So are there actually Russian troops in Syria or not? Everyone, including heads of intelligence for the world’s leading countries, is now spreading rumors about this question. But the answer lies on the surface. It was plainly heard from the mouths of many Russian and foreign government officials of the highest rank: Yes, there are Russian military units, Russian weapons and Russian equipment there.
Indeed, the 720th Material-Technical Support Point in Tartus* isn’t serving Martians. It’s serving someone else – the ships of the naval forces’ permanent task force in the Mediterranean Sea, for which the patrol ship Smetlivy left Sevastopol this past Friday. It will join the detachment which now includes the guided missile hovercraft Samum, the anti-submarine destroyer Vice-Admiral Kulakov, the hydrographic vessel Donuzlav, and possibly one of the nuclear-powered, multi-purpose submarines. In addition, last week yet another planned rotation of warships was carried out. Referring to Western sources, Interfax reported that in the first half of September, five warships with weapons and equipment were sent to Syria from Russia.
Foreign media have already written that Russian warships are taking part in an operation they call the "Syrian Express.” The operation’s objective is to deliver ammunition for the Syrian government’s army. Russian weapons are already being used in fighting against the terrorists. Reuters reported about this, referring to a source in the Syrian army. The source describes the weapons as highly accurate and effective.
Four-star Gen. Lloyd Austin, commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, testified last week before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.** Based on his testimony, it appears the Pentagon doesn’t understand Russia’s ultimate objective in Syria, where it’s sending weapons and military equipment as well as military trainers and advisers. And it really has the U.S. Department of Defense worried. A second cause for concern is a lack of understanding about what’s happening in Syria itself.
The Pentagon has clearly demonstrated an inability or an unwillingness to organize resistance to the terrorists. Its attempt to train a combat-ready unit to fight the Islamic State (an organization banned in Russia) from among the Syrians themselves has failed. They’ve spent $500 million training 60 fighters. In late July, the detachment was ambushed by fighters from the Nusra Front. Most of them were killed, and the rest either were taken prisoner, joined the ranks of the militants, or simply ran away. Even the training of the Iraqi army to fight the Islamic State group ended in failure. Not only did the army not liberate Mosul, but it proved incapable of reliably defending Fallujah and Ramadi, cities located in the same vicinity as the capital. In other words, while Washington talks about the need to fight the Islamic State group, Moscow takes action.
What bits of intelligence are missing from this mosaic of information? Only intelligence about the Russian troops’ direct participation in combat. But if none of the world’s intelligence agencies has such information, that means that at this stage it simply doesn’t exist. But there’s no point in prohibiting anyone from writing on the topic because even as Beaumarchais noted in the words of his literary character, the rapscallion Figaro, “Stupidities that appear in print acquire importance only where they are restricted.”
Meanwhile, the Kremlin is deliberately exacerbating the situation. “If there is an appeal (by Syria - “NG”), naturally it will be discussed and considered within the context of bilateral contacts and bilateral dialogue,” the president’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, has stated. The day before, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said that Damascus would ask Russia to send soldiers to fight alongside Syrian troops if need be, but he denied that Russians are already fighting in Syria. And Bashar Jaafari, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, urged Russia to carry out airstrikes against the Islamic State group. The American publication Military Times reported this, referring to The Associated Press.
For the time being, the Russian president is taking a telling pause. As Western observers have noted, he probably wants to repeat his triumph of 2013, when he directly addressed American citizens and political figures through The New York Times with a proposal to solve the Syrian problem. His proposal was heard and implemented. No one knows what objectives the Kremlin has now set for itself. The intrigue reached such a pitch that U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter couldn’t contain himself and called his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoygu. It was the first time that’s happened since the Pentagon unilaterally broke off contact with the Russian Defense Ministry more than a year ago.
The Russian Defense Ministry confirmed the talks had taken place, noting on its website that the conversation lasted about an hour and the parties managed to discuss “the situation in the Middle East in general and the situation in Syria and Iraq in particular.” The White House is no longer threatening Russia with isolation but rather “remains open to tactical, practical discussions” with Moscow, reports Reuters. This was also confirmed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who noted that the talks proposed by the Kremlin between the leaders of the two countries’ defense departments might begin “very soon.” “The president believes that a mil-to-mil [military-to-military] conversation is an important next step and I think, hopefully, will take place very shortly. It will help to define some of the different options that are available to us,” said Kerry at a meeting with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed in London.
The intrigue will be resolved once and for all on Sept. 28 during Vladimir Putin’s planned speech at the U.N. General Assembly. The U.S. has two options: Either meaningfully take part in the fight against the Islamic State group together with Russia or accuse Russia of escalating the war and thereby admit it has lost the initiative in resolving the Syrian crisis.
*Editor’s note: Tartus refers to the Russian naval facility, a leased military installation of the Russian Navy located in the port city of Tartus, Syria.
**Editor’s note: Lloyd James Austin III is the current commander of United States Central Command.