Analysis: What Does #Russia Want in #Syria?

What Does Russia Want in Syria? ~ Tony Cartalucci, New Eastern Outlook”06.10.2015. 

The Western media has portrayed Russia’s recent joint anti-terror security operations with the Syrian government as a means of expanding its influence beyond its borders. CNN in its article, “Petraeus accuses Putin of trying to re-establish Russian Empire,” would go as far as claiming:

One of America’s top former generals compared the situation in Syria Tuesday to a historic nuclear disaster, implicitly criticizing the U.S. for allowing it to worsen, and accused Russia’s President of trying to re-establish an empire.

CNN would also report:

Russian moves in Syria are designed to bolster and hold on to their naval base and airstrip along the Mediterranean coast of Syria, and shore up the al-Assad regime in order to preserve Russian influence in the Middle East, Petraeus said.

“I think that what Vladimir Putin would like to do is resurrect the Russian empire,” he said.

Ironically, the United States maintains over 800 military bases around the world while occupying Afghanistan since 2001 and carrying out armed operations everywhere from Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria to the borders of Pakistan. Russia’s only overseas base is in fact the naval facility mentioned by Petraeus. Petraeus never elaborates on how despite such obvious disparity between Russia and America regarding foreign policy, why Russia is suspected of pursuing “empire” while the US is not then completely guilty of already establishing and fighting desperately to maintain an immense one.

While undoubtedly Russia’s cooperation with the Syrian government indicates Moscow’s ability to project power beyond its borders, it has done so only at the request of the legitimate government of Syria, and only after all other possible options have been exhausted.

And despite many having depicted Syria’s ongoing crisis as a “civil war,” it is abundantly clear that it is nothing of the sort, with terrorists receiving the summation of their material support, and many of their fighters even from over Syria’s borders, not from within them.

Stopping Global Blitzkrieg 

In 2011, when the United States and its collaborators in NATO and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) set out to destroy the North African nation-state of Libya, it was portrayed as an isolated intervention based upon the geopolitical doctrine of “responsibility to protect” – or in other words – an alleged humanitarian intervention.

What quickly became clear, even before the operation concluded, was that the US goal was regime change from the beginning, with many of the militant groups supported by the US-led axis via airstrikes and weapon deliveries revealed to be in fact terrorist organizations, including the US State Department-list foreign terrorist organization, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).

Shortly after the fall of the Libyan government in Tripoli, it also became clear that US military aggression in Libya was in no way an isolated intervention. Almost immediately after hostilities ceased, US-NATO-GCC armed and backed militant groups began transferring weapons and fighters to NATO-member Turkey where they were staged for what was to become the invasion of Aleppo, the largest city in Syria.

The invasion of Aleppo was part of a wider US-backed campaign to divide and destroy the nation of Syria just as was done in Libya. Additionally there is the ongoing US-NATO occupation of Afghanistan and the division and destruction of Iraq after a US invasion in 2003 and a subsequent occupation there ever since. Considering this, what is revealed is a regional military campaign of conquest stretching from North Africa to Central Asia and pressing up against the borders of both Russia and China.

It must also be remembered that in 2011, the so-called “Arab Spring” was eventually revealed to be the premeditated work of the US State Department who began training, equipping, and arraying activists against targeted governments years before the protests began. This would be admitted to by the New York Times in a 2011 article titled, “U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Uprisings,” which reported:

A number of the groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and reforms sweeping the region, including the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights and grass-roots activists like Entsar Qadhi, a youth leader in Yemen, received training and financing from groups like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, a nonprofit human rights organization based in Washington…

The New York Times would also admit that these Washington-based groups were all in turn funded and directed by the US State Department:

The Republican and Democratic institutes are loosely affiliated with the Republican and Democratic Parties. They were created by Congress and are financed through the National Endowment for Democracy, which was set up in 1983 to channel grants for promoting democracy in developing nations. The National Endowment receives about $100 million annually from Congress. Freedom House also gets the bulk of its money from the American government, mainly from the State Department.

