Syrian rebels pledge to defeat Russian ‘occupation’

Amid signs of an escalating Russian intervention in Syria, the opposition government-in-exile issued a statement entitled: "Our People's Will and Determination Will Defeat Any Foreign Occupation." Ahmed Ramadan, a member of the opposition General Assembly, invoked the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and said: "Any repeat of that mistake will have disastrous consequences on Russia." He added: "It is unacceptable that a permanent member of the UN Security Council send weapons and mercenaries for a regime responsible for the death of over 300,000 Syrian citizens, including 81,000 children and a woman, the displacement of 14 million people and the reduction of most Syrian cities and towns to rubble. Syrians have the will and determination to defeat any possible foreign occupation of their homeland, just like what they have done throughout history, and have been doing for nearly five years against the Iranian occupation and its tool represented in the Assad regime." (Syrian Coalition, Sept. 9)

The US and NATO are also expressing concern over reports that Russia is beefing up its military presence in Syria. Unnamed US officials quoted by Reuters say Moscow has sent additional aircraft and two tank-landing ships to Russia's naval base in the Syrian coastal city of Tartus. They also say a small number of naval infantry forces have been deployed. (BBC News, Sept. 9) A CBS report states: "Three giant Russian Condor transport aircraft have flown into the Assad International Airport near Latakia, Syria, over the past few days. They have unloaded large containers but it's not known yet what's in the containers."

Putin says Russia is providing "serious" training and logistical support to the Syrian army, but that discussion of direct military intervention is "so far premature." (The Telegraph, Sept. 4) Putin's Deputy Foreign Minister for the Middle East denied that Moscow is planning to transform its "logistics center" in Tartus into a "full-format military base." He told Russian news agency Interfax: "There are no such plans."

A report on BBC Trending suggests the Russian intervention could be (for the moment) farmed out to mercenaries or covert elite forces. It notes numerous photos now appearing on social media of what appear to be Russian soldiers brandishing rifles, smiling and posing in front of posters showing presidents Assad and Putin. 

Contrary to all the conspiracy theories, US support for the Syrian rebels has actually been half-hearted, and until very recently, fictional. However, a rivalry between Russia and the West has been an aspect of the Syrian conflict from the start. The countervailing aspect has been the Great Power convergence against ISIS, and lesser jihadist factions like the Nusra Front. But even if they have (some) common enemies, the presence of US and Russian military forces in combat operations in close proximity holds grim potential for escalation (even if unsought by either side) towards World War 5.

And raising the stakes for all concerned, the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front have just seized Abu al-Duhur airbase, the final regime outpost in Idlib governorate. Nusra's capture of the base was aided by a massive sandstorm in the region, which grounded Assad's air force. (BBC News, Sept. 9) With most of Idlib now under the control of Nusra and allied forces, the jihadists are considerably closer to their promised final drive on Damascus… This comes days after ISIS seized the last oil-field still under control of the Assad regime