A Syrian woman reacts following an air strike by Syrian government forces in the al-Sakhour district of the northern city of Aleppo on April 2. Photo: AFP
Moscow: Russian President Vladimir Putin, condemned by NATO for annexing Crimea, is now defying the US in Syria by sending more and deadlier arms to help Bashar al-Assad score a string of advances against insurgents, military experts say.
Dr Assad’s army, seeking to end a three-year civil war that has killed 150,000 people and displaced 9 million, started using longer-range Russian Smerch and Uragan rockets for the first time in February, according to Jane’s Defence Weekly and Stratfor, a US geopolitical research company.
“Russia is now doing everything to ensure that Assad wins convincingly,” Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said by phone. “If Russia can show it’s capable of carrying out its own foreign policy, regardless of America’s wishes, it will be a major achievement for Putin.”
A Syrian carries an injured child in the aftermath of air strikes by government forces in Aleppo’s al-Sakhur neighbourhood on April 2. Photo: Reuters
Mr Putin, who last year averted US airstrikes on Syria by brokering a chemical weapons accord, is seeking to prolong the rule of his closest Arab ally, ignoring US and European Union calls for Dr Assad to step down.
Russia is supplying a “lifeline” of ammunition and spare parts for tanks, armoured vehicles and helicopters, said Ruslan Pukhov, an adviser to the Defence Ministry in Moscow. Pukhov declined to comment on the upgraded rockets, as did Vyacheslav Davidenko, a spokesman for Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport.
Syrian troops backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah group in mid-March seized the strategic border town of Yabroud, a rebel smuggling hub. A week later, Syrian forces recaptured a Crusader castle near Lebanon known as Krak des Chevaliers, which had been in insurgent hands for two years.
The injured child is comforted at a clinic in the aftermath of the bombing on April 2. Photo: Reuters
The Syrian army is now aiming to re-establish control over the border with Turkey, where many rebel fighters are entrenched, said Alexander Zotov, a former Russian ambassador to Syria. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow said on March 19 that commercial flights between Damascus and Aleppo, the northern financial hub that’s seen some of the fiercest fighting, had been resumed.
“Russia’s confidence in Assad’s hold on power has increased as the conflict has evolved in his favour,” Mr Zotov said. “No one is talking about Geneva III or IV now,” he added, referring to the next possible rounds of talks after Geneva II collapsed in February.
US President Barack Obama told King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia last week that the US was committed to finding ways to strengthen Dr Assad’s opponents without empowering extremists.
Mr Putin has gained the upper hand in Syria because Mr Obama is reluctant to supply the opposition with advanced weaponry such as guided anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles out of fear they may fall into the hands of radical Islamist groups linked to al-Qaeda, said Igor Korotchenko, a member of the Russian Defence Ministry’s advisory council.
“Because of that, the Syrian rebels are less active and dangerous than the mujahideen were in Afghanistan,” Mr Korotchenko said, referring to the Islamist fighters armed by the CIA in the 1980s in a successful campaign to force the Red Army to withdraw.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Paris after talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry on March 30 that he had received assurances that the US won’t supply hand-held missile launchers to Syrian rebels.
Categories: Escalation / Destabilization Conflict