Similar regime-change operations were carried out directly on Russia’s western border in the nation of Ukraine, where the US backed Neo-Nazi militants violently overthrow the elected government in Kiev. In the wake of the coup, the junta set out to crush any opposition, from political parties to the inevitable armed groups that rose up against its literal Neo-Nazi militants.

And as this wave of US-backed global destabilization, war, and regime change swept the surface of the planet, during its initial success, US hubris was difficult to contain.

In a 2011 Atlantic article titled, “The Arab Spring: ‘A Virus That Will Attack Moscow and Beijing’,” it would be revealed precisely what Washington’s end game was:

[US Senator John McCain] said, “A year ago, Ben-Ali and Gaddafi were not in power. Assad won’t be in power this time next year. This Arab Spring is a virus that will attack Moscow and Beijing.” McCain then walked off the stage.

Comparing the Arab Spring to a virus is not new for the Senator — but to my knowledge, coupling Russia and China to the comment is.

Senator McCain’s framing reflects a triumphalism bouncing around at this conference. It sees the Arab Spring as a product of Western design — and potentially as a tool to take on other non-democratic governments.

Upon weighing both the comments of US politicians, documented evidence of the engineered nature of the so-called “Arab Spring,” and regime change operations in Ukraine, it is clear that indeed the “Arab Spring” was undoubtedly “a product of Western design” and a “tool” the US fully sought to use against the rest of the planet, including Moscow and Beijing.

In 2011, the use of military force to finish where US-backed political destabilization left off was not fully understood. With the US now having destroyed Libya, Syria, and Ukraine with either direct or proxy military force, it is clear that the US is engaged in a a slow motion, 4th generation warfare-version of blitzkrieg – the lighting fast brand of military conquest used by Nazi Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s to conquer Western Europe, parts of North Africa and Eastern Europe, and the attempted conquest of Russia.

It is clear then that Russia today, is not interested in building an “empire,” but instead interested in stopping an obvious wave of Western conquest ultimately and admittedly aimed at Moscow itself.

Russia Wants Balance 

Russia’s relationship with Syria is entirely different than NATO’s relationship with the current junta occupying Kiev, Ukraine. Syria is a sovereign nation with its own independent long-established institutions and policies. Kiev’s junta literally includes foreigners who directly control the fate of Ukraine and its people. This difference between Russia seeking partners, and Washington seeking obedient proxies, is what differentiates the unipolar world the West seeks to perpetuate, and the multipolar world Russia and other emerging nations seek to replace it with.

Russia’s involvement in Syria is to first stop a wave of instability and military conquest inevitably destined for Moscow itself, and then to establish a balance of power throughout the world where the future creation of such waves is all but impossible.

This is not only Russia’s stated policy, but also what it is demonstrably pursuing on the stage of geopolitics. The basis for its legitimacy and growing influence is its adherence to the principles of international law, respect toward national sovereignty, and promotion of this multipolar future. As soon as Moscow betrays these principles, it will forfeit its legitimacy and influence and join the West in its increasing irrelevance and isolation upon the world stage.

For the West’s part, both political and media circles have gone through extraordinary lengths to not only avoid mentioning Russia’s multipolar vision of the future, but to portray Russia to be the very neo-imperialist in fiction that the West is in reality.

With Libya already destroyed, Iraq struggling, and should Syria fall, Iran, even according to the US’ own policy papers, would be next. Looking at a map reveals that after Iran there is little to stop hordes of US-backed terrorists from flooding into southern Russia. Moscow was required to pick a spot, draw a line, and hold it to stop what the West had arrayed against it. That spot is apparently Syria.

By looking at a map we see not a Russia expanding its empire, but a Russia struggling against admitted attempts to destabilize all around it before eventually targeting Russia itself. What does Russia seek in Syria? It seeks what all other nations seek and are entitled to, self-preservation.

Russia is not building an empire, it seeks to stop one that threatens its existence from reaching its borders with proxies that include Neo-Nazis, terrorists, and NATO forces themselves.

Tony Cartalucci, Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazineNew Eastern Outlook”.




Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to order his military into Syria may simply have been the gut reaction of a hard-power ruler who, for lack of tools other than a hammer, can imagine no problem other than a nail. But dispatching the Russian Air Force in support of the embattled Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad may also have been a true political masterstroke, in which case its political impact is likely to make a far bigger crater than any of the bombs that Putin is preparing to drop on Syria.

The first indications of a Russian military deployment in Syria leaked out in late August. Itgradually became clear that something big was happening at the Basil al-Assad International Airport near Latakia in government-controlled western Syria. Not only was Assad’s army getting new weapons, it was also getting new comrades-in-arms.

According to satellite imagery reviewed by the Washington Post and The Aviationist, a specialist blog, the Russian expeditionary corps has now grown to nearly thirty Sukhoi combat aircraft. Most are SU-24 and SU-25 models that fly “low and slow” in order to take out ground targets, but there are also a few SU-30 jets—a “game changer,” according to a pilot interviewed by the Post, since this multi-role fighter could pose a serious threat to American aircraft in Syria.

Apart from the Sukhoi jets, the airport has also become home to several Mi-24 attack helicopters, transport aircraft, air defense systems, and an unknown number of remotely piloted drones. In addition, there is a small but growing ground force, although it is not clear whether it could be tasked with more than guarding the air base and surrounding areas. Russian forces have been seen embedding with Syrian forces, although it is perhaps as trainers or coordinators.

Today, Wednesday, satellite imagery also revealed two more Russian outposts. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has said that American intelligence indicates that these bases are not so much the start of an additional deployment as defensive outposts serving to protect the initial air base.


The deployment is military, but its first and perhaps most important effects are political.Israel, which occasionally attacks what it says are Hezbollah targets inside Syria, and theUnited States have already met with the Russians to “deconflict,” a military term for how to avoid accidents and unwanted clashes.

Israel couldn’t care less about public opinion in Syria, but for the United States, this is an embarrassing position to be in. There is already much ill will among Syrian rebels over U.S. strikes on al-Qaeda targets within the anti-Assad guerrillas. The White House may continue to insist that Bashar al-Assad must step down, but the U.S. Air Force will henceforth be sharing Syrian airspace with both Assad’s own air force—which is notorious for itsunrelenting bombing of civilian neighborhoods and infrastructure—and with a Russian expeditionary corps sent to aid him. It won’t be popular with American allies.

By introducing Russian jets and air defense systems into the Syrian theatre, Putin has also created facts on the ground (or just above it) that will help forestall further action against Assad by the United States or its allies. American Syria policy is currently under scrutiny and if internal White House debates about Assad were indeed moving in the do-something direction as some claim, then Vladimir Putin has just served up a brand new counter-argument.

Whether by accident or design, the Latakia deployment will also draw attention to Vladimir Putin’s appearance before the United Nations General Assembly in late September, his first in ten years. The Russian leader has been trying to promote an international coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, of which Assad would be a part. Having just thrown his gauntlet down in Latakia, Putin won’t necessarily gain a more sympathetic hearing from the world leaders assembled in New York, but they’re sure to listen very closely.


Although the Russian intervention seems partly designed for political effect, those Sukhoi jets aren’t just going sit on a runway in Latakia for the benefit of satellite paparazzi. According to U.S. officials, Russian airstrikes in Syria are likely to begin “soon”—and as this article was being written, as-yet unconfirmed reports alleged that Russian jets were already backing a regime offensive in the Aleppo area.

Will the Russian Air Force be able to make a difference on the ground?

Yes, probably, says David A. Deptula—and he should know. A retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant-general and air warfare theoretician, Deptula planned the American bombing campaign against Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991, when the U.S. and its allies—including, at the time, Syria—liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Ten years later he oversaw the air war that toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

“With competent pilots and with an effective command and control process, the addition of these aircraft could prove very effective depending on the desired objectives for their use,” Deptula told the New York Times. Which begs the question, what are those objectives?

