Is Russia fighting ISIL or occupying Syria?

Is Russia fighting ISIL or occupying Syria?

The ongoing crisis between NATO member Turkey and Russia over the former’s downing a Russian warplane over an airspace violation has obviously escalated tension in the region, amid fears that it could lead to unwanted consequences. 

Ankara seems ready to reconcile and to start a new dialogue with Moscow to establish a mechanism to avoid any similar future incidents, but Russian President Vladimir Putin is deliberately trying to escalate the tension with harsh accusations and new military deployments in Syria. 

There is sufficient evidence to prove that the Russian leadership is using this ongoing crisis as a pretext to further strengthen its military presence in Syria, begun in early October. It is thus fortifying its position ahead of Jan 1, 2016, when the implementation of the Vienna agreement on Syria is due to begin. 

The ultimate objective of Russia is clear: Keeping Bashar al-Assad and his regime intact and strong in the territories it controls until the end of the transitional period, so that Moscow’s top regional ally does not lose power. It also wants to maintain its military presence as the guarantor of al-Assad’s life-long rule. Recent military developments taking place in Syrian territories should be evaluated from this perspective. 

There are reports in both the Russian and the international media about the country’s plans to build a new air military facility near Homs, known as the al-Shayrat Base, which has already been used by Russian attack helicopters. It should be noted that Russia has already been using the Tartus naval station and an airbase near Latakia, both along the Syrian coast, for its military operations. 

The airbase in Latakia was believed to host more than 30 warplanes, but the number has seemingly increased since the downing of the SU-24 last week. Russian media suggests that the number will soon increase to 100 warplanes, deployed to the new airbase that for now has just 45 hangars. 

This news also proves a statement made last month by a Russian commander, Colonel-General Andrei Kartapolov, that Russian commanders are now looking to create a “single base that would include sea, air and land components,” in an interview with the Komsomolskaya Pravda. 

Russia already has eight warships stationed off the Syrian coast, including the guided missile cruiser Moskva, which is believed to be armed with S-300 long range missiles. Moscow has also very recently deployed its hi-tech aerial defense S-400 systems. All deployments other than the S-400s were obviously decided long before Turkey’s downing the Russian warplane.  

Part of this increased deployment could be seen as being retaliation for the Turkish action, but the general framework suggests that Russia has long been installing itself into the Middle East - with no plans to exit the theater soon.  

On the other hand, the global fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) gives Russia a good alibi for stepping up its activities in Syria. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks and with France and Britain inclined to more actively join the anti-ISIL missions, Russia’s plans to create a global coalition have gained more ground. 

However, the challenges in front of the realization of Russian plans are numerous: First, the well-coordinated and well-equipped moderate rebel groups under the leadership of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have shown progress in their fight against regime forces. That is why the Russians recently intensified their military attacks against the anti-regime forces, especially in northwestern Syria just across the Turkish border. 

The second challenge is the Turkish-American plan to create an ISIL-free area between the Mare and Jarablus. This development could cause problems for the al-Assad regime in the future. It should not be forgotten that the heavy Russian campaign along the Turkish border came only two days after the announcement of the soon-to-begin joint operation by the two NATO allies.

The current picture shows very clearly that Russia plans to become installed in Syrian territories for a very long time. Ankara’s crisis with Moscow goes far beyond the downing of the Russian warplane and it will take a very long time before Turkey-Russia ties can return to normalcy. The situation has already turned into a proxy war, and unfortunately Turkey seems to be much more vulnerable at present.