Undeterred in Syria

How the West Lost Crimea—And Syria

Russia's President Vladimir Putin arrives to attend a summit to discuss the conflict in Ukraine at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, October 2, 2015. France is hosting the meeting with leaders of Russia, Germany, and Ukraine for talks that were likely to be overshadowed by the conflict in Syria. Regis Duvignau / Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin might have intervened in Syria promising to end the conflict there, but things on the ground are only going to get worse, and Putin’s drive to subvert Western interests will only increase.

Russia’s ominous military buildup in Syria represents the most significant projection of force beyond the territory of the former Soviet Union since the Cold War. In the past few days, Russia has initiated a series of airstrikes against Syrian regime opponents. It has begun operating advanced offensive hardware, including fixed wing Su-24, 25, and 27 fighter jets, attack helicopters, drone aircraft, main battle tanks, and SA-22 surface-to-air missile batteries from its new base in Latakia, which is in the backyard of Assad’s stronghold.

Although Russia uses the threat of the Islamic State (also called ISIS) as cover, the Russian campaign is in fact geared toward keeping the Bashar al-Assad regime in power in Syria, effectively closing the path toward negotiated resolution that had been opened by the Iran nuclear deal. Russia also intends to maintain a major forward operating base in the Middle East, which will allow it not only to play a role in determining the regime that follows, but also the ability to influence events in the region beyond the current conflict.

However, of greater concern in the immediate term, there is little guarantee that Russia won’t use its high-end military weaponry in other destabilizing ways, such as through sustained attacks on opposition fighters backed by the United States and the Gulf States. Indeed, Russia’s initial air attacks weren’t even aimed at ISIS strongholds, but were targeted at more moderate anti-Assad groups. And there are already questions about the Russian air force’s ability to operate in the same theater as British, French, Gulf, Turkish, and U.S. air operations without endangering allied aircraft and pilots, intentionally or unintentionally.

Indeed, Russia has been playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with allied planes and ships across Eurasia for many months now.

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