The Internet is flooded with rumors about a Russian military intervention in Syria. It all began with an article by Thierry Meyssan in Voltaire Net and now this rumor made it to Zero Hedge. Finally, the Israeli website Ynet also joined the rumor mill. Here are the two main assertions made by these sources:
- Russia has just created a Russo-Syrian Commission and has begun supplying weapons, sharing intelligence, and sending advisors. All of this is more or less coordinated with the White House.
- Russia has begun its military intervention in Syria, deploying an aerial contingent to a permanent Syrian base, in order to launch attacks against ISIS and Islamist rebels; US stays silent.
What is interesting in these rumors is that they appear to come from two very different sources. Meyssan gets his information from Syrian sources while Ynet quotes “western diplomatic sources”.
Finally, I will readily admit that there could be a Russian rationale for an intervention in Syria: the Russian security establishment is united in the belief that the US plan is to eventually turn Daesh (aka ‘ISIS’) against Russia and this one of the reasons it is so important to assist the Syrians: it is better to fight Daesh in Syria than it is to fight it in southern Russia.
So the rumor about a Russian intervention is at least credible. And yet, I don’t buy it.
I will gladly admit that I cannot prove a negative and that I have absolutely no privileged access to any special Russian sources. All I can offer are my conjectures and nothing more, and there is a good chance that I might be wrong. But having said that, here is my personal reaction to this rumor.
First, I don’t believe that there is much public support in Russia for a foreign military intervention. It is one thing to be ready to defend your own country or your own citizens when the latter are directly attacked (as in 08.08.08) and quite another to intervene 1’200km away from your national border. And we are not talking about just anywhere 1’200km away from Russia, but very much inside US controlled territory: the US controls Turkey via NATO and the entire Middle-East (except for Iran) via CENTCOM. Do you remember when the Russian paratroopers moved from Bosnia to Kosovo and took over the Pristina Airport? Russia was unable to resupply them because the US basically controlled the entire airspace between Russia and Serbia. The situation is similar today in the sense that the resupply and support of a Russian contingent in Syria would largely depend on the US goodwill. Yes, the Russian could also use their Navy to resupply and support any Russian contingent through the Mediterranean, but that could be very time consuming and difficult. I have said it many times on this blog: the Russian military is not designed to operate further than roughly 1’000km from the Russian border and a military intervention in Syria, while possible, would definitely stretch this self-imposed limit.
Second, while the first part of the rumor (sending advisors, sharing intelligence and supplying weapons) does not represent a major Russian commitment, the second part of the rumor would represent a major political and military commitment from Russia.
Russia still has a very painful and, I would say, even traumatic recollection of what a “limited military intervention” looks like. After all, this is exactly how the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan was presented to the Russian public, as a “limited military intervention” to protect a friendly country from subversion, foreign intervention and destabilization. How is that different from what is happening today in Syria?
“Limited military intervention” have a strong tendency to lead to an open-ended escalation, and the Russians are quite aware of this. I strongly believe that the Russian withdrawal from Georgia after 08.08.08 is largely explained by this awareness: the Russians could have easily invaded all of Georgia (the Georgian military had basically ceased to exist and there was nothing standing between Russian paratroopers and Tbilissi) in 24 hours or less, and yet they chose to stop and turn back. And when the Russians recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia they still withdrew most of their forces from these two republics and worked hard to put most of the responsibility for the defense of these two countries on the local people. The same approached was used in Chechnia were Russia has a powerful and capable Federal military contingent, but where 99% of the responsibility for security is placed on local, Chechen, forces.
In purely military terms, much of what these rumors claim make no sense to me. For example, Meyssan and Ynet both mention the deployment of MiG-31s to Syria. The problem with this is that the MiG-31 is a pure interceptor designed to protect a huge volume of Russian airspace from a US Air Force attack involving low flying cruise missiles and strategic bombers. As a counter-insurgency weapon the MiG-31 is simply useless. True, the six MiG-31s rumored to be sent to Syria would provide a formidable deterrent against any US, NATO, Turkish or Israeli aircraft entering the Syrian air space, but this is also why I would expect these countries to protest such a delivery with utmost outrage and determination rather than “more or less” coordinate it or “remain silent”. It would be much more logical to send SU-24s and SU-25s to Syria if the goal is to support Syrian army operations against Daesh. But these rumors do not mention these aircraft.
Finally, Ynet speaks of a major military operation. Here is a quite from the article:
“A Russian expeditionary force has already arrived in Syria and set up camp in an Assad-controlled airbase. The base is said to be in area surrounding Damascus, and will serve, for all intents and purposes, as a Russian forward operating base. In the coming weeks thousands of Russian military personnel 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.”
A quick look at the recent news out of Syria will tell you that Daesh is already operating in the suburbs of Damascus. So where exactly would Russia deploy “thousands” of military personnel “in an area surrounding Damascus”? This makes no sense at all.
Ever since the crisis in Syria began I have been repeating that the Russians are not, repeat, not coming!! (see here, here and here) and, so far, the Russians never showed up. Of course, it is possible that this time around they might. Again, the first part of the rumor about sending advisors, sharing intelligence and delivering weapons makes more sense to me. But the notion of Russians flying MiG-31s out of Damascus to somehow change the course of the civil war makes no sense to me at all. Neither does the idea of “thousands” of Russians being deployed to Syria. In fact, last time I checked, the Russians were evacuating their citizen from this country, not sending more in.
Again, everything is possible and I cannot prove a negative. Maybe this time around the Kremlin decided that a major military effort against Daesh was needed. And maybe the US does not object to it. But the logical distance between “possible” and “likely” is a very long one and, at least at this point in time and with the information I have, I don’t see any reasons not to dismiss these rumors as wishful thinking.