Editor's Note: Russia began airstrikes in Syria on Oct. 1, in part to reinforce its weakening ally, the government of President Bashar al Assad. Moscow's intent is to influence the Syrian conflict in a way that protects Russia's enduring interests in the region. Since Russia established a secure port location and military air base through which to transport personnel and materiel, mainstream media have responded to Moscow's entrance into the conflict with a flurry of reports and speculation. Stratfor has long been monitoring Russia's political and military involvement in the country.
A month before Russia's first airstrikes in Syria, using state-of-the-art satellite imagery, we were able to pinpoint Russian movements in the country, concluding that the presence of air assets would likely mean Russia's physical entry into the conflict. More important, Stratfor noted how Russia's direct presence would send geopolitical ripples not only through the Middle East but throughout the world as it forced major powers to react to the dramatic change in the region's status quo. In this chronology we lay out some core analyses that highlight recent developments in the Syrian civil war, a conflict that has been dramatically altered by a more assertive Russia.
Oct. 13, 2015: At the start of 2015, Stratfor forecast that Russia, unnerved by the developing U.S.-Iran rapprochement and locked in a standoff with the United States, would promote itself as a mediator of the Syrian conflict as leverage in its broader negotiation with Washington. Wherever the United States floundered in the Middle East, Russia would position itself as the problem-solver in a bid to rebuild its credibility in the region and make itself indispensable to the United States. That forecast was updated in the third quarter to say that the Russian-led project to cobble together a transitional peace plan for Syria would gain momentum but would ultimately perish on the battlefield as rebel factions and their sponsors lacked both the incentive and the trust to negotiate and uphold a sustainable power-sharing arrangement. These forecasts effectively set the scene for the fourth quarter as multiple interests converge and compete on the future of Syria.
With Russia providing critical reinforcement to loyalist forces in Syria, the regime's primary focus will be on filling out a statelet contoured against the stronghold of the ruling Alawite clan, a region that extends across the Hezbollah-dominated Bekaa Valley through Damascus and up the Homs-Hama corridor before anchoring on the Alawite coast. Under the claimed mandate of combatting terrorism, Russia and Iran will work together to help loyalist forces flush out rebel pockets along this corridor and repel encroaching rebels from Idlib in northeast Syria and Daraa, along the southwestern border with Jordan.
Oct. 12. 2015: Press statements aside, this is obviously a tense time for Russia-Gulf relations. After all, Moscow is doubling down on its support for Iran's main allies in the Levant at a time when the Gulf Cooperation Council states are increasingly unimpressed with U.S. support for a rebel campaign designed — at least, from the Gulf Arab perspective — to push back against Iranian influence in the region. Russia understands perfectly that its actions in Syria will naturally compel the Gulf states to ramp up their own support for the rebels to even out the playing field. A discussion on parameters was thus in order.
Oct. 7, 2015: But Russia is botching Turkey's plans. Russia, Turkey and NATO are still arguing over whether two alleged Russian violations of Turkish airspace near the Syrian border were intentional (as Turkey and NATO claim) or accidental (as Russia insists they were). Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov said Tuesday that Russia was ready to form a working group and that it would be pleased to host Turkish Defense Ministry officials in Moscow to avoid further misunderstandings in Syria. Ankara has no choice but to interpret Russia's actions as a signal that Moscow is willing to interfere in a Turkish-led safe zone if Ankara tries to push ahead with its plans.
Oct. 2, 2015: Tensions have risen in the Middle East over the past two weeks as the United States and Russia have emerged with different ideas on solving the problems in Syria. But there is another heavyweight in this fight — a player with separate entanglements with both Russia and the United States and that could become influential in the region, though its primary concerns currently rest closer to home. That player is Europe.
Oct. 2, 2015: For now, the United States will be forced to react to unfolding events as it forms a new overarching strategy for Syria. Russia will drive events with its support of al Assad, and Washington will scramble to adjust to Russian moves even as it works with Moscow to deconflict its air campaign. Longer term, the United States sees a negotiated settlement to the conflict as its best option. But because of the myriad competing interests, an understanding between regional and global powers on Syria is still far off — and that assumes Syrian rebel groups would even accept such an agreement.
Oct. 1, 2015: Global news media are buzzing with reports about Russia's first official airstrikes in Syria and the U.S. response to them. To understand the impact of these actions, however, we need to explore Russia's objectives in Syria rather than the airstrikes themselves. Russia's decision to go after rebels other than the Islamic State in its first foray was a bold message, but it was just one phrase in a much broader geopolitical communication between Russia and the rest of the world.
Sept. 25, 2015: Stratfor has been closely tracking the Russian buildup of military power at Bassel al Assad air base in Syria, charting the uptick of forces throughout September. Aside from the air assets and defensive ground capacity identified at the air base, reports indicate potential Russian activity at several other locations across the Syrian coastal region.
Widely circulated satellite photography dated Sept. 13 revealed construction at the Istamo weapons storage facility and the appearance of tents at the al-Sanobar military facility south of Latakia. Though this led to conclusions of a possible Russian military presence at those facilities, more recent and detailed imagery provided by our partners at AllSource Analysis seems to contradict this assertion.
Sept. 21, 2015: Moscow continues to demonstrate a credible investment in the Syrian conflict by reinforcing its position in the country. Over the weekend, satellite imagery revealed new Russian aerial components arriving at Bassel al Assad air base near the Syrian city of Latakia. Footage from the Syrian front lines also revealed a significant number of Russian troops being directly embedded in units loyal to Damascus. This broadening Russian presence suggests that Moscow could be readying itself to provide close air support for Syrian units locked in open conflict against numerous rebel groups as well as the Islamic State.
Sept. 10, 2015: The reinforcement of the airport shows that Moscow is preparing to deploy aerial assets to Syria, if it has not already done so. To sustain an overseas presence, Moscow must establish a sustained logistical connection and have forces in place to defend it. In this case, Russia is looking to establish an air bridge, with everything that entails. Stationing Russian aerial assets — such as fighter jets and attack helicopters — inside Syria is a clear escalation of Moscow's involvement in the country. Russia's previous involvement was limited to the transfer of equipment, spare parts and weaponry to the Syrian government and the provision of intelligence support.