three-year civil war that’s killed 150,000 people and displaced 9 million, started using longer-range Russian Smerch and Uragan rockets for the first time in February, according to Jane’s Defense Weekly and Stratfor, a U.S. geopolitical research company. Syria has also intensified the use of MiG-29 fighter jets with ground-attack capabilities, Stratfor said, citing analyses of video footage.
“Russia is now doing everything to ensure that Assad wins convincingly,” Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said by phone. “If Russia can show it’s capable of carrying out its own foreign policy, regardless of America’s wishes, it will be a major achievement for Putin.”
Putin, who last year averted U.S. airstrikes on Syria by brokering a chemical weapons accord, is seeking to prolong the rule of his closest Arab ally, ignoring U.S. and European Union calls for Assad to step down. The U.S. and EU hit dozens of Putin associates with travel and asset freezes last month to protest Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and the U.S. Congress approved additional punitive measures this week.
“The Russian strategy has actually not changed, it’s just that they’re no longer hiding behind a diplomatic facade since Crimea,” Oubai Shahbandar, an adviser to the Syrian opposition, said by phone from Washington.
Russia is supplying a “lifeline” of ammunition and spare parts for tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters, said Ruslan Pukhov, an adviser to the Defense Ministry in Moscow and head of the Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. Pukhov declined to comment on the rockets and upgraded jets, as did Vyacheslav Davidenko, a spokesman for Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport. The Syrian embassy in Moscow didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. has information about an increase in the “quantity and quality” of Russian arms flows to Syria, Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson said on March 26.
“The stability that Russia seeks in Syria will not be achieved by providing planes, tanks, bombs and guns for use against the Syrian people,” Patterson told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington.
Syria’s constitution requires Assad, 48, to seek re- election to stay in power before his second seven-year term runs out in July. He ran unopposed in 2007, winning 98 percent of the vote. Assad’s father, Hafez, who ruled from 1971 until his death in 2000, sided with the Kremlin during the Cold War and Russia still has its only base outside the former Soviet Union at Tartus on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
The United Nations envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said the election, not yet officially announced, will derail peace talks brokered by the U.S. and Russia. President Barack Obama told King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia last week that the U.S. was committed to finding ways to strengthen Assad’s opponents without empowering extremists.
Syrian troops backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shiite Muslim group in mid-March seized the strategic border town of Yabroud, a rebel smuggling hub. A week later, Syrian forces recaptured a Crusader castle near Lebanon known as Krak des Chevaliers, which had been in insurgent hands for two years.
After reclaiming areas near the capital Damascus and securing much of the frontier with Lebanon, Assad’s army is now aiming to re-establish control over the border with Turkey, where many rebel fighters are entrenched, said Alexander Zotov, a former Russian ambassador to Syria. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said March 19 that commercial flights between Damascus and Aleppo, the northern financial hub that’s seen some of the fiercest fighting, had been resumed.
“Russia’s confidence in Assad’s hold on power has increased as the conflict has evolved in his favor,” Zotov said in an interview in Moscow. “No one is talking about Geneva III or IV now,” Zotov said, referring to the next possible rounds of talks after Geneva II collapsed in February.
The U.S. and Russia sponsored the peace process after reaching a deal with Assad last September to turn over his chemical weapons to international inspectors for destruction.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on state television on March 27 that Russia remains committed to diplomatic efforts to end the war. A week earlier, the ministry said the U.S. had abandoned its role as mediator by expelling all Syrian diplomats apart from those at the UN.
While Putin has said repeatedly that only the people of Syria can decide Assad’s fate, his government has in fact abandoned all pretense of neutrality, said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow.
“Assad’s victory over insurgents will change everything in the Middle East for Russia,” Lukyanov said by phone. Putin, who has rekindled Soviet ties with Egypt’s new military rulers through multibillion-dollar arms contracts, railed against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for using a UN-backed no-fly zone to oust the late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Putin, first elected in 2000, the same year as Assad, saw his approval rating in Russia surge to 80 percent after incorporating Crimea, the highest level in six years, according to the independent polling group Levada Center.
