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Russia’s goal in Syria: Save Assad, secure key population centers

By JONATHAN S. LANDAY | McClatchy Washington Bureau | Published: October 3, 2015

WASHINGTON — Russia’s military intervention in Syria appears to be aimed at helping the government recover control of key population centers and ensure a role for President Bashar Assad in any peace process, undermining the U.S. demand that he give up power, according to U.S. officials and independent analysts.

The apparent Russian strategy isn’t without grave risks, however. The air campaign launched by Russia this week ignited vows of vengeance by Syrian rebels and calls across the Islamic world for retribution that could suck Moscow deeper into the sectarian maelstrom convulsing the Middle East and trigger terrorism at home.

“Russia can no longer count on the backlash of their involvement being largely confined to Syria,” said a U.S. intelligence official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. “The ability of extremists to instantly spread their hateful ideology and incite violence worldwide will be difficult for even (Russian President Vladimir) Putin to ignore and will likely come home to roost.”

Those dangers don’t sway Putin, countered Christopher Harmer, a retired Navy officer and an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, explaining that Russia historically has shown an extremely high tolerance for pain in pursuing its geostrategic goals.

“What would be a quagmire for us would be a walk in the park to them,” he said. “There are going to be some Russians killed. But it’s not going to be Afghanistan, where thousands of Russians were killed (during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation).”

Russia unleashed a third day of airstrikes on Friday, including for the first time Islamic State positions. U.S. officials, Syrian opposition groups and independent analysts — bolstered by geolocation data extracted from Russian Defense Ministry videos — countered that most of the attacks since Tuesday have targeted other opposition contingents, including groups backed by the United States and its European and Arab allies.

Putin “couldn’t give a more definitive middle finger to (President Barack) Obama than this,” said Phillip Smyth, a University of Maryland researcher who closely tracks the Syrian war. “The Russians wouldn’t have released the imagery of what they were bombing and saying it was the Islamic State when everyone could geolocate it.”

Putin’s political goal, experts contended, is neutering Syrian rebel outfits that the United States and its partners could accept in a transitional government of regime and opposition figures. Such an authority would be created under a U.N.-backed process to end the war, which has claimed 250,000 lives, uprooted 11 million people since mid-2011 and unleashed the refugee flood inundating Europe.

Obama and leaders of the European Union, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim Arab states have demanded that Assad relinquish power.

But with Obama apparently unwilling to protect moderate rebels from Russian bombs, experts said fighters who aren’t killed or who don’t flee likely will defect to the Islamic State or other extremist outfits, like al-Qaida’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, that will never participate in a peace process. That would leave no one else to work with except Assad.

“Assad needs to kill the moderate Syrian opposition so that the only two governing coalitions left are Assad and the Islamic State,” said Harmer. “If he can do that, Assad can win because no one in the West is going to side with the Islamic State.”

Russia eventually might abandon Assad as too toxic because of international outrage over his use of indiscriminate violence and the killing of thousands of civilians with barrel bombs and chemical weapons. But Putin would retain the leverage to promote an alternative in exchange for maintaining in Syria the only Russian military bases outside the former Soviet Union.

“Everybody is looking at Putin as if this is some offensive maneuver. Again, they (the Russians) have had bases in Syria for a very long time,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told an Atlantic magazine forum on Wednesday. “This is their principal client state in the Arab world. It’s been collapsing. He’s trying to prop it up.”

To accomplish that goal, experts said, Russian strategy apparently calls for helping Assad regain control over a rump state running from Aleppo, the former commercial capital, near the northern border with Turkey, south through the key urban centers of Hama and Homs, to Damascus and the border with Lebanon.

That would partition the country, with the Islamic State holding onto a large chunk of northeastern Syria. But it would stabilize Assad’s precarious rule and secure the heartland of his ruling Alawite sect along the Mediterranean coast, an outcome that would restore the minority Shiite Muslim offshoot’s battered faith in its beleaguered leader. It also would boost security for Putin’s military bases near the predominantly Alawite port cities of Latakia and Tartus.

“So far, Russian strikes have been mainly aimed at locations without an ISIL presence,” said the U.S. intelligence official, using Washington’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State. “The strike locations include critical territory lost by the regime and highlight Russian efforts to target groups that pose a physical and diplomatic threat to Assad.”

The Alawite heartland has been under threat since the fall of Idlib province to an alliance of U.S.-backed Sunni rebel groups and the Nusra Front in March. It was one of several serious defeats that forced Assad to pull forces back to his remaining territory and admit to manpower shortages. It also likely was a major impetus for Putin’s intervention.

“If you have a client state that can’t defend itself, then you have to defend your client state. They will have a Syrian rump state controlled from Damascus,” said Harmer. “As long as the Islamic State isn’t getting closer to that north-south axis or the coastline, that’s all they need.”

But Putin’s political objectives can’t be achieved through air power alone. Experts predicted that — after softening up rebel positions with airstrikes — Russian jet fighters will support ground offensives by the Syrian army, with its Iranian advisers and Shiite militias, including Hezbollah, that have been fighting for Assad for years.

Smyth said that he’s been tracking a buildup in Syria of Shiite fighters from Iraq over the past three months. The redeployment of the militias have helped put the brakes on offensives by Baghdad to drive the Islamic State out of key cities in Anbar province, said Smyth, who monitors the militias’ movements through their fighters’ social media posts.

“They’re not just pulling fighters from the front lines (in Anbar), but they’ve engaged in a wholesale recruitment program since early July,” he said of the Iranian-backed groups.

Because the militias portray the fight for Assad in sectarian terms, the ground offensives may not begin until an Islamic religious festival, said Smyth, adding that they would likely aim at driving back the rebels in Idlib province and possibly freeing opposition-controlled suburbs of Damascus.

Other analysts said that the offensives also likely would seek to secure the main highway linking Hama and Damascus.

Russia’s apparent strategy won’t end the war, experts said, explaining that fighting could continue indefinitely against the Islamic State and other hardline jihadis. But it will bolster Assad’s position in any peace process and eliminate moderate Western-backed rebel groups as a meaningful force, isolating the Islamic State, the Nusra Front and other Islamist militants as threats that everyone agrees must be eliminated.

“If you polarize the situation enough, if you eliminate the elements that can be influenced by the West, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy that everyone becomes jihadist elements that no one can work with,” said Smyth.

A lot, however, could go wrong.

“Russian interventions may result in extending Assad’s reign by imposing pacification on certain regions,” said the U.S. intelligence official. “The greater impact, however, will be to increase the number of dead and the flow of refugees. It will also likely turn this conflict into a factor for a new generation of extremists, just like the Afghanistan war did in the 1980s.”

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