. With Western policy on Syria in a state of flux
could the timing of Russia’s military move
into that country be more perfect?
The operation to move dozens of combat
aircraft and hundreds of troops to the aid of
President Bashar al-Assad must have been
given the green light some weeks ago, but
think of what’s been happening during the
past 10 days as reports emerged of the
Russians appearing at an air base near the
Assad stronghold of Latakia.
With American policy stalled and arguments
about the degree to which its bombing
campaign has blunted IS, the president’s
envoy, retired General John Allen, and several
other senior officials have decided to step
down. Gen Allen was known to believe the US
should harden its position on the overthrow
of President Assad, and in the need for a safe
zone in the north of Syria – instead the
prospect seems to be slipping away of either
Last week the US general running Central
Command, the Pentagon’s Middle East arm,
went through humiliating testimony in front
of the Senate Armed Services Committee in
which he had to admit that the number of
Syrian rebels trained under a $500m (£325m)
US programme who had actually made it into
the field could be counted on the figures of
one hand, and that plans for a safe area in
northern Syria to protect civilians would be
meaningless without ground troops, but he
could not recommend the commitment of US
soldiers on such a mission.
As for Britain, last week the National Security
Council was considering ambitious proposals
to commit forces to help protect civilians in
This week they are facing up to the
possibility that the aircraft pounding rebel
held areas might soon be Russian instead of
Other countries – from France to the
Netherlands, and Australia – are either
thinking of starting strikes against targets in
Syria belonging to the so-called Islamic State
or have recently began them.
Will many Syrians now assume that such
missions are all part of the same effort to save
President Assad’s government that Russia
seems set to launch?
All calculations in the region have been
thrown into disarray by the speed and scale
of Russia’s deployment.
And on social media on Tuesday morning I
noted two eminent professors of strategic
studies discussing “Putin envy” among their
It’s been evident since late August that Israel
expected the imminent deployment of Russian
fighter squadrons – the Americans chose to
stall for a few days before giving any
response to these early stories, mindful
presumably that President Putin was about to
commit on the ground in a way President
Obama has dreaded doing since the outbreak
of the Syrian civil war four years ago.
From 20 August shipments of equipment from
Black Sea ports, via the Bosphorus, to the
Syrian port of Tartous started picking up.
The operation followed a logical military
pattern: secure the Latakia airfield; improve
its facilities; create a defence against possible
air attack; and lastly, bring in your combat
Then dozens of flights by heavy Antonov
cargo planes started augmenting the sea lift.
As of Tuesday morning the Russians had
moved in 28 combat jets (12 Su24 bombers, 12
Su25 ground attack aircraft and 4 Su-30 multi-
role fighters), two types of drones, and 20
helicopters (a mix of gunships and troop
Some reports suggest that the deployment is
getting so large that it will need more than
one airfield for its operations.
Pentagon officials were briefing on Monday,
that the drones were already operating,
presumably searching for targets, and that
offensive air operations could be expected
The Russians, in a fortnight, have moved in a
striking force of roughly equivalent power to
the few dozen surviving capable aircraft at
Syria’s disposal – but with more modern
guided weapons and surveillance systems.
This initiative, just like the Kremlin’s moves
in Ukraine last year, strikes at a delicate
There are clear differences of perspective
between the White House, and some
European allies that are receiving hundreds
of thousands of refugees from Syria.
The Daily Beast, canvassing US officials on
Monday, reported : “Privately, many seemed to
welcome a Russian intervention if it alleviated
the burden on the US for fighting ISIS.”
In the UK however, with a government
canvassing for a parliamentary vote on
military action, and on the verge of pledging
support to a no-fly zone to stop Syrian
bombing in the north of the country, Russia’s
action is profoundly troubling.
Assad’s bombardments have been the cause of
most casualties in the war, and indeed of
millions fleeing their homes.
But with the prospect of Russian muscle being
added to that effort, Britain can see even
more refugees being created, and enforcing a
no-fly zone against Mr Putin’s air force risks
It is the need to prevent people shooting
down one another’s planes by accident that
has caused the Americans and Israelis to
make liaison or “deconfliction” arrangements
swiftly with Russia.
The arrival in Moscow on Monday of Israeli
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his
army chief of staff and head of military
intelligence for unprecedented discussions
with the Russian military is a measure of how
far the Kremlin’s move deserves that often
overused term “game changer”.
If there is widespread admiration among
strategists and military people in Western
countries of Mr Putin’s tactical sense,
willingness to embrace risk, and desire to
show up the emptiness of western political
rhetoric, there is also a body of thought that
he has no bigger plan, and indeed that his
actions in the past 18 months have cost
thousands of lives in Ukraine as well as
bringing enormous economic costs to Russia.
What is his end game? Will Syria be his
Mr Putin has given public explanations of
what he is trying to achieve.
Sitting next to Mr Netanyahu yesterday he
said, “our main goal is to protect the Syrian
Scoffing at Israeli fears that Syria intended to
sponsor militant attacks across the Golan
Heights, Mr Putin told his visitor that the
Syrian army was in no state to open a second
The Kremlin’s objective, stated plainly, has
been to prevent an implosion of the Syrian
state – or what’s left of it. Mr Putin last week
said he intended to prevent a complete
implosion of government authority of the kind
that happened in Libya, following Nato’s 2011
It’s a smart message, the taps into Western
guilt about what has happened since Colonel
What’s more, the idea of preserving the
Syrian armed forces and security agencies,
while working towards a transitional
government or peace process finds some
support in Western countries, and indeed the
American line has shifted significantly in
recent days to allow President Assad to
remain in power for the time being, making
his removal subsidiary to the aim of crushing
Syrian opposition groups are already
disregarding the subtleties of this message –
fearing that Washington’s shift and its
military coordination with Russia are signs it
is effectively now siding with Assad.
What nobody knows is whether Russia will
continue sending ground forces to Syria – and
deploy them with aims more offensive than
protecting its air and naval facilities.
There have already been reports of Russians
fighting on front lines, but so far in numbers
sufficiently small to make little difference.
Perhaps Mr Putin’s speech at the UN in New
York next week will give us an idea of his
broader plan – and indeed how far the US and
others might have acquiesced to it.
But for now, we can watch events on the
ground, asking in the coming weeks: when
will strikes start? What will their targeting tell
us? How will Russia react if its personnel are
captured? And will larger ground forces be