Russia’s commitment in Syria includes boots on the ground

Why has Russia’s military engagement been so much more ro­bust than that of Middle Eastern or Western governments?

Russian military technicians checking Russian Su-34 fighter-bomber

2016/04/01 Issue: 50 Page: 3

The Arab Weekly
John C.K. Daly

If there is universal condem­nation of the Islamic State’s barbarism, there is an equal reluctance to confront it militarily, except via air strikes.

While the US-led coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS) is investing heavily in arming and training Syrian, Kurdish, Yazidi, Turkmen and other militant groups and both the United States and Britain have sent a handful of “advisers”, there is an exception to this reluctance to deploy boots on the ground.

One country, Russia, has battled ISIS in Syria by deploying, not only air strikes, but cruise missile launches from its warships and elite special forces on the ground to confront ISIS jihadists directly.

On March 23rd, Russia for the first time said it had special forces in combat roles in Syria, suggesting that Moscow has been more deeply engaged in the Syrian conflict than it had previously acknowl­edged. The same day the Russian Defence Ministry said that in five days ending March 23rd, its aircraft carried out 146 strikes on “terrorist targets” in the Palmyra area.

Not unexpectedly, there have been casualties. The day after the Kremlin acknowledged the pres­ence of its special forces in the Syrian front lines, the Interfax news agency reported that a source at Russia’s Hmeimim air base in Syria’s Latakia province briefed the media that an officer of Russian special operations forces had been killed near Palmyra while carrying out a special task to direct Russian air strikes at ISIS targets.

“The officer was carrying out a combat task in Palmyra area for a week, identifying crucial ISIS targets and passing exact coordi­nates for strikes by Russian planes,” the source said. “The officer died as a hero. He drew fire onto himself after being located and surrounded by terrorists.”

ISIS-linked media recently said that five Russian special forces were killed near Palmyra, publish­ing pictures from their cellphones and a video showing a bloodied corpse. The deaths would bring to seven the number of Russian servicemen known to have been killed in Syria since Moscow’s campaign began last September. The acknowledgement that Russian special forces have been in ground combat in Syria means that Russia has committed all three elements of its armed forces — land, air and naval — to its campaign to sup­port the Syrian government, while Western efforts have been mostly limited to air attacks on selected insurgent groups, primarily ISIS combat units.

Why has Russia’s military engagement been so much more ro­bust than that of Middle Eastern or Western governments, which have limited themselves until recently to largely desultory air strikes?

Russia is assisting long-term ally Syria combat myriad militant groups seeking to overthrow Presi­dent Bashar Assad. Unlike the West, which for years has funded and equipped various “democratic” Syr­ia opposition groups in the belief that Assad’s overthrow will usher in a democratic Syria, Vladimir Putin’s government has concluded that Western interventions in the Mid­dle East, beginning with the US-led March 2003 invasion of Iraq, far from leading to democracy, instead created political chaos in which extremism flourished.

The West subsequently pursued similar “regime change” policies in Libya and Syria, which have led to further political turmoil as indig­enous and foreign jihadis battle for control.

In the Kremlin’s view, there is no democratic opposition, only mili­tant jihadis, who include a number of their citizens. When briefing reporters last October at the United Nations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was asked which specific groups in Syria, apart from ISIS, Russia regards as terrorists. He replied: “Well, if it looks like a ter­rorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist — it’s a terrorist.”

A second consideration for the Kremlin is that many of its own citi­zens from its turbulent Caucasus region have flocked to ISIS, acquir­ing expertise that could be repatri­ated, spreading terrorism across the Russian Federation with the potential to radicalise the country’s population, which is 10% Muslim.

By confronting jihadis in Syria, Russia is protecting not only itself but the rest of the world from the export of radical Islam, for which the Russians deserve the world’s gratitude.

John C.K. Daly is a Washington-based specialist on Russian and post-Soviet affairs.

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