The videos posted almost daily by the defense ministry show Russian strike fighters in action over Syria, hammering “terrorist infrastructure” with precision-guided munitions. Meanwhile, Russian media reports speak of major gains by Syrian armed forces advancing behind a firestorm of Russian air support.
But there is growing controversy over what the Russians are actually accomplishing with their two-week-old intervention in Syria’s bitter and multi-sided civil war, and what their actual war objectives may be.
Western sources argue that most Russian air strikes have been directed not at the generally acknowledged enemy, the self-declared Islamic State, but against “moderate” rebels. Those forces have been fighting to overthrow the minority-led dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad for almost four years, with assistance from the CIA, Turkey, and Persian Gulf states. The US Central Command has even alleged that Russian air strikes are actually enabling IS to gain ground by weakening other rebel formations that are opposed to the extremists.
Russian sources insist that they are hitting IS hard. But more importantly, they say that they never made any promises to avoid attacking other rebel groups. They argue that while the US and its allies are fighting an ineffectual two-front war against IS and Assad, Russia’s strategy has always been to bolster Assad’s forces from above in a bid to turn the tide of the rebellion.
“Russia isn’t playing this game of distinguishing between ‘good’ terrorists and ‘bad’ ones,” says Yegeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle East Studies in Moscow, and a strong backer of the Kremlin campaign. “For Russia, the only way to do this is to back Syria’s existing central government, which is the force that has boots on the ground, and put an end to this rebellion.”
“It’s not that we love Assad,” Mr. Satanovsky says, “but that we’ve already seen what happens when central governments get destroyed: monsters come rushing into the vacuum. If Damascus should fall, it won’t be gentle pro-Western rebels who come marching in, but the genocidal maniacs of IS and Al Qaeda.”
Russia all in for Assad
Since suddenly launching its air war over Syria, Russian planes have flown hundreds of sorties against a variety of rebel targets, so far with no announced casualties. The operation seems a relatively small one, with about two dozen Su-24 and Su-25 ground attack fighters, plus a handful of helicopter gunships and Su-34 strike fighters. The defense ministry announced this week that an undisclosed number of advanced Su-30 air superiority fighters will be joining the contingent, to “escort” ground attack planes to their targets.
There is some unease among Russian security experts over whether the strategy can work.
“In the West, they seem to be aware that it will be impossible to reconstruct Syria as long as the Assad regime is in place. We are putting all our eggs in that basket,” says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. After four years of fighting, he says, the Syrian Army is nearly exhausted and is little more than a “virtual reality” force. “They will not be able to launch any credible, sustained offensive,” he says.
The forces Russia has deployed to the region are insufficient to take on highly mobile rebels on the ground, Mr. Konovalov adds. “What do we do if, at some point, we realize it’s not working?”
‘The choice is stark and ugly’
In an extensive interview with state TV this week, Vladimir Putin explicitly ruled out any Russian ground operation in Syria. The pro-war Russian media blitz, with its US-style bomb-sight videos and glowing accounts from embedded reporters, appears to have turned Russian public opinion from initial reluctance about intervention to a majority in favor. But experts say the “Afghan syndrome” is still a major factor, and public opinion may quickly sour if Russians start coming home in body bags.
However, most Russian experts deride Western claims that there is any “moderate” opposition still on the ground in Syria. Satanovsky says the CIA-backed Free Syrian Army may have been a force when the rebellion started, but various extreme jihadist factions now present the only alternative to the Assad regime.
“The Americans have to maintain this fiction because their various allies, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, have invested heavily in all those extreme Islamist forces with the aim of destroying the Assad regime,” he says. “The Russian intervention has exposed the absurdity of that notion. The middle ground has long since been scorched out, and the choice in Syria is now stark and ugly.”
And no one will venture an opinion about where things go from here.
“What Russia is doing is basically the same as NATO’s game plan in Libya a few years ago. We are providing close air support to forces on the ground, in this case backing the government against rebels, but the same idea,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading foreign policy journal. “Everything depends now on the ability of the Syrian Army to win victories with our help. If they can’t, Russia will be in trouble.”