The new player: How Russia is changing the game in Syria

Syrian+president+Bashar+Al+Assad+visits+soldiers+and+officers+at+a+military+checkpoint+near+the+area+of+Jobar%2C+outskirts+of+Damascus%2C+Syria%2C+on+December+31st%2C+2014.+Assad+has+outlasted+the+Obama+administration%27s+2011+prediction+that+his+days+are+numbered.+%28Abaca+Press%2FTNS%29

Syrian president Bashar Al Assad visits soldiers and officers at a military checkpoint near the area of Jobar, outskirts of Damascus, Syria, on December 31st, 2014. Assad has outlasted the Obama administration's 2011 prediction that his days are numbered. (Abaca Press/TNS)

Syrian president Bashar Al Assad visits soldiers and officers at a military checkpoint near the area of Jobar, outskirts of Damascus, Syria, on December 31st, 2014. Assad has outlasted the Obama administration’s 2011 prediction that his days are numbered. (Abaca Press/TNS)

The Syrian Civil War is in its fifth year. One of the Syrian government’s largest aggressors is The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS, which has been on the forefront of the international news for the past two or so years, but in recent weeks a new development has spiked fears: Russia’s increased support of the Syrian government.

For background on ISIS, check out an in-depth article on the group from last year.

In recent months the Syrian refugee crisis has proved the severity of the situation in Syria. An estimated nine million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of the civil war in March  2011. The Syrian government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, has been dropping bombs on not only opposition groups like ISIS, but also its own citizens. According to the United States State Department spokesman John Kirby, ninety percent of Russia’s airstrikes have targeted Syrian rebels who are fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

On September 4th, it was announced that Russia had sent a military advance team into Syria, which the United States feared meant the country was increasing its support of the government there. This speculation turned out to be true, as Russia has rapidly built-up their military presence in Syria in the past month through development of two additional air bases, one of which is in Latakia, Syria. Private satellite images released at the end of September revealed this construction.

According to the New York Times, Russian President Vladmir V. Putin justified their entry into the conflict by claiming Russia was acting “preventatively, to fight and destroy militants and terrorists on the territories that they already occupied, not wait for them to come to our house.” They claimed that their entry into Syria was to help in the battle against ISIS, but this seems to be false.

Graphic showing the number of airstrikes per month in Iraq and Syria. Tribune News Service
Graphic showing the number of airstrikes per month in Iraq and Syria. Tribune News Service

However, Russia’s “preventative” methods have included sending jets and missiles into the skies over Syria, and don’t seem to be aimed at fighting the Islamic State, as they had claimed. Instead, their bombing, which started on September 30th, has been concentrated on insurgent groups who oppose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Most of Russia’s airstrikes have been centralized in the northwest of Syria, where ISIS has little presence.

This advance is threatening an area north of Aleppo, a Syrian city, which is supposed to be part of a proposed ISIS-free buffer zone under a plan announced this summer between the United States and Turkey. Said plan seems to be have been stalled, and the Russian advances seem to be to blame. Turkey has strong economic ties with Russia, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has praised the Russian government in recent months. Earlier in the month, a series of Russian violations of Turkish airspace occurred which have also increased tensions with Turkey. Turkish President Erdogan now has fewer options when it comes to ousting the al-Assad because of the Russian interference, especially when it comes to building the safe-zone Turkey has hoped for.

“The Russian presence has changed the entire parameters in Syria, including a safe zone,” said Mensur Akgun, director of the Global Political Trends Center, a research organization in Turkey, in an interview with the New York Times. “No one will dare confront Russia.”

Map showing North Caucasus, Russia where 1,500 residents have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside Islamic State militants. TNS 2015
Map showing North Caucasus, Russia where 1,500 residents have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside Islamic State militants. TNS 2015

The United States is hesitant to take action towards Russia. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the end of September and said he raised U.S. concerns about attacks on Syrian regime opponents other than ISIS. The two agreed that the U.S. and Russia needed to hold military talks as soon as possible. The U.S. is concerned by Russia’s refusal to coordinate their airstrikes with the existing U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, as it could cause military accidents.

Within Iraq, Syria’s neighbor, much of the Shiite population, the majority of the population in Iraq, has applauded Russian President Putin’s actions in their country, while it has outraged the Sunni Arabs. The Sunnis oppose Putin because of his support for Syrian President al-Assad, who they believe is oppressing the Syrian Sunni minority. Much of the Shiite concern is fueled by the perception that the American campaign against ISIS is moving too slowly.

“The Russian interview is welcomed, not because they like intervention but because of the American failure,” Faris Hammam, the leader of the local Iraqi writers’ union, said.

Iraq has a Shiite-dominated government, and so this Russian support could lead to the Iraqi government supporting Putin’s movements in Syria and rather than working in the American government to combat ISIS, Iraq could move to Russia’s side. This possibility would alter the current situation in Syria.

The world waits as the situation continues to unfold, wondering what Russia’s next steps will be in Syria, and what will happen to this volatile area.