Russian-Syrian relations dates back to 1946 when Syria gained its full independence from France, but could not achieve stability for a long period after the end of World War II. The two countries have shared a close relationship, Syria is one of Russia’s closest Middle Eastern allies. In 1956 Syria followed its ally Egypt in purchasing arms from the Soviet Union, and the Suez War accelerated a multiplication of ties between Syria and the Soviet Union ties closely associated with the increase in power and influence from the Nationalist Baath Party.
During the Cold War, Syria became an ally to Russia in opposition to the western powers, creating a stronger political bond. Between 1955 and 1958, Syria received about $294 million from Russia for military and economic assistance, a business relationship that continues until today. Also thousands of Syrian military officers and educated professionals studied and trained in Russia during the rule of Assad family. Russia supported Syria economically and politically during Syria’s war against Israel in 1967 and 1973 as challenge against the dominance of United States and Western countries in the region.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, Russia decided to side with the Assad regime and increased its military support to his only Arab ally since the war started in Syria. Russia also supported Assad regime with weapons, military experts, loans, and political cover in the UN Security Council. Russia has used its veto powers four times to block resolutions on Syria that would condemn the Syrian government including blocking the first and second drafts of a France-Britain sponsored attempt to condemn the use of violence by the Syrian government.
Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev [right] and Syrian President Hafez Assad [left] / alamy.com
Russia’s objective in Syria
The Russian intervention to Syria is to accomplish multiple objectives. Russian President Vladimir Putin is currently working to create an alternative anti-ISIS coalition that includes Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime in a direct challenge to the US led coalition currently active against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, also positioning Russia as the leader of a new international anti-ISIS coalition.
The Assad regime has lost control of significant areas near Latakia and Hama provinces. Opposition forces and Jihadists led by Nusra Front [al-Qaeda affiliate] captured Idlib city in north western Syria in March 2015 and captured almost the entire Idlib province the Syrian regime forces by early September 2015 including capturing Jisr al-Shughur, Ariha, and Al-Mastumah military camp, these advances placed the opposition forces in position to launch offensives into the heartland of the Syrian regime in Alawite majority region of Latakia and this offensive could bring an end to the Assad regime and the ongoing war in Syria.
Russian media also claimed that the Russian deployment was to prevent the genocide of the Syrian Alawites that are living in the coast if the Syrian opposition and jihadists decided to launch an offensive on Latakia.
It’s clear that Russia has commercial and military interests in Syria that it wants to keep, also they could lose it if Assad regime falls. These include, the naval base at Tartus, which is Russia’s only Mediterranean base. Russia also has billions of dollars of commercial investments in Syria, that includes oil and gas infrastructure, which is defiantly needs to be maintained and protected.
Many experts believe that Russian intervention is also aimed to destroy the Caucasians that are fighting alongside the Syrian opposition and Jihadist groups in Syria like Junud Sham, Ajnad Kavkaz, Ansar Deen Front and Islamic State. There are estimated to be around 2,000 Caucasians from different ethnicities among them are Chechens, Dagestanis and Circassians, many of them has participated in Abkhaz war, Both Chechen wars and Dagestan war so they have a long-time military experience in the fight against the Russians. Islamic State has about 6,000 Russian speaking fighters that are from Caucasus and Central Asia [Majority of them] and they participate in both campaigns in Syria and Iraq. Russia fears the return of these fighters back to Russia or to its neighbours because they will set-up cells and expand the ISIS network then begin attacking Russian military points in Russia, which is a threat to Russia’s national security.
Junud Sham fighters in Latakia / Twitter
Rapid Russian intervention proves clearly that Major General Qassem Soleimani’s military strategy in Syria has failed. Two years ago, he took command of all foreign Shiite militant groups in Syria, by commanding and observing them in battlefields. He also formed and organized many Shiite militant groups in Syria to support the Syrian Army [SAA] in battle like Syrian Hezbollah and Fatemiyoun Brigade and other foreign Shiite brigades. Despite all that intensive support from Iran and Hezbollah they did not achieve a major victory against the Syrian opposition groups and Jihadits, but instead they resulted in a military defeats and setbacks in north-western Syria which has forced the Syrian President Bashar Assad for the first time since the 2011 uprising to admit that the Syrian Army has suffered from many setbacks throughout the country.
US Secretary of State John Kerry told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Saturday that if reports of the build-up were accurate, that could further escalate the war and risk of confrontation with the US led alliance which is currently bombing Islamic State in Syria.
Russian military personnel are arriving in Syria, including advisers, instructors, logistics personnel, technical personnel, members of the aerial protection division, and the pilots who will operate the aircraft. Russian soldiers have been helping to organize the defense of the Latakia Mountains since early August. Russian marines have been moved to Syria to guard and strengthen the Tartus naval base as well as the airbase close to Latakia. There are videos and photos that shows Russian vehicles with Russian crews do go into battle against the Syrian opposition forces. Support is also rendered at least by Russian UAVs.
