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What if Russia attacked Syria's Kurds on behalf of Assad?

BY : Paul Davis
2015-09-29 08:51:33

 Russia’s foray into Syria is one of opportunism delivered to them by a leadership vacuum created by the west. The stated intent is to fight ISIS, however the real victims of this will likely be the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian Kurds in the short term. 


It has been 45 years since the Soviet Union intervened in the Middle East. In 1970, during the war of attrition, the Soviets sent men and equipment to support the Egyptian army in an ongoing fight in the Sinai. Now Russia is moving in to fill a new void. Then, as now, one of the main objectives is to show the flag and secure concessions from client states as well as the west.  Now, unlike then, there does not appear to be any western constraints on Russian ambition. The introduction of Russian forces and equipment can very quickly turn the tide of battle in favor of the Assad regime. Currently the Syrian forces, supported by Iran, have fought various opposition groups including the YPG and the FSA while both of these are also engaged fighting ISIS. 

From the military perspective Russian interest in the Levant has always been to maintain a warm water port for a Mediterranean fleet. Politically they will have a leverage point in the region added to the support they gave to Iran during the 5+1 talks on the nuclear deal. 

Western response has been muted other than Secretary Kerry and Secretary Ashton Carter contacting their opposites in Russia and President Obama calling the move a mistake. Europe shows signs of acquiescence hoping that cooperation with Russia will end the flow of refugees into the EU. Many are hoping that Russian forces can stem the tide of ISIS and end that nightmare with direct action the west is unwilling to provide. 

The problem with this analysis is it ignores the fact that ISIS is not the only enemy of Assad and not even the first. While ISIS remains the number one enemy in the eyes of the west it does not threaten Russia other than its attacks on Syrian population centers which destabilized Assad. Russia has maintained a naval presence in Syria since the days of the cold war. The base in Tartus serves as a logistical and support depot. The new build-up is taking place at the port city of Latakia whose airfield is being used to support a number of Russian fighter jets as well as men and equipment. 

On the question of how far this build-up will go and what the end state is requires an analysis of the equipment. While most aircraft are ground support type there have also been reports of SU-35 Flanker fighters, the most advanced in the Russian arsenal. The Russians have also deployed SS-21 Surface to Air (SAM) units. This last must be questioned as none of Assad’s opponents possess any type of aircraft. The rest, T-90 tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers, are consistent with a ground campaign. 

Should all this build-up be for the sole purpose of defeating ISIS then the world will rejoice, but nothing is ever as it seems. Assad is a pariah among nations only supported by Russia and Iran. The call for Assad to step down preceded ISIS as a menace. Calls now to accept a long term phase out of Assad to be replaced by another member of the Alawite sect should be a non-starter in any negotiated peace. It would mean very little to the Russians who ends up in charge of Syria, as long as they retain their base(s) and political leverage. The easiest way right now would be to ensure a victorious and compliant Assad. This would require the removal of threats to Assad and his government. The three threats of course are ISIS, the FSA and the Kurds. 


There is some analysis that says Iran does not want ISIS defeated, just contained, in order to justify continued Iranian presence in the region. Iran and Russia are joined in this fight. The FSA is a small threat to Assad but is disorganized, infiltrated and basically dysfunctional. Without continued support from the west and assistance of the YPG they will have very little chance of success. Which brings us to the Kurds who are a functioning threat to the regime. With increasing success and continuing western support the Syrian Kurds have pushed ISIS back and are on the brink of their capitol Raqqa.   

The Syrian forces fighting for Assad have rarely engaged ISIS, they are more involved fighting FSA in Idilb and the FSA, YPG and Sunni Militias in Aleppo. Idilb and Aleppo are much closer to the new Russian base than any of the ISIS locations. The question now becomes how Russian forces will define terrorist and enemies of Assad. As we have seen when Turkey joined the fight against ISIS their more immediate goal was the PKK. 

The biggest question will be to what extent the west, mostly the US, is willing to support their allies against Russian aggression. Should Russian Close Air Support (CAS) aircraft appear over FSA or YPG positions, protected by Russian fighter aircraft, will the west engage in aerial combat? Should Russian tanks and combat forces begin to engage anti-Assad forces will the west support their allies with CAS missions as they do today against ISIS? Sadly I believe the answer will be no, at least at this point in time.  

The threat of military action by the west is seen as an empty one by Russia. Russia saw the weakness during the episode of Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Russia quickly negated the military option. The west will now, as then, resort to a long drawn out diplomatic response which may result in a negotiated settlement, but by then the Kurds and other anti-Assad forces will have been badly degraded if not completely defeated.  

Paul Davis is a retired US Army military intelligence analyst and a consultant to the American intelligence community specializing in the Middle East with a concentration on Kurdish affairs. Currently he is the President of the consulting firm JANUS Think in Washington D.C.

 

Source : Rudaw