The last few months have not been kind to Bashar al-Assad. Setbacks on the battlefield are becoming a common occurrence. Government forces are falling back on a number of fronts. On Wednesday, rebel forces captured Abu al-Duhur Airbase in the Idlib province. The installation was a stronghold for government military operations in the area and the eviction of Syrian forces means the province is now entirely under rebel control. It is fair to say that after four years of civil war, the Syrian government and its beleaguered forces are on the ropes.
Relief is on the way for al-Assad though. Russia, a long-time ally of Syria, is deepening its involvement in the conflict. Over the past few days it has become known that Russian ‘humanitarian’ flights to Syria have included military hardware. Russian amphibious transports have arrived at the Russian naval facility in Tartus. Their arrival was preceded by naval infantry to provide security for the inbound ships. At Bassel al-Assad Airport near Latakia, Russian transport aircraft have offloaded a number of BTR-82A armored personnel carriers. Reports have also surfaced that Russian military ‘advisers’ are already in combat against rebel forces.
The writing on the wall is clear. Russia is expanding its support for al-Assad and his forces. Russian military involvement in Syria is not entirely new. There have been a limited number of advisers on the ground for some time. But the scope of efforts to prop up the Syrian government is ramping up.
The United States is wary of the latest Russian moves for a myriad of reasons. The more assistance that Russia offers Syria, the less likely it becomes that al-Assad will be removed from power and replaced by a democratically elected leader any time soon. Increased support and involvement by Moscow also enlarges the Russian footprint in the Middle East, which has been growing steadily for some time. More military assistance for the Syrian government also reflects the closer relations between Russia and Iran as that relationship begins to bloom. There are even confirmed reports that the Iranians have sent hundreds of soldiers to Syria to help shore up al-Assad’s regime. This explains Iranian General Qasem Soleimani’s recent visit to Moscow.
Despite an increasing amount of concern, US reaction to the Russian actions has not yielded any tangible results. Talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, have yielded nothing. Realistically, the stern warnings of the US alone will achieve nothing. The current administration’s reluctance to take the lead on Syria and its limited effort against ISIS has all but minimized US power and influence in this particular area of the Middle East.
What’s happening at the moment in Syria is a piece of a much bigger picture. With the ink on the Iranian nuclear deal barely dry, Russia is wasting no time in exploiting opportunities in the Middle East. Bolstering al-Assad, fostering a new partnership with Iran, and nuclear-energy deals with traditional US allies in the region all indicate Russia’s desire to become an influential power there and serve as a counterweight to US foreign policy.