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Is Russia's growing intervention in Syria a game changer?

Is Russia's growing intervention in Syria a game changer?

The latest analysis of the Syrian conflict from the Institute for the Study of War provides a detailed examination of what it describes (correctly) as a game changer.

Assuming its analysis of the military calculus is sound, the questions that remain unanswered relate to the extent to which the Russians see their role extending beyond securing their interests along the Syrian coast. 

Would they see it as a strategic necessity to secure Damascus, or prevent the interdiction of the highway linking Damascus to Homs and the other urban centres to the north, or clear Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other al Qaeda-affiliated groups currently backed by Turkey from Idlib province? 

If achieving such an outcome were indeed their intent, and militarily it could be accomplished, what implications would that have for Turkey and the Kurds? The Kurdish forces in Syria, linked to the PKK, would relish an opportunity to bridge the gap between their existing cantons. 

Would the Turks be prepared to engage in a confrontation with the Russians (and potentially be placed under countervailing pressure from the Iranians, who back the PKK) under such circumstances, rather than see the Kurds push forward? 

The deployment seems to put to rest facile notions of creating 'safe zones' (supposedly for refugees, but in practice for al Qaeda-linked militias) from which pressure would continue to be mounted against the Assad regime's control over the Alawite mountain heartland, Latakia and Tartous on the coast and the urban centres Homs and Hama which are strategically significant to the preservation of the rest. 

The Russian deployment described in the analysis, and the signs of impending use of elite Russian airborne troops, would make sense only in the context of a determination to neutralise or remove the threat of further attacks mounted against the Assad regime's core. [fold]

It would seem unlikely (and the current scale of deployments reinforces this view) that restoring or securing effective regime control over Aleppo or other urban centres further afield (Deir ez-Zour, Raqqa, Deraa) would be deemed central to Russian interests. Despite the Russian rhetoric of dealing with the threat from ISIS, 'mission creep' is something the Russians would no doubt prefer to avoid as the next phase of the conflict unfolds.

As it stands the Russian strategy, undertaken in coordination with Iran, looks certain to see the Assad regime remaining in control of the coast (which represents a clearly-defined Russian interest). It may as well be able to claim an ongoing relationship with the 'legitimate' Syrian regime. 

What might happen beyond that, however, is unclear.

The fate of Damascus will depend on whether rebel groups shift their focus toward that conflict zone, and possibly set aside their rivalries to that end; and whether the Russians and Iranians are prepared to do whatever is needed to counter such pressures. The threats will come from the south (Deraa and the Golan), from urban centres in the greater Damascus area (the Ghouta, Douma) and possibly through the interdiction of links from Damascus to the north. 

The ongoing contest for Zabadani, close to Damascus, suggests that with Hezbollah's support, the regime can eventually regain (or destroy) targets where its supply lines are short. On the other hand, it also indicates that the regime lacks the capacity to regain territory further afield, unless perhaps the Russians were to come on board. 

If the Russian move effectively puts the current balance of power on the ground between the regime and its opponents on a more even and long-term keel, and the rivalry between al Qaeda and ISIS affiliated elements cannot be overcome (and that rivalry has increased lately) the territorial disaggregation of Syria will surely follow. 

We can expect to see militias proceed to contest territorial control among themselves (as ISIS is currently doing around Deraa, Aleppo and Idlib) and possibly seek to erode Druze control as well. This will produce a spike in violence and further displacement of refugees (although not on the catastrophic scale which would have followed a complete collapse of the regime).

The Israelis will no doubt be seeking assurances that the Russian air defence systems introduced in the context of their overall deployment will not be manned by Syrians – i.e. they will not be allowed to restrict Israeli freedom to operate in Syrian and Lebanese air space against Hezbollah where the Israelis see a compelling need to act. 

That will test the Russians – at least so far as their dealings with Iran and Hezbollah are concerned – but it would seem likely to be an issue factored in to their decision to deploy in the first place. The forthcoming discussions between Putin and Netanyahu promises to be interesting.

The Saudis and other Gulf states will be frustrated by the Russia fait accompli, but that too will not be a problem other than at the diplomatic level for the Russians. It is anyone's guess how the Saudis may respond – if they respond at all. 

The strategic competition with Iran will no doubt continue. But Saudi Arabia's symbolic objective (Assad's head) may now be beyond reach. Moreover, from a strategic perspective, the Iranians and Russians are moving into a relationship that, together with the nuclear deal between the US and Iran, looks likely to see the Iranians comfortably secured against external pressure. 

It would make sense for the Saudis to temper their ambitions under such circumstances – but this is the Middle East.

(Photo by Ibrahim Hatib/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

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