Russia's support for the Syrian government in its war against jihadists and other insurgents has given Moscow a newfound military foothold in the Mediterranean, one that could present a serious challenge to another foe: NATO.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank that monitors global conflicts, released a report Thursday linking Russia's commitment to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his armed forces with Moscow's desire to increase its leverage against U.S.-led alliance NATO, which dominates much of Europe. For years, Russia and NATO have been engaged in an international arms race, the likes of which have not been seen since the Cold War, and each side accuses the other of pushing the limits of peace among the world's leading military powers. By coming to the rescue of an old ally in the Middle East, Russia may have secured a new, strategic entrance to the heavily contested theater of Europe.
"Russian President Vladimir Putin is establishing a long-term military presence in the Mediterranean Sea in part to contest the United States’ ability to operate freely and hold NATO’s southern flank at risk," the report, authored by analysts Charles Frattini III and Genevieve Casagrande, found.
Casagrande told Newsweek that Russia's approach to the conflict in Syria "almost immediately" showed signs of an underlying campaign to creep into NATO's southern flank, especially in Moscow's interaction with NATO member Turkey. Turkey was a leading sponsor of militants that took arms against Assad's government in 2011, accusing the Syrian leader of perpetrating human rights abuses and political oppression. Early on, rebels began to receive significant support from Western countries such as the U.S. and Gulf Arab states such as Qatar as well. The Syrian military was forced to withdraw from much of the country, leaving only a few major cities as bastions of government support.
This changed in 2015, however, when Russia staged a direct military intervention at Assad's request. Syria's Baathist government and Moscow have kept ties for decades and, under the cover of Russian airstrikes, Syria's armed forces were able to regain much of the country. Rebels, whose ranks had already been largely decimated by infighting with ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim fighters from Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), had little choice but to surrender nearly every population center under their control. In what was perhaps the biggest turning point in the war, insurgents were beaten in Aleppo in December. Turkey, which continued to sponsor rebels after rising jihadist influence compelled the U.S. to partially abandon its own backing, entered into an unprecedented agreement with Russia to give up what was once a bastion of anti-government support in Aleppo.
The move marked the beginning of the Astana peace process, an effort to find a political solution to the war that parallels ongoing U.N.-sponsored talks. Casagrande said Russia's ability to convince a "conflicted" Turkey, a primary opponent of Assad's government that often disagrees with its NATO partners as well, to come to the table with the Syrian government and Iran, another major ally of Assad, signaled a turn in Moscow's favor.
"Russia is using this to drive a wedge between Turkey and other NATO allies," Casagrande told Newsweek. "It's part of Russia's global plan to constrain and disrupt NATO at large."
The strategy appears to be working, too, she noted. On a tactical level, the Syrian army and its allies have made a significant comeback with even French President Emmanuel Macron rescinding Assad's departure as a precondition to ending a war that's raged on for more than six years, killing hundreds of thousands and displacing millions more. The Syrian military has largely secured the western part of the country, save for the rebel hub of Idlib, and has begun moving east, rapidly cutting through ISIS territory toward the city of Deir Al-Zour, which has been under siege by the jihadists since 2014.
Russia, on the other hand, is looking west. It's contributed extensive naval resources, including 15 warships from its Black Sea Fleet, toward developing a Permanent Mediterranean Task Force as of July 5. The ships are based out of the coastal Syrian city of Tartous, where Moscow secured permission from Damascus to establish a naval base for nearly the next half a century. Russian warships and a submarine in the Mediterranean have already fired advanced, supersonic Kalibr cruise missiles against ISIS positions in Syria. The same nuclear-capable weapons could soon easily be in range of NATO targets as well, if they aren't already.
"Regarding Russia's engagement in Syria, I think it's absolutely linked to a desire by Moscow to project power on a greater scale in the region as a whole," Neil Hauer, lead analyst at SecDev Group, told Newsweek, noting upcoming renovations to both Russia's naval base in Tartous and air base in Latakia.
"All of this goes far above and beyond what the remaining campaign against Syrian rebels and the Islamic State requires, and thus appears to be pretty clearly aimed at establishing Russia as a major player in the region and challenger to NATO's aims for years to come," he added.
It may not end with Syria, either. Russia's special forces have already reportedly been spotted in Egypt, potentially courting Libyan military leader Khalifa Hifter, who has become increasingly influential politically over his war-torn nation. Yemen, which has been devastated by a Saudi Arabia-led campaign against a local majority-Shiite Muslim militant group known as the Houthis, could also serve as a venue for Russian military ventures where the U.S. and its allies have significantly struggled to achieve their own objectives. As Russia and NATO's rivalry plays out in the Baltics and other parts of Europe, the latter may find itself caught off guard by an expanding Russian sphere of influence reminiscent of Moscow's Soviet legacy.
"Putin has already set some pretty strategic conditions in countries like Libya, Egypt and Yemen," Casagrande told Newsweek. "What Russia does pretty well in the Middle East is set itself to benefit from opportunities in the long run."
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