Russia is charging into its second year of armed intervention in the complex Syrian war battered by accusations of war crimes. It has saved the regime of its ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, from imminent collapse with brutal firepower but has become locked in a deadly stalemate that means Russian forces will not be able to withdraw in the foreseeable future.
The intervention on September 30th, 2015, came after four-and-a-half years of civil war in Syria and as rebel groups thrust deeper into government territory. It dramatically changed the dynamics of this perplexing, multi-sided war. An expeditionary Russian air wing dispatched by Russian President Vladimir Putin gave Assad a powerful offensive capability that his lacklustre air force had never had.
Putin has used this ruthlessly — in sharp contrast to the hesitant, zigzag policies of US President Barack Obama — to ensure that long-time ally Assad, now totally dependent on Russia and Iran for his survival, stays in power. But there seems to be no end to the conflict in sight.
The large influx of foreigners, ostensibly to support a widely despised regime, has had the opposite effect, as the numbers greatly bolstered jihadist forces, among the most effective of the rebel groups, and brought increased aid from the United States, Turkey and the Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to the opposition.
With the latest ceasefire plan brokered by Russia and the United States wrecked in a surge of violence, the signs are that Putin has decided to abandon diplomatic efforts that could end the conflict and stepped up the offensive to recapture urban centres held by the rebels.
This bodes ill for Syria, with an estimated 400,000 dead from a war in its sixth year, its cities in ruins and half its pre-war population of 23 million turned into refugees.
The entire region faces danger as it is being torn apart by a cluster of conflicts that seem to be melding into one huge conflagration while a tidal wave of refugees threatens to swamp Europe.
It is not clear whether the Russians had factored this demographic disaster, heightened by refugees from the war in neighbouring Iraq, into their military planning but it has played into Putin’s efforts to disrupt the European Union and NATO, which have extended eastward to Russia’s doorstep after the 1990 collapse of the Soviet Union.
In Putin’s worldview, all this affords Moscow an opportunity to restore its Cold War power, challenge the United States as Obama disengages from the Middle East and force Washington to treat him as an equal instead of dismissing post-Soviet Russia as a second-rate “regional power”, as Obama once did.
With Russia expected to capitalise on the strategic vacuum in Washington policymaking that will likely last until Obama’s successor takes office in January, Putin will seek to strengthen Russia’s position in Syria.
“It is well-nigh impossible to solve any issue in Syria without Russia or against its will,” observed Margarete Klein of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.
Russia has established an airbase near the Mediterranean port of Latakia, close to a naval depot at Tartus that is being expanded while a submarine base is reported to be planned nearby, all bolstering Russia’s long-term military presence in the eastern Mediterranean. For Syria, the shape of things to come may already be unfolding with the latest aerial blitz on the battered city of Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city and its economic heart.
The eastern rebel-held sector of the ancient city, now the strategic epicentre of the war, has been under constant bombardment by Russian and Syrian warplanes since a week-long ceasefire brokered by the US and Russia collapsed on September 19th following a pulverising air strike on a UN aid convoy. The West has blamed Russia but Moscow denies responsibility.
Western military sources and Syrian activists say whole blocks of the eastern sector have been flattened in the air strikes. Russian Su-25 fighter-bombers, recently redeployed in Syria months after withdrawing as part of a so-called drawdown of forces, are stepping up raids on rebel command centres and concentrations.
The air strikes are the heaviest yet mounted by Russian and Syrian air forces against an urban population. This underlines just how important it is for the Assad regime to complete the conquest of Aleppo and Russia’s willingness to ignore a growing international outcry over the civilians it is slaughtering.
The sources report the Russians are using 500-kilogram BetAb-500 bunker-buster bombs, designed to destroy deeply buried military facilities built with reinforced concrete, on civilian centres, including medical facilities. These bombs penetrate bunkers before exploding, which means the maze of tunnels and shelters the rebels have built under the streets of Aleppo since the city was divided in mid-2012 are vulnerable.
During an unusually stormy session of the UN Security Council on September 25th, British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft declared: “It is difficult to deny that Russia is partnering with the Syrian regime to carry out war crimes.”
Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, accused Russia of using “bunker-busting bombs” and incendiary bombs against civilian centres in Aleppo, including underground shelters.
“We’ve heard the words ‘unprecedented’, in quantity and also in scale and type, in the types of bombs,” he told the session during which Russia was widely denounced.
He said he had “seen videos and pictures of reported use of incendiary bombs that create fireballs of such intensity they light up the pitch darkness in eastern Aleppo as though it was actually daylight”.
Russia admitted using these weapons against Islamic State (ISIS) command centres soon after its Syrian intervention began but no conclusive proof that they are being dropped on civilians has emerged. The Russians have steadily escalated the intensity of their air strikes since its forces began operating in Syria. This included several long-range attacks by its strategic bombers, Tupolev Tu-22M3s and Ilyushin Il-28s, and broadsides of Kalibr-NK cruise missiles launched from Russian warships in the Caspian and Mediterranean Seas, the first time these long-range weapons have been used in combat. Some missions were flown from Iran.
Putin has deployed a squadron of Black Sea Fleet warships in the eastern Mediterranean, a challenge to US and NATO forces in the region and a marker for the Russian leader’s drive to restore Moscow’s global standing. He is expected to strengthen this force in November with the addition of Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, which will carry out air strikes in Syria. The 43,000-tonne Kuznetsov, the Russian navy’s flagship, was designed for anti-ship operations and carries 12 long-range P-700 Granit cruise missiles along with 15 multi-role Su-33 and MiG-29K fighters and ten Kaman attack helicopters.
They will be expected to conduct air strikes against Syrian rebels. The fixed-wing jets are also air superiority fighters.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian war through a network of activists across the country, reported that Russia has recruited some 3,000 of its nationals to support Assad’s dilapidated ground forces. These are heavily reliant on the support of a Tehran-backed army of Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan led by Lebanon’s Hezbollah and stiffened by commanders from Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
The British-based observatory said reports from “several reliable sources” indicated the mercenaries who had arrived “in the past four weeks” are now concentrated in the As-Safira region south-east of Aleppo to participate in a major ground offensive aimed at driving rebel forces out of the city.
There has been no independent confirmation of the observatory report but if it is correct, this would be the first sizeable ground force Russia has committed to the Syrian battleground, a deployment that would mark a major shift in Putin’s strategy.
Small groups of Russian special forces have been reported in Syria but it has long been apparent that Assad’s war-weakened army is incapable of building on the gains made by Russia even with Iranian support. The fighting in Aleppo has made that very clear.
Putin may have decided to up the ante — although analysts do not believe he wants an operation of the scale of Russia’s disastrous intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 or the equally catastrophic US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
This article by Ed Blanche was originally published by The Arab Week