Russian troops fight alongside Syrian army [SAA + NDF] in Latakia / Twitter
Many media sources have been reporting on Russia’s growing military presence in Syria since early September. Russia has claimed that its military cooperation with Syria is legal and in line with contracts for weapon supplies. Russia is supporting the Assad regime with new military equipment and training, with Russian weapons as the Russian President Putin told the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency. Many reports say that Russia did also send an anti-aircraft battery [Pantsir-S missile system] to Syria.
According to Kommersant more than 1,700 Russian military personnel from 810th Marine Brigade and 27th Brigade are currently stationed at Tartus, a port in Syria. They have reportedly been deployed to the Russian Navy’s logistics and maintenance support center. The logistics and maintenance support center at Tartus is currently undergoing development. U.S. intelligence officials stating Russia has set up an air traffic control tower and transported prefabricated housing units for as many as 1,500 personnel to an airfield serving Latakia. The majority of the Russian troops are coming and stationed in Tartus, but they also operate in Homs, Latakia and Hama.
Russian troops in Homs Governorate / Facebook
Russian troops resting in a safe house in Homs Governorate / Facebook
Russian troops and Syrian army officers take photograph in Russian naval base in Tartus / Facebook
Russian Marine resting in Tartus / Facebook
Russian Marine takes a selfie next to Syrian Armoured vehicle in Tartus / Facebook
Russia has increased its military presence in Syria, Satellite imagery provided by AllSourceAnalysis shows and marks 12 SU-25 ground attack aircraft, 12 SU-24 interdictor aircraft and 4 SU-30 multirole combat aircraft and 15 helicopters [including Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters] at the Bassel Assad International Airport near Latakia city. In addition to air forces, ground forces include 6 T-90 main battle tanks, 15 artillery pieces, 35 armoured personnel carriers and more than 1,000 military personal.
Russian Jets stationed at the Bassel Assad International Airport near Latakia city / AllSourceAnalysis
Russian Tanks and armoured Vehicles stationed in Latakia / AllSourceAnalysis
Syrian coast is strategically important for Assad regime and Russia, its Syria’s largest port, and close to it there is an international airport or an airbase, where both Russian humanitarian aid and military hardware have been unloaded. To the south of the airbase there’s Tartus, housing Russia’s naval base.
Nikolai Filchenkov assault landing ship in Tartus deploying 300 marine troops including military Tigr cars and Kamaz trucks, a tanker truck and a medical vehicle / VK
Russia had a naval depot in the port city of Tartus since 1971, in the beginning the port was used as a naval supply and maintenance base to support the Soviet Navy’s fleet in the Mediterranean Sea during the Cold War era. Since Russia forgave Syria $9.8 billion of its $13.4 billion Soviet-era debt and became its main arms supplier in the region, Russia and Syria have conducted talks about allowing Russia to develop and expand its naval base, so that Russia can strengthen its naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea. In 2010 Russia considered over turning the depot into an active naval base.
Syrian Opposition and Islamic State’s response
Syrian opposition view Russia’s intervention in Syria as a clear invasion and an attempt to save Syrian President Bashar Assad and his regime who is on verge of downfall. Free Syrian Army spokesman Captain Mustafa Farhat described the Russian intervention as an “Invasion”, he also called on the International community to stop this intervention. He also added that FSA will fight any Russian troops they will encounter.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has warned failure to stop direct Russian intervention in Syria would end any hope in a political solution proposed by the United Nations Security Council.
Army of Conquest’s Liwa al-Haqq commander Abu Abdullah Taftanaz posted a tweet calling the Russians to send more troops to Syria and saying that “we have thousands like Khattab” who would “slaughter your pigs” and saying that they will be defeated like Hezbollah and Iran in Syria.
Islamic State Emirs welcomed the Russian intervention because this will encourage Chechens and Afghans to join the Islamic State because it will give them the chance to revenge against their occupiers as they claimed.
The intervention of Russian military forces in Syria has coincided with the Russian Oil and Gas Company SoyuzNefteGaz beginning of oil prospecting operations in Latakia on the western coast of Syria. In 2013, Syria announced it had signed an agreement with SoyuzNefteGaz to jointly prospect for oil off Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
“During the first stage, which envisages research and initial prospecting, the contractor [SoyuzNefteGaz] is expected to invest $15 million,” a spokeswoman for the Syrian natural resources ministry said at the time.
“Then, during test drilling, the contractor will further invest $75 million to make at least one test well,” she added.
Many observers and experts believe that the assets will be used to further support Syrian President Bashar Assad, despite claims they will be used to fight against the Islamic state. There is a huge decline in oil production in areas which is controlled by the Syrian government, from exporting 380,000 barrels in 2010 to 10,000 barrels currently. Syrian oil sector lost about $48 billion since 2011, according to official Syrian government sources.