President Vladimir Putin, condemned by NATO for annexing Crimea, is now defying the U.S. in Syria by sending more and deadlier arms to help Bashar Assad score a string of advances against insurgents, military experts say.
Assad’s army, seeking to end a three-year civil war that’s killed 150,000 people and displaced 9 million, started using longer-range Russian Smerch and Uragan rockets for the first time in February, according to Jane’s Defense Weekly and Stratfor, a U.S. geopolitical research company.
Syria has also intensified the use of MiG-29 fighter jets with ground-attack capabilities, Stratfor said, citing analyses of video footage.
“Russia is now doing everything to ensure that Assad wins convincingly,” said Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. “If Russia can show it’s capable of carrying out its own foreign policy, regardless of America’s wishes, it will be a major achievement for Putin.”
“The Russian strategy has actually not changed, it’s just that they’re no longer hiding behind a diplomatic facade since Crimea,” said Oubai Shahbandar, an adviser to the Syrian opposition.
Russia is supplying a “lifeline” of ammunition and spare parts for tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters, said Ruslan Pukhov, an adviser to the Defense Ministry in Moscow and head of the Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
Pukhov declined to comment on the rockets and upgraded jets, as did Vyacheslav Davidenko, a spokesman for Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport. The Syrian Embassy in Moscow didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. has information about an increase in the “quantity and quality” of Russian arms flows to Syria, Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson said on March 26.
“The stability that Russia seeks in Syria will not be achieved by providing planes, tanks, bombs and guns for use against the Syrian people,” Patterson told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in Washington.
After reclaiming areas near the capital Damascus and securing much of the frontier with Lebanon, Assad’s army is now aiming to re-establish control over the border with Turkey, where many rebel fighters are entrenched, said Alexander Zotov, a former Russian ambassador to Syria.
The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on March 19 that commercial flights between Damascus and Aleppo, the northern financial hub that’s seen some of the fiercest fighting, had been resumed.
“Russia’s confidence in Assad’s hold on power has increased as the conflict has evolved in his favor,” Zotov said.
“No one is talking about Geneva III or IV now,” Zotov said, referring to the possible rounds of talks after Geneva II collapsed in February.
The U.S. and Russia sponsored the peace process after reaching a deal with Assad last September to turn over his chemical weapons to international inspectors for destruction.
Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on state TV on March 27 that Russia remains committed to diplomatic efforts to end the war. A week earlier, the ministry said the U.S. had abandoned its role as mediator by expelling all Syrian diplomats apart from those at the U.N.
While Putin has said repeatedly that only the people of Syria can decide Assad’s fate, his government has in fact abandoned all pretense of neutrality, said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow.
“Assad’s victory over insurgents will change everything in the Middle East for Russia,” Lukyanov said.
Putin, who has rekindled Soviet ties with Egypt’s new military rulers through multibillion-dollar arms contracts, railed against NATO for using a U.N.-backed no-fly zone to oust the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
Putin, first elected in 2000, the same year as Assad, saw his approval rating in Russia surge to 80 percent after incorporating Crimea, the highest level in six years, according to the independent polling group Levada Center.
Putin has gained the upper hand in Syria because Obama is reluctant to supply the opposition with advanced weaponry such as guided anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles out of fear they may fall into the hands of radical Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda, said Igor Korotchenko, a member of the Defense Ministry’s advisory council and the head of the Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade in Moscow.
“Because of that, the Syrian rebels are less active and dangerous than the mujahedeen were in Afghanistan,” Korotchenko said in an interview in the Russian capital, referring to the group of Islamist fighters who were armed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s in a successful campaign to force the Soviet Army to withdraw.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Paris after talks with Kerry on the crisis in Ukraine on March 30 that he had received assurances that the U.S. won’t supply hand-held missile launchers to Syrian rebels.
In contrast, Russia was “surging military supplies” to Syria even as negotiators from both sides of the war met in Switzerland in February, Shahbandar, the rebel adviser said.
Maritime records show regular shipments to Syria from the southern Ukrainian port of Oktyabrsk, which Russia uses for military exports, said Jeremy Binnie, a Middle East analyst at Jane’s Defense Weekly.
Those supplies most likely consist of spare parts for T-72 tanks, Mi-24 attack helicopters and other equipment, Binnie said.
Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based nearby in Crimea, which Putin seized after bloody protests led to the ouster of Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych.
“You need constant supplies coming in on a daily basis to keep a sizable military functioning in the field,” Binnie said by phone from London.
Officially, Russia says it’s supplying only defensive weapons unsuitable for civil conflict. It has $3.5 billion of military orders from Syria, including for Yakhont anti-ship cruise missiles, MiG-29 fighter jets and Pantsir short-range air-defense systems, according to data compiled by the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI, which studies the global arms trade, said Russia has also been supplying Syria with aerial bombs.
“When Russian officials say the weapons are for defensive use, or are ‘defensive weapons,’ they mean the weapons are to defend the Syrian government against ‘insurgents’ or ‘terrorists,’” Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at SIPRI, said by email.
Putin’s support for Assad includes the deployment of a naval task force in the Mediterranean that makes it impossible for the U.S. to impose an arms blockade on Syria, said Pukhov, the Defense Ministry adviser.
“This is major support without which the regime would have collapsed,” Pukhov said in an interview.
Assad’s forces have suffered some reverses. Islamist rebels late last month seized control of the town of Kasab on the Turkish border, a gateway to the coastal province of Latakia, a stronghold of Assad and his Alawite minority.
A Putin envoy, Sergei Stepashin, met Assad in Damascus Wednesday and delivered a message of support for his fight against terrorism, the Interfax news service reported.
“Despite some occasional victories by the rebels, it is already clear that the advantage is with Assad at this point, thanks in large part to the support he receives from Iran, Russia and Hezbollah,” Omar Lamrani, a military analyst at Austin, Texas-based Stratfor, said from Bangkok.
“If the regime continues to receive substantial support from Russia and is able to continue to seize strategic ground around the Syrian core between Damascus and the coast, then the regime would have largely solidified its grasp in power even if it won’t be able to take all of Syria back,” Lamrani said.