What’s Russia up to in Syria?

Over at LobeLog, I take a look at recent developments in Syria. In response to the continued deterioration of Bashar al-Assad’s position, Russia has been dramatically ramping up its engagement in support of Assad over the past 2-3 weeks:

Assad’s position in Syria has never looked more tenuous than it does right now. After losing control over almost all of Idlib Province to rebels and the important central Syrian city of Tadmur to IS over the spring and summer, the Syrian military lost its last remaining airbase in Idlib, and IS forces have taken the regime’s last major oil field. IS is now advancing on an important regime-controlled airbase in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor and is even threatening Damascus, Syria’s capital and Assad’s base of operations. Facing the loss of military manpower to casualties and desertion, Assad earlier this year pulled back the bulk of his remaining forces to try to defend the territory that still remains under his control: the area around Damascus and the core Alawite territory in Syrian’s northwest Mediterranean coastal region.

Perhaps in response to these setbacks, Russia appears to be taking steps to increase its engagement in Syria. On September 10, Reuters reported that Russian soldiers have started to participate in direct military action in support of Assad’s troops. Since then, American defense officials have said that Russia may be constructing a new air base near the Syrian port city of Latakia (“We’re obviously watching it very closely,” according to U.S. Navy Captain Jeff Davis). Another Reuters report said that Syrian soldiers were beginning to use “highly effective and very accurate” new weapons supplied by Moscow. The Russian government has confirmed part of this narrative, acknowledging that its “humanitarian aid flights” to Syria have also been bringing weapons into the country and that it does have forces in Syria acting as “advisers” to the Syrian military.

Yesterday it was announced that Assad and the Jaysh al-Fatah rebel coalition had reached a significant ceasefire involving two contested areas; Assad’s forces (chiefly Hezbollah) will halt their offensive against the Syria-Lebanon border towns of Zabadani and Madaya,  while the rebels have agreed to stop their assault on the towns of Kefraya and al-Fuʿah in Idlib Province. If this deal holds, and there’s obviously plenty of reason to be skeptical about that, it may lead to a longer-term deal to allow the withdrawal of rebel forces from Zabadani/Madaya and government forces from Kefraya/al-Fuʿah, and possibly even the relocation of civilians out of both areas.

That latter bit, moving civilian populations out of areas where they’re no longer welcome, could get people talking more seriously about the possibility of partitioning Syria. While the humanitarian evacuation of civilians is certainly preferable to leaving them in place to maybe get slaughtered, partition is a bad idea that isn’t going to get any better because of the terms of this ceasefire. Anyway, my reason for mentioning it here is that the ceasefire was announced in western media after my piece was already in the queue for posting, so I was only able to add a couple of sentences about it and the partition issue before publication.

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