The Kremlin has couched its involvement in Syria in terms of a war against jihadi extremism. It also seeks to bring Assad out of the cold and into an international coalition against the so-called Islamic State. In other words, focusing attacks on the Islamic State seems like a given, at least initially, but there are reasons to look at other targets, too.

But where and how could Russia maximize the impact of its strikes? Let’s look at some possible scenarios for the early stages of a Russian aerial intervention.


At the time of writing, unconfirmed reports are coming in about Russian strikes in support ofa sudden regime offensive striking out from eastern Aleppo. However, until now no evidence has emerged and it is important to remember that Syrian activist media, on both sides, is full of rumors. The news about a government offensive seems to be true, however, and reports indicate that it might be intended to relieve the Kweiris Airport, a small government-held pocket of land east of Aleppo that has long been under siege by the Islamic State. When other government enclaves in Syria’s north and east have fallen to the Islamic State, the captured soldiers have been summarily murdered in grotesque video-taped massacres that have unsettled pro-Assad constituencies and provoked angry reactions within the ranks.

Saving the Kweiris defenders would therefore provide both a political and a military boost for Assad, and it would help him clean up his frontlines in a crucial area of Syria.

Interestingly, an attack on the Kweiris pocket could also knock the Islamic State off balance in the Aleppo area, just as rebels north of the city are struggling to keep open their supply lines to Turkey against an Islamic State offensive. Coincidence or not, if Russia is involved, it would be an interesting first example of the potential interplay between offensives by Russian-backed army forces and U.S.-backed rebels.

The reports of Russian strikes near Kweiris remain unconfirmed for now. If they turn out to be true, it is possible that this will be a first area of focus. The Assad-Putin alliance could then try to change the balance of power in Aleppo. If they stick to Islamic State targets, instead of straying into battle with other rebels, a main ambition would probably be to push the jihadi group away from the government supply line between Aleppo and Hama in the south. The Assad-held areas of Aleppo are currently supplied by way of a hard-to-guard desert road that runs down through Sfeira, Khanaser, and Ithriya past the Ismaili-populated Salamiyeh area east of Hama. In the Salamiyeh area itself, the Islamic State has been nibbling away at the government’s perimeter defenses, but the desert road up to Aleppo has been a relatively tranquil front. Still, for Assad, the Islamic State’s presence just next to his Aleppo artery is a lethal threat.


Directly south of this region, there is another area where Assad is vulnerable to the Islamic State—the eastern Homs region. It is impossible to tell what Russian intentions are, but if we’re looking at likely places for Russian air support to Assad, the area between Homs and Palmyra must be close to the top of the list.

The fall of Palmyra in May this year opened up the desert fringes east of Homs to the Islamic State. This is a target-rich environment, to say the least, and Assad’s overstretched army must be distressed by the sudden emergence of a new and untenably long frontline.

The region also contains the Syrian government’s last remaining oil and gas fields, as well as the pipelines that come with them. The Syrian military air base known as T4, located in the middle of the desert west of Palmyra, has emerged as the anchoring point of government defensive positions shielding these fields against the Islamic State.

As Carnegie’s Yezid Sayigh wrote a few months ago, and as David C. Butter lays out in detail in this excellent Chatham House report, much of Syria’s power grid runs on natural gas. The state-run national electricity infrastructure still powers all Syrian government and some rebel and Islamic State territories, but 80 percent of the gas feeding its power stations comes from the fields east of Homs. If Assad lost these gas fields and installations, it would therefore have a double effect. It would be a devastating blow to the regime, which is already in a state ofstructural and financial disrepair, and it could seriously aggravate the economic and humanitarian crisis throughout Syria.

All this makes the Homs-Palmyra region a particularly appealing target for Russian intervention:

  • First, it helps Assad stave off Islamic State attacks and could even enable his forces to recapture Palmyra and shorten the eastern front.
  • Second, it would publicly align Russia—and by extension Assad—with the United States and Europe in a joint struggle against the Islamic State. That’s exactly where Putin and Assad want to end up.
  • Third, it would help keep Syrian state institutions running and prevent a deepening of the humanitarian disaster in Syria. That’s a goal widely shared among the opposition’s Western allies, even though many rebels tend to view Assad as a greater evil than the Islamic State. If an air campaign in Palmyra helps drive a wedge into the opposition camp or among its backers, so much the better from the point of view of Putin and Assad.

