Persistent rumors resurfaced at the end of last month that Russia, dismayed by the difficulties that the Syrian regime has endured at the hands of ISIS and other rebel groups, has committed a large-scale force into the country to prop up the faltering Assad regime.
But these unconfirmed reports are nothing but rumors couched in the barest of facts, Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor specializing in global affairs and Russian and Slavic studies, told Business Insider.
In fact, the rumors miss one of the major developing stories of the conflict. Ultimately, “Russia sees Assad as a spent force,” Galeotti told BI. “We keep hearing these stories because there are people with political incentives for when one data point pops up.”
Although Russia sees Assad as “spent,” Moscow still does not want to see the regime crumble. But it seems unwilling to insert itself into Syria’s geopolitical nightmare, at a huge political and economic cost, to support a figure that it ultimately believes is on the way out.
“It is willing to see a settlement in which Assad goes into honorable exile, likely in Russia itself,” Galeotti said. “Obviously Russia would not want the regime to fall, but what can they really do? The Russians could surge in Damascus, say approximately 5,000 troops. But they’re actually probably deploying and cycling as many troops as they can in Donbas [eastern Ukraine] without overstretch.”
Additionally, Galeotti warned, Russia would not want to send a substantial expeditionary force into Syria for the repercussions the country would likely face. Moscow is unwilling to be seen as the “big bad imperialists.”
And even then, if Russia did decide to mount a large-scale operation in Syria, the Kremlin simply lacks the capabilities to conduct such an overseas deployment, Galeotti noted. Economically, politically, and militarily, Russia is unable to send troops to Syria en masse. And even if Moscow could complete such an operation, there would be no way in which the deployment would not be noticed by countries in the region such as Israel or Turkey.
- REUTERS/Alexander Demianchuk
The allegations that Russia has committed a large-scale force to Syria to fight on behalf of the Assad regime is based largely on Moscow’s continuing sale of arms and equipment to Damascus. The Oryx Blog writes that sound fragments in Russian from a recording of Syria’s National Defense Force on the front lines proves that the Russian military is directly involved in fighting the rebels.
Galeotti, however, told Business Insider that such evidence proves nothing more than the Kremlin’s continual willingness to sell Assad arms and equipment. Linked to the sale of this equipment is the provision of Russian trainers and maintainers, who were likely overheard in the recording.
“The presence of training people is linked to the presence of equipment. The new kit means there will be trainers and maintainers and a small number of troops for protection,” Galeotti said. “The presence is all very much linked to arms purchases.”
- Thomson Reuters
Arms purchases, Galeotti said, are one of only three ways in which Moscow can meaningfully help the Syrian regime. The other two ways Russia can help is through providing political cover for Assad and by providing the regime with technical signals intelligence.
Ultimately, though, Russia’s role in Syria is more complex than blindly supporting the Assad regime. In mid-August, Moscow hosted talks with the main Syrian opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, in an effort to broker peace in the country. The dialogue indicates that Russia is looking for alternatives to Assad.
“Russian interest in Syria is to keep the secular regime in Syria. But, who will be president, Bashar Al-Assad or another one, is not very important,” Boris Dolgov, of the Russian Institute of Oriental Studies, told Voice of America.