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Russian military boost to save fragile Assad

Moscow is boosting its military aid to the Syrian regime over fears President Assad's power is waning, a Berlin-based academic tells DW. But some say Putin still favors diplomacy, as Moscow plays down the move.

Russia's expanded military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a defensive move over fears that his regime is crumbling, a former Damascus-based journalist - now living in Germany - said on Monday.

Khaled Yacoub Oweis told DW that Assad was "losing his grip on northern Syria and the Alawite heartland on the coast is also threatened." Oweis said the latest developments had prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to step in with reinforcements.

On Monday, Moscow played down last week's "New York Times" article, which claimed Russia had offered new weapons and military training to Syria, amid concerns that the Russian government was stepping up its commitment to the Assad regime.

The paper cited US administration officials as saying that Putin had ordered the delivery of new military jets, a portable air traffic control station and other apparatus, to create an airbase near the Syrian port of Latakia.

A Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman dismissed the new commitment as "nothing out of the ordinary."

Assad weakened

Despite Russia's strong backing for the Syrian regime during the four-year-long conflict, which started as a rebellion by the country's Sunni majority population, Oweis thinks the Kremlin knows Assad's grip on power is "fading."

As well as dealing with an assault by several rebel groups, the Syrian leader has faced an insurgency by the "Islamic State" (IS) militant group, which has captured large swathes of Syria and Iraq.

Symbolbild - Wladimir Putin und Bashar Assad

Russia has maintained strong relations with Syria since Soviet times. Damascus is a regular buyer of Russian military equipment.

Other media reports over the past few days suggesting that Russia was planning to send ground troops or special forces to Syria were denounced by Moscow as "falsifications and fabrications."

As many as 30 percent of young Syrian men - from Assad's minority Alawite sect - have been killed in the conflict, which some analysts said explained the need for foreign reinforcements.

"The rebel side is better armed, more tenacious and more Islamist," said Oweis. "You also have fewer Alawites willing to join the Assad war machine, so he's relying on more foreigners to fight the war. As we know from history, when foreigners join in, they want a share of the pie and then they take over."

Oweis predicted that if Moscow did send troops, young Russian soldiers would soon be returning in "body bags."

No troops on the ground

London-based Russian expert Nikolay Kozhanov thinks the reports of the Russian army joining the conflict should be taken with a "grain of salt."

"I don't see Moscow sending any real troops on the ground, as this has not been Russian policy over the past 20 years. They are cautious about overseas operations after the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, which negatively affected public opinion in Russia," Kozhanov told DW.

A 10-year-long war for the central Asian territory saw huge Russian casualties and the eventual withdrawal of Soviet forces.

Russland MIG-29 Flugzeug

Reports that Russian pilots and jetfighters are heading to Syria have been denied by the Kremlin

Kozhanov added that several Russian military watchers had acknowledged the delivery of new armored trucks, drones and a deployment of a number of military advisors to Syria. But this was part of a long-term commitment by Moscow to support the Assad regime, he said.

The press reports led US Secretary of State John Kerry to warn his Russian counterpart against further intervention in the war-torn country, saying it "could further escalate the conflict, lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-IS Coalition operating in Syria."

His comments were clearly meant to remind Putin that Russia was not welcome to join the international fight back against IS. The Russian leader has even called for Assad's involvement in a new regional coalition to tackle the jihadists, which Washington has rejected.

Don't do a Libya

Moscow has also recently held talks with Syria's main opposition group about holding new parliamentary elections, while keeping Assad in power.

Oweis, a fellow at The German Institute for International and Security Affairs, thinks that for all his diplomacy, Putin is most fearful of the collapse of the Syrian state, which would become a carbon copy of lawless post-Gadhafi Libya.

Describing the Kremlin's insistence on no regime change, Oweis tells DW: "The Russians are masters of deception."

"It would be a huge blow to Putin's prestige if Assad goes. So Putin says, 'Let's work with Assad, and he can join the (anti-IS) coalition and help destroy the terrorists,'" he added.

Russland militärische Aufrüstung

Russia has maintained a naval facility at Tartus in Syria since the 1970s

Meanwhile, Kozhanov, a visiting fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs - formerly Chatham House - agrees that the last thing Putin wants is a military confrontation with the West in Syria.

"They're not interested in the worst-case scenario where Syria collapses as a state, and for now they believe that only the current government can ensure its survival."

Friday's "New York Times" report also claimed Russian officials had filed military overflight requests with neighboring countries throughout September, as if a large-scale deployment had been scheduled.

America indecisive

On Monday, the US asked Greece to deny Russia the use of its airspace for so-called aid flights to Syria. A Greek foreign ministry spokesman said the request was being examined.

In a follow-up report on Monday, the NYT said Washington was planning a major overhaul of a program to train Syrian rebels to fight IS militants.

The paper said the announcement was an admission that the plans for a 5,000-strong fighting force had failed.

Oweis, who worked for Reuters from Damascus and Amman, Jordan, in the lead-up to the conflict, called on the US to do more.

"Where is the West? If Obama had acted earlier and had given enough support to the rebels to topple the Alawite core (of the Assad regime), then maybe you'd see a diplomatic solution, but at the moment there's no prospect of that."