Leonid Ivashov, a former head of the Russian General Staff’s international cooperation department, said Syria needs Russia’s military support to protect it against U.S. and Israeli interference. “Russia will definitely follow this through,” Ivashov said at a roundtable in Moscow on April 1.
Putin has gained the upper hand in Syria because Obama is reluctant to supply the opposition with advanced weaponry such as guided anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles out of fear they may fall into the hands of radical Islamic groups linked to al- Qaeda, said Igor Korotchenko, a member of the Defense Ministry’s advisory council and the head of the Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade in Moscow.
“Because of that, the Syrian rebels are less active and dangerous than the mujahedeen were in Afghanistan,” Korotchenko said in an interview in the Russian capital, referring to the group of Islamic fighters who were armed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s in a successful campaign to force the Soviet Army to withdraw.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Paris after talks with Secretary of State John Kerry on the crisis in Ukraine on March 30 that he had received assurances that the U.S. won’t supply hand-held missile launchers to Syrian rebels. Kerry in February warned Russia to stop supplying weapons to Assad, saying the support was hampering the peace talks.
Russia was “surging military supplies” to Syria even as negotiators from both sides of the war met in Switzerland in February, according to Shahbandar, the rebel adviser.
The supply of Russian arms includes night-vision equipment, guided missiles, drones and vacuum bombs, Monzer Akbik, chief of staff for the opposition Syrian National Coalition, said by phone from Abu Dhabi.
Maritime records show regular shipments to Syria from the southern Ukrainian port of Oktyabrsk, which Russia uses for military exports, said Jeremy Binnie, a Middle East analyst at Jane’s Defense Weekly. Those supplies most likely consist of spare parts for T-72 tanks, Mi-24 attack helicopters and other equipment, Binnie said. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based nearby in Crimea, which Putin seized after bloody protests led to the ouster of Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych.
“You need constant supplies coming in on a daily basis to keep a sizable military functioning in the field,” Binnie said by phone from London.
Officially, Russia says it’s supplying only defensive weapons unsuitable for civil conflict. It has $3.5 billion of military orders from Syria, including for Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles, MiG-29 fighter jets and Pantsir short-range air-defense systems, according to data compiled by the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI, which studies the global arms trade, said Russia has also been supplying Syria with aerial bombs.
“When Russian officials say the weapons are for defensive use, or are ‘defensive weapons,’ they mean the weapons are to defend the Syrian government against ’insurgents’ or ’terrorists,’” Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at SIPRI, said by e-mail.
Putin’s support for Assad includes the deployment of a naval task force in the Mediterranean that makes it impossible for the U.S. to impose an arms blockade on Syria, said Pukhov, the Defense Ministry adviser.
“This is major support without which the regime would have collapsed,” Pukhov said in an interview.
Assad’s forces have suffered some reverses. Islamist rebels late last month seized control of the town of Kasab on the Turkish border, a gateway to the coastal province of Latakia, a stronghold of Assad and his Alawite minority. Government troops recaptured a key hilltop in Latakia on March 31, the state-run SANA news service reported.
A Putin envoy, Sergei Stepashin, met Assad in Damascus yesterday and delivered a message of support for his fight against terrorism, the Interfax news service reported.
“Despite some occasional victories by the rebels, it is already clear that the advantage is with Assad at this point, thanks in large part to the support he receives from Iran, Russia and Hezbollah,” Omar Lamrani, a military analyst at Austin, Texas-based Stratfor, said by phone from Bangkok.
“If the regime continues to receive substantial support from Russia and is able to continue to seize strategic ground around the Syrian core between Damascus and the coast, then the regime would have largely solidified its grasp in power even if it won’t be able to take all of Syria back,” Lamrani said.
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