Saturday, October 3, 2015

Russian Military in Syria – Beyond the Near Abroad

Russia’s aggressive military buildup in and around the Syrian airbase and port of Latavia is their first foray in such strength beyond the Near Abroad since their 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. And it’s the first one beyond the Near Abroad done with gusto which has little to do with dealing with a country that’s an imminent military or political threat to Russia. Russia’s relationship with Syria was established decades ago with solid military and commercial ties including a large number of Russian ex-patriots who lived and worked in Syria.

Even with a limited contingent, the Russians are now the so-called “boots on the ground” in Syria. Russia’s robust military presence provides Putin with a bevy of short and long-term military and political options and opportunities. Additionally, Putin can easily shift his public relations campaign to emphasize one or several objectives whichever one is bringing him success and dismiss those which are failing.

For the short-term:

With the arrival of an array of their latest modern aircraft, tanks and other weapons systems, it gives Russian an opportunity to test them under battle conditions. Their performance will provide them invaluable knowledge for future battles wherever they may take place and a terrific marketing opportunity to sell those weapons in the future as battle-tested.
Their latest weapons utilization would be against ISIS, a group that’s hated by almost everyone.
Their Middle East military participation can be “sold” domestically as a security issue by battling an evil organization in ISIS which they can claim could foment and inspire unrest in their own Muslim population.

This large military support is politically symbolic in that Russia is aggressively protecting its client states militarily beyond the Near Abroad regardless how ruthless and venal, even at the cusp of collapsing. In other words, the public relations spin is that the Russians support their allies through thick and thin.

The political issue is whether Russian aircraft and military personnel operated by Russians, at the request of Syrian President Assad, will interfere with Israeli attacks on Hizbollah operating from Syrian territory even though their activities take place in the south, far removed from the Russian airbase. Certainly the topic of the recent meeting between Netanyahu and Putin in Moscow probably covered such probabilities and the scope which the Russians will allow Israel to conduct their anti-terrorist operations in Syrian territory.

For the long-term:

Russia’s Syrian adventure is a political maneuver by Putin to establish Russia as a world power and influencer by projecting cutting edge military power and prowess beyond the Near Abroad under the political cover of battling an enemy loathed by many. Because Iran is an important Syrian ally, it gives Russia more leverage with the west as a future go-between. Overseas military adventures always expensive endeavors so this Russian participation is a long-term investment forcing the American coalition to deal with Russian interests in any future negotiation.
The upgraded Russian military bases can serve as an early warning system for any potential Israeli attacks on Iran’s nuclear installations should the nuclear deal fall apart in the future. Their flight path would come very close to the Syrian border en route north thus reducing the Israeli’s air force element of surprise.

There are always notable downsides to such bold overseas military adventures as Russia will eventually find out. “History doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes,” said Mark Twain. Sets up interesting déjà vu historical scenario when the French established a major base in Indochina in 1954, then a French colony, called Bien Dien Phu that was overrun by the Vietnamese. The historical parallel is that the French and Russians have had decades of military and commercial ties with a dictatorial host country. The question is not whether, rather when ISIS will undertake selective attacks against a new player in the region for the purposes of enhancing their reputation.

Whatever the actual objective(s) a strong Russian military presence in Syria is there to stay for the long-term to insure that Russian has a strong Middle East presence.

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