Reports of a significant build up of Russian military involvement in the the war in Syria have increased the possibility of a direct confrontation between Russia and the U.S. in the embattled region. Russia’s support of the Syrian regime under Assad has been unwavering throughout the conflict, with Russia vetoing numerous UN Security Council resolutions to take action against the Syrian regime. It has recently emerged that Russia has boots on the ground in Syria. Russia insists that its troops are there merely as military advisers. Al Qaeda affiliate Jahbat Al Nusra, however, has released pictures on social media that appear to be of Russian made warplanes and drones in Syrian airspace and a recent video on Syrian state television appears to show Russian armoured vehicles and troops engaged alongside Syrian government forces. Coast watchers from a shipping blog have also made unconfirmed reports of a Russian warship, its decks laden with equipment, making its way into Syrian waters.
U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, has made a phone call to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, warning him of a possible confrontation in Syria, according to CNN. Kerry reportedly said that more Russian military in Syria “could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent lives, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation.”
Earlier today, Reuters reported that Greek officials have been asked to deny Greek airspace to Russian aid flights to Syria. These flights, which have been ongoing since the earliest days of the Syrian conflict, have purportedly been to deliver food aid and equipment and to extract Russian nationals needing to leave Syria. Russia has made no bones about supplying arms and materiel to the Syrian regime, even to the extent of upholding a pre-embargo deal to supply fighter planes to Assad.
Direct Russian involvement, which some analysts say is as good as confirmed, will add yet another layer of complexity to the war in Syria. With the US forming part of an anti-ISIS coalition conducting airstrikes in Syria and Northern Iraq and firmly backing the UN position that no future Syria can include Assad, there is a real risk of direct collision with Russia. Russia has deep diplomatic, trade and defense ties to the Assad regime. Many of Russia’s key allies and trading partners in the region, like Iran, are squarely in support of the current Syrian regime. What influence Russia has in the Middle East is heavily concentrated in Syria. It has a naval facility in Tartous, and the proximity of Russia’s uneasy Caucasus provinces to the spreading Syrian conflict is a matter of deep security concern for the Russian authorities.
U.S. interests in Syria, on the other hand, are almost exactly opposed to Russia’s. The U.S. has long been unhappy with the Syrian regime under Assad and previously, under his father, both of whom have been intermittently hostile to Israel. Besides this, U.S. foreign policy has always favorite the Sunni kingdoms and principalities of the region, automatically distancing the U.S. from the Shia Alawite regime in Syria. The contest for Middle East influence has, with US and Russian forces actively engaged in the same battlefields, become a potential flashpoint for direct confrontation between major powers.
If Russia’s support of the Assad regime increases, it will be almost impossible to determine whether or not it confines its strikes to Islamic State targets, or engages generally with all the enemies of the Syrian government. If it does the latter, it will potentially be striking at forces who are in direct receipt of U.S. support and who may have U.S. assets embedded with them. If Russian forces destroy US personnel or materiel in Syria, there will be very few options for a peaceful resolution of such a situation.
[Picture via Getty Images]