A flurry of news reports recently have suggested that as the Assad regime falters, Russia may be pouring troops and weapons into Syria. The Daily Beast reports:
One report has even alleged that Russian pilots are gearing up to fly missions alongside the Syrian air force, dropping bombs not just on ISIS but on anti-Assad rebels who may or may not be aligned with the United States or its regional allies.[..]
On August 22, the Bosphorus Naval News website showed the Alligator-class Russian ship Nikolai Filchenkov, part of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, two days earlier passing through Istanbul’s famed waterway en route to an unknown location in the Mediterranean (hint, hint).
But what was remarkable about the Filchenkov was that military equipment was visible on deck—namely, Kamaz trucks and, judging by the tarpaulin outlines, at least four BTR infantry fighting vehicles. (This doesn’t include any matériel that might have been stored in the ship’s below-deck cargo hold.)
Somehow, BTR-82As, a new Russian model less than two years old, have started popping up in crucial bits of Assad-held Syria, painted olive-drab without markings. Syrian military television also inadvertently broadcast some chatter among combat troops in Russian. What oh what could be going on here?
Meanwhile, the U.S. does not seem to be unduly concerned, leading one to suspect that there might have been advance warning. The Daily Beast’s reporting seems to indicate defense sources knew what was going on. And then there’s this:
Much discussed in U.S. defense circles is what the Israeli news portal YNet reported Monday: that a new “expeditionary force” of the Russian military has arrived in Damascus and converted a Syrian air force installation into its own forward-operating base. Russian pilots will also apparently start flying their own combat missions. “In the coming weeks,” YNet’s Alex Fishman wrote, citing Western diplomatic sources, “thousands of Russian military personal [sic] are set to touch down in Syria, including: Advisors, instructors, logistics personnel, technical personnel, members of the aerial protection division, and the pilots who will operate the aircraft.”
The goal is said to be purely counterterrorist in nature and conforms to a new period of bilateral cooperation between Moscow and Tehran in salvaging a common ally—Assad—while also amplifying the fight against ISIS. That war, as prosecuted by a U.S.-fronted coalition for a year now, has not been going so swimmingly.
That’s putting it mildly: the Assad regime, bled white, is teetering on the brink of collapse. Other interested parties are making moves—whether it’s the Russians and Iranians acting to prop him up, or the Turks and Saudis attempting to exert more pressure on him to fall. Meanwhile, Washington remains relatively uninvolved.
The U.S. has successfully kept Russia out of the Middle East (and therefore from having a say in the flow of oil to the gobal economy) for a generation. Within the last few months, due to the dynamics of the Iran Deal, that has started to change: both the Sunnis and the Shi’a are looking more warmly than ever toward Moscow. If—if—Russian troops wind up on the ground in a big way in Syria, while the U.S. is seen to do nothing, the shift in perceived power within the region could significantly accelerate.