For some time, I’ve wondered why on earth the Russians were committing so much in the way of military force in Syria, ostensibly in support of the government of Bashar al Assad. What do they gain by that? Especially given the ethnic fragmentation and conflicts that aren’t going to be resolved by more bombs and deaths, and which may in fact be increased by such measures? Then, there’s another question. Why is Vladimir Putin so intent on building up the Russian military at a time when Russia seems to face uncertain economic times, if not economic chaos?
In Syria the Russians have provided all manner of “aid,”including close air support; attack helicopters on the battlefield; high-precision strikes with missiles like the short-range Iskander; artillery support; special forces backup; intelligence; targeting; electronic warfare and even mine clearance. Although some of the top attack aircraft were recently flown back to Russia, attack helicopters that are less susceptible to the sandstorms that blow this time of year replaced them. A recent CNN report revealed that, in addition to first-line jet aircraft and helicopters, the Russians have also deployed modern main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers and surface-to-air missile systems, not to mention a satellite-based missile guidance system.
On May 10th, Putin himself stated, “Since the start of the operation, Aerospace Forces planes have flown more than 10,000 combat missions against international terrorist facilities on the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic, have conducted a large number of strikes on the territory and have engaged over 30,000 targets, including more than 200 facilities for extracting oil and refining oil and crude oil feedstock.”
Putin also noted that the conflict in Syria brought out certain problems with new Russian weapons and systems, problems which he indicated will be soon addressed. It’s almost as if the Russian Syrian initiative was as much to field test new weapons and systems as to tell the world that Russia is back on the world stage with a totally revamped military structure and posture.
At the same time, Russian attacks continue to destroy civilian targets, ostensibly in pursuit of ISIS, but in practical terms, every attack creates more refugees, and the war in Syria has created roughly five million refugees to date. In addition to the more than a million Syrian refugees already in Europe, three million have fled to Turkey, a country with already contentious social and ethnic confrontations that the flood of refugees can only exacerbate. Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million people, also with a divided cultural and ethnic society, hosts over a million.
Barriers against the flood of refugees are going up all over Europe, either mental or physical ones, at a time when much of Europe faces economic difficulties, as well as where a significant number of nations have shown an overall unwillingness to markedly expand military capabilities. Add to that the fact that the United States military is already over-extended, and a majority of Americans are tired of overseas military operations that seem to offer little hope of resolution and only more American casualties.
What, indeed, could Vladimir Putin be thinking?