Over the last few months a series of diplomatic meetings from Moscow to Washington
raised hopes for a serious new push toward a political solution to the vicious war in Syria
that has killed more than 250,000 people and forced thousands more to flee to Europe
. That optimistic idea has been put in doubt by Russia
’s recent moves to significantly bolster military support for Syria’s ruthless dictator, Bashar al-Assad, whose hold on his country is weakening.
Russia has long been a major enabler of Mr. Assad, protecting him from criticism and sanctions at the United Nations Security Council and providing weapons for his army. But the latest assistance may be expanding Russian involvement in the conflict to a new and more dangerous level.
Russia has sent a military advance team to Syria and transported prefabricated housing units for hundreds of military personnel to an airfield near Latakia, the Assad family’s ancestral home, The Times’s Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt have reported. Russia also sent a portable air-traffic station and filed requests to make military flights over neighboring countries through September.
The Americans say Russia’s intentions are unclear. But they are so concerned that Secretary of State John Kerry called the foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, twice this month ) and warned of a possible “confrontation” with the United States
, if the buildup led to Russian offensive operations in support of Mr. Assad’s forces that might hit American trainers or allies.
The United States is carrying out airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State, which is trying to establish a caliphate in Syria and Iraq
, as well as struggling to train and arm moderate opposition groups that could secure territory taken from the extremists.
Russian officials add to the tensions and growing suspicions when they play down or lie about what they are really up to, as they did in Ukraine. In the case of Syria, they initially said the shipments carried only humanitarian aid; later, they admitted deploying military advisers and hardware, but insisted it was all part of a longstanding military agreement with the Assad government. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman also said the Kremlin
was weighing its options in terms of intensifying the fight against extremist groups like the Islamic State.
Russia is obviously concerned about the fate of Mr. Assad and his regime, which is struggling to sustain an army after four years of war and is suffering such serious battlefield defeats that the state may not survive. The relationship with Syria dates to Soviet times and is one of Russia’s last levers of influence in the Middle East. Russia operates a small naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranean and is keen to preserve it.
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, may also be using the buildup to strengthen Russia’s hand in any political outcome in Syria and to constrain America’s military options there. The constructive way to have an impact is for Mr. Putin to drop his opposition to Washington’s and its allies’ insistence that Mr. Assad be replaced as part of a negotiated political settlement that includes a transition to a new government.
The United States has asked countries on the flight path between Russia and Syria
to close their airspace to Russian flights, unless Moscow can prove they aren’t being used to militarily resupply the Assad regime. Bulgaria
has done so, but Greece
, another NATO ally, and Iraq
, which is depending on America to save it from the Islamic State, so far have not. World leaders should use the United Nations General Assembly meeting this month to make clear the dangers a Russian buildup would pose for efforts to end the fighting.
For the United States, Russia and many other countries, including Iran
(Mr. Assad’s other major ally), defeating the Islamic State, ministering to the millions of Syrians forced from their homes and salvaging what is left of the Syrian state should be shared goals. None can be achieved without a political solution that installs a more inclusive and competent government in Damascus