June 23, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: Russia’s Dangerous Game in Syria
The ongoing ceasefire in Syria has exposed serious tensions between members of the pro-Assad coalition. Iran, Hizballah, and the Assad regime believe the ceasefire halted their momentum just as they had the anti-Assad rebels on the defensive. Russia believes the geopolitical payoff—positioning Russia as a key player in the conflict—justified the risk of stalling the regime's momentum. Recent events suggest that Russia has come around somewhat to the Assad view that an escalation is in order, even as the ceasefire still exists on paper.
On June 18, two Russian bomber jets attacked a unit of the U.S.-backed New Syrian Army (NSyA) close to the Jordanian border. The U.S. scrambled two F-18 jets to warn off the Russians, though after the F-18s left to refuel, the Russian bombers returned to again attack the rebel group (which was ostensibly included under the ceasefire). The attack was an extremely aggressive move by the Russian Air Force hundreds of miles from the area in which it normally operates. It was a message from Russia that, as bad as the war has been, it could always get worse through the destabilization of Jordan, one of the United States' main allies in the region.
On the same day, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus to discuss joint military operations against both the rebels and extremist groups—though neither Assad nor Putin make a meaningful distinction between the two. In March, Russia announced that it was withdrawing much of its offensive capabilities from Syria after accomplishing its goal of stabilizing the Assad regime. The reality, however, is that Russia maintains a significant military capability at Khmeimim air base in Latakia Province, and has even added more attack helicopters in addition to SU-24 bombers.
The Damascus meeting was preceded by a June 9 meeting in Tehran of the defense ministers of Russia, Iran, and Syria. Iran, Syria, and Hizballah see the ceasefire as a rebuilding opportunity for the rebels; weapons shipments across the Turkish border, including surface-to-air missiles (SAM), have angered Russia. That, along with recent regime losses and infighting, appear to have led Russia to increase direct military support.
Adding to the tension is increased talk in the U.S. about a so-called ‘Plan B.’ A leaked U.S. State Department dissent cable showed support even among the diplomatic corps for more advanced weapons for rebels, a no-fly zone, and U.S. airstrikes against the Assad regime. Such strikes would put the U.S. in direct confrontation with Russia and have not been called for by the Pentagon given the high-risk, low-gain of such an operation. Still, Russia strenuously objects to the U.S. Plan B. Moscow fully intends to maintain the Assad regime until a suitably pro-Russian alternative can be put into place.
Russian airstrikes so close to the Jordanian border are an unmistakable message that Russia is prepared to increase the cost to the U.S. by destabilizing its friends in the region. Recent unrelated attacks along the Jordanian-Syrian border have rattled Amman, which has now closed the last refugee crossing point between the two countries. Assad and Russia are determined to frame the fight as one between stability and terrorism, leaving the U.S. in a difficult position in a fight increasingly moving towards the extremes.
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