In what may have been an inadvertent slip-up, Russian state TV broadcast footage yesterday of a military briefing in which a map of Syrian military operations appear to show a Russian artillery regiment actively engaged in ground operations against the rebels.
Although President Vladimir Putin and the Russian defense ministry have steadfastly denied that Russian ground troops are deployed in Syria, this development, if true, may signal that the Russian commitment to Bashar al-Assad is deeper than previously thought; especially considering reports that Russia may be open to a replacement as part of the political negotiations currently taking place in Vienna.
It is worth mentioning that when Putin announced the deployment of Russian aircraft and support personnel to assist Assad at the beginning of October, he was quoted as saying “Russia will not participate in any troop operations in the territory of Syria or in any other states. Well, at least we don’t plan on it right now…”
But now in late November with winter looming, the situation is different. Although Russian air strikes have provided cover for Syrian ground troops to re-take territory from the rebels and from IS, reports from the ground continue to depict a stalemate. The map shown on state TV was marked with Russian military designations for its artillery units, which were seen as being within striking distance of rebels based in the town of Sadad in central Syria.
With Syria confirming the presence of what a source called “Russian military advisors” in Sadad, this may be the prelude to a Russian troop deployment, the size of which may depend on assessments by the advisors on the ground, as well as the depth of American and allied involvement.
If Putin determines that the Syrian army is not making progress against the rebels, a large-scale troop deployment may be forthcoming. It is expected that he should be mindful to not get entangled in a quagmire like Afghanistan in the 1980’s. While the parallels with the Soviet invasion and subsequent war are not quite the same, the potential for riches remain in Syria, where pipeline politics play a crucial role in the civil war.
Not coincidentally, Putin has arrived in Tehran to participate in the Gas Exporting Countries Forum. This provides the perfect opportunity to consult and align strategies with Ayatollah Khamenei, the other major stake holder on Assad’s side. As a token of appreciation for Iran’s continued support in Syria, Putin announced that the contract to supply advanced S-300 anti-air missiles to Iran would be fulfilled.