Will the U.S. be forced to face Russia in… Syria?

The White House has confirmed it is assessing recent reports indicating Russia is gearing up to significantly increase its military support for Bashar al-Assad’s disgraced regime in violence-wracked Syria. Russian military involvement in Syria could force DC and Moscow into a direct confrontation and would likely secure Assad’s future in power.

The New York Times reported that Moscow has recently facilitated the transfer of both “prefabricated housing units for hundreds of people to a Syrian airfield and the delivery of a portable air traffic control station.” Should Moscow began an aerial campaign - which, Russia is likely to argue will aid in the fight against ISIS - it would be difficult to assess whether their operations will extend to fighting against all factions battling Assad.

As the U.S. mulls how to respond to mounting evidence of Russia’s deeper involvement, the Assad regime continues with its operations that consistently prove far deadlier than ISIS attacks

Brooklyn Middleton

Meanwhile, as the U.S. mulls how to respond to mounting evidence of Russia’s deeper involvement, the Assad regime continues with its operations that consistently prove far deadlier than ISIS attacks; the newest reports indicates that in the six-month period between January and July, regime and allied fighters were responsible for the deaths of at least 7,894 while ISIS was responsible for 1,131. Further Russian military support of the Syrian government will promote more of the former.

At the same time, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, chair of a U.N. Human Rights Council investigative panel on Syria, noted that ISIS is increasingly “desperate.” This assessment is unlikely to be corroborated by intelligence officials. One month prior to the U.N. remarks, U.S. officials confirmed to AP that the number of ISIS fighters - despite continued aerial operations targeting their positions – now total at least 20,000 and may be as high as 30,000. the estimates remain unchanged from when the anti-ISIS coalition launched its offensive. The limited progress the U.S.-led coalition’s aerial operations has made are likely contributing to Russia assessing they have a window of opportunity to intervene.

Propping up Assad

According to press reports, Secretary of State John Kerry voiced his concerns regarding these developments, noting that he spoke with Russia’s Foreign Minister and told him, “that if such reports were accurate, these actions could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-ISIS Coalition operating in Syria.”

Kerry’s brief list of the potential consequences of direct Russian involvement in Syria is spot-on. Russia’s propping up of Bashar al-Assad’s regime since the beginning of the conflict - with consistent arms transfers and U.N. vetoes - is well documented. That said, the implications of Russian boots on the ground and aircraft in the air – battling alongside Syrian regime forces – would represent a serious shift in the conflict and prove disastrous for what remains of DC’s objectives in Syria.

From a security standpoint, Moscow’s intervention would further diminish any likelihood of coalition partners implementing a No Fly Zone (NFZ), which translates on the ground to continued Assad regime aerial bombardments. At the same time, Turkey’s recent join in the fight against ISIS – delayed, in part, due to the lack of any serious plans to oust Assad – could be jeopardized by Russian involvement that seeks to further sustain Assad’s rule. Meanwhile, the final blow to DC’s Syrian rebel training program could very well be Russia’s targeting of armed factions – other than ISIS – that are opposed to the regime.

Russian officials have since downplayed the reports, with Vladmir Putin stating that discussions regarding direct intervention would be “premature.”

It is worth noting that Russia did not always seek direct intervention in Syria. In fact, there was a period where Russia explicitly indicated it would not directly intervene in the conflict even if Syria was attacked by the U.S.. Immediately following the Assad regime’s devastating Sarin attack in Eastern Ghouta in 2013, as the U.S. seriously considered carrying out a series of cruise-missile strikes targeting regime positions, a Russian official publicly stated, “Russia will not intervene if Syria is attacked.” Amid what likely would have been a mission supported by a sizeable majority of the international community, it is highly likely Moscow would indeed not have. Two years later, both Putin and Assad are emboldened and Syria’s future, led by a war criminal and home to the de-facto capital of the Islamic State, remains as uncertain as ever.


Brooklyn Middleton is an American Political and Security Risk Analyst reporting from Israel. Her work has appeared in Turkish and Israeli publications including The Times of Israel and Hürriyet Daily News. She has previously written about U.S. President Obama's policy in Syria as well as the emerging geopolitical threats Israel faces as it pursues its energy interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. She is currently researching Ayatollah Khomeini’s influence on Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant groups to complete her MA in Middle Eastern Studies. You can follow her on Twitter here: @BklynMiddleton.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:46 - GMT 06:46
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