Could the Homs-Palmyra area be a place where Russia will focus its air support? Time will tell, but one thing is certain: no one is likely to object too loudly as long as Russian airstrikes are aimed only at the Islamic State and take place in this region. For all we know, the White House might even have quietly ushered the Russians towards Palmyra, fearing that it would otherwise have to fly those bombing runs on its own.


Eastern Homs isn’t the only place where Assad is in a slow and painful retreat. This spring, the Syrian president was forced out of the city of Idlib and he has been losing ground ever since. By seizing Jisr al-Shughur and other towns in the area, the rebels have now opened up two venues of attack that threaten core regime areas. To the southwest lie the Alawite-populated mountains of the Latakia Governorate, from which much of the military elite hails. Due south of Jisr al-Shughur lie the Ghab Plains, a religiously mixed agricultural flatland that functions as the “soft underbelly” of Hama. So far, the Ghab seems to be where the rebels areconcentrating most of their firepower.

The groups digging their way down the Ghab are not aligned with the Islamic State. To the contrary, they are hostile to it. The centerpiece of the anti-Assad insurgency in this region is the Jaish al-Fatah (“Army of Conquest”), a coalition of Islamist groups. Its single biggest member faction is likely to be Ahrar al-Sham, a hardline group backed by Turkey and Qatar.Many of its leaders hail from villages in the Ghab Plains, giving them even more reason to prioritize that battle.

However, the other big group in the Jaish al-Fatah coalition is the Nusra Front, which is al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria. That makes the Syrian northwest another very tempting target for the Russians, for both political and military reasons. Unlike the Islamic State, the Nusra Front is well embedded in the wider Sunni Islamist landscape, meaning that Russian strikes would cause rebel outrage and a political stir among opposition backers. Yet, the U.S. has been bombing select Nusra Front targets for a year now and every country on earth considers al-Qaeda to be fair game.

The alliance between the terrorist-listed Nusra Front and other rebels, which are backed by the Gulf States, Turkey, and the West, creates an opportunity for Putin to conduct strikes that would undoubtedly help Assad while also moving the target away from the Islamic State and toward more mainstream sections of the insurgency. If criticized, his enemies will be in the unenviable position of having to explain why the Russian government shouldn’t attack al-Qaeda. It is not the kind of argument that can be won in the West, at least not outside a very narrow circle of Syria wonks.


If at some point Putin decides to target other groups than the Islamic State, he’s not likely to stop at the Nusra Front. Whether right off the bat or after a while, he could easily widen the circle of attacks from al-Qaeda and start blasting away at every rebel group in Idlib, Hama, and Latakia under the pretext that they are either “terrorists” or “terrorist allies.” On the ground, things are obviously a bit more complex and, just as obviously, Putin knows that—but he has nothing to gain from acknowledging it.

To the contrary, the Kremlin has every reason to continue blurring the already indistinct dividing line between “extremist” and “moderate” rebels upon which Western states insist. Even though this neatly black and white categorization of Syria’s murky insurgency is at least partly fiction, it remains a politically indispensable formula for Western states that wish to arm anti-Assad forces. Which is precisely why erasing this distinction by extending airstrikes against all manners of rebels as part of an ostensibly anti-jihadi intervention, may turn out to be Putin’s long-term plan.

Blanket attacks on Syrian rebels on the pretext that they are all “al-Qaeda” would lead to much outraged commentary in the Western and Arab press. But to the Russian president it doesn’t matter if you think he’s Mad Vlad or Prudent Putin. He isn’t trying to win hearts and minds, least of all those of the Syrian rebels or their backers. Rather, he is trying to change the balance of power on the ground while firing missile after missile into the West’s political narrative.

Whatever one thinks of that, it is a big and bold idea of the sort that sometimes end up working.

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