Russia’s commitment to defending the Assad regime in Syria appears to be strengthening with the increased Russian military presence to the region in recent weeks. In our previous SITREP, it was noted that Russian military forces appeared to be deploying in support of Assad’s regime in the ongoing Syrian Civil War. The Russian’s have maintained a naval base in Syria for decades, allowing Russian naval assets to project their power into the Mediterranean. With increased outside influence for the Assad regime, questions arise as to the stability of the Syrian government and their ability to combat the growing Islamic State threat and the rebels attempting to overthrow the government. Russian involvement further complicates Allied efforts in fighting the Islamic State, as the threat of engaging Russian forces rises dramatically.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently traveled to Moscow to discuss the Russian deployment with President Vladimir Putin. The two reached an agreement on 21 September, ensuring their respective nations avoid clashes between their military forces in the region. This agreement is significant because it clearly points to Russia’s plan for military engagement in Syria. The Russians have established a base of operations at the Bassel Al-Assad International Airport, deploying 12 SU-25s, 12 SU-24s, and 4 SU-30 multirole strike aircraft. Large transport aircraft have been seen flying from the airfield, delivering tanks, artillery, and surface-to-air systems to the soldiers on the ground.
The deployment of Russian SAM systems arouses curiosity. The Islamic State has been able to attain a very limited number of aircraft, but lack the trained pilots and logistics to use them offensively. The only other aircraft conducting strikes in Syria, besides the Syrian air force, are the Israelis and the American-led coalition (note: there have been reports of Iranian air force jets also hitting targets). Should an American or coalition aircraft be inadvertently shot down by a Russian SAM, the situation in Syria could erupt into a far wider ranging war.
So far the Russians have not officially begun to conduct operations in Syria. The small number of troops and aircraft currently indicate an advisory role for the Syrian army, but should the Syrian government continue to struggle in defeating ISIS and the rebels, expect the Russians to deploy larger contingents of troops to the region and take on more of the tasks. Russian involvement may be a blessing in disguise for NATO and the Baltic states that have seen increasing saber rattling. With attention devoted towards the Middle East, Russia may not have the resources to live up to the threats of recent years posed against NATO states.