Russian military build-up in Syria continues as world leaders gather in New York at the UN General Assembly. The frosty US and Russian leaders verbally sparred over humanitarian, democratic and military responsibilities but the meeting failed to reconcile significant differences.
The Syrian regime of President Bashar al Assad will likely utilise Russian military forces to defend its core territory in western Syria. This will facilitate a rumoured power transition. But Russia hopes Mr al Assad’s ethnic Alawite support zone will eventually break away from the larger Syrian state, similar to Lebanon’s history.
Should this happen, it will position Russia as the main power patron to the new statelet, reinforcing Moscow’s goal to force the US into dialogue on other geopolitical situations, namely Ukraine. Russian troops also set up surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) in Syria, even though the Islamic State possesses no aircraft. This SAM bubble supports Moscow’s goal to compel the US into discussion.
Syria cannot be divorced from Ukraine’s separatism, where for almost 72 hours no shelling has occurred in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Moscow retains the ability to ratchet up tension in the region if it doesn’t think Kiev is supplying enough political concessions. The present moment of quiet suggests Russian President Vladimir Putin is getting his way.
This conflict has been expensive for Russia, costing almost $US2 billion in military expenditure (not including the continued rolling military exercises). The Russian-backed separatists also don’t boost Moscow’s international image. The build-up in Syria is both a convenient distraction from Ukraine and a play for greater concessions in that conflict from the US.
In Russia proper, the economy is financially struggling from sanctions, a halving of global energy prices, a poor reinvestment of energy income and the net loss of an estimated 700,000 people each year due to natural causes. Russia’s current geopolitics has an air of desperation, but Mr Putin may well succeed if the international community counters the actions too slowly.