The Russians have been building up their forces in Syria in recent weeks, with purported air strikes by Russian aircraft striking ISIS and Syrian rebel positions last month. On 7 October, the Russians launched cruises missiles against ISIS positions throughout Syria. While the Russians have been strengthening their naval and air presence in western Syria, the cruise missiles were launched from vessels deployed in the Caspian Sea. These missiles crossed Azerbaijani, Iranian, and Iraqi airspace before hitting their targets in Syria. With the use of cruise missiles in the campaign, the Russians have indicated they are willing to use a litany of assets in Syria to defeat ISIS.
During Vladimir Putin’s visit to the United Nations in New York, President Obama met with the Russian leader to discuss current operations in the region. The two sides have pledged to avoid conflict, a serious issue considering American and Russian warplanes are operating in the same airspace, targeting the same enemy. The Russians established an agreement with Israel in recent weeks to avoid aircraft from their respective countries accidently engaging one another over Syrian airspace. With the growth of Russian involvement in Syria, the inevitable question of ground troops arise.
The Kremlin has stated that any ground troops fighting in Syria will be volunteers. Like the current conflict in the Ukraine, Russia has utilized these “volunteers” to conduct offensive military operations on behalf of the government. The Iranians have supplied volunteer forces to Syria to fight against the rebels and ISIS, led by Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Soleimani. The United States and its coalition have failed to orchestrate any plan for ground troop involvement in Syria, although small numbers of American troops are being deployed to Iraq to help further train the Iraqi military. With a Russian/Iranian ground troop presence in Syria, ISIS and the Syrian rebels may be unable to hold onto their gains and the Assad regime could regain control over the country.
It is important to note the link between ISIS and Chechen rebel groups in Russia. Chechnya saw heavy fighting in the 1990s following a war between Islamic extremists and the Russian government. Chechen rebels were supported by al-Qaeda, but following the American war in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda’s strength around the world has been greatly depleted. Splinter groups broke off from the organization, with ISIS being formed during the war in Iraq. With a link between Chechen rebels and ISIS, increased Russian involvement in Syria may entice the Chechen Islamists to reignite their campaign in the Caucasus region, leading to further unrest around the globe.