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How the Latakia blast will impact the Syrian crisis

Russia’s intervention in Syria, last September 2015, demonstrated the importance of its military force in reaching its political goal (protect Russian interests in the country and the wider region) and confirms Russia’s status as a great power. Its ability to project force far from Russian borders revealed a spectacular comeback in a region where its relevance was limited since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is clear that the uneasy truce reached by Moscow and Washington (Damascus reluctantly agreed to it) regarding the cessation of hostilities between most of the participants in the Syrian crisis represents an important goal for Putin.

This represents Putin’s second diplomatic achievement after the 2013 agreement between Moscow and the United States on a plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. In fact, when Russia declared, in March 2016, that it would begin to pull out most of the forces it had deployed to Syria, it meant that the Kremlin believed that the truce would hold even without a significant Russian military presence. It is also possible that Moscow believes that it is too risky to maintain a strong presence in the Syrian quagmire.

Despite the decisive role of the Russian military power to support Assad to retake control of part of Syrian territory and the political agreement with United States regarding the truce, the ISIS’ terrorist attack in the Latakia province on May 23rd (at least 100 people were killed in the cities of Jableh and Tartous) confirms that the fight against ISIS is far from over. The Latakia province, in fact, is not only one of the most important Assad’s strongholds, but it is the province where Russia has a naval base in Tartous and an air base near Jableh, from where it carried out air strikes on Syrian rebels and ISIS. It is possible that this attack could change Russia’s strategy towards Syria.

After the Latakia blast Moscow could assess that its military role in Syria is vital and it seems that the Assad’s regime, without Russian military ground support, would not be able to protect itself. Different sources have indicated the presence of new Russian reinforcements in Tartous harbour (approximately 3.000 Russian volunteers). This could point to new ground operations led by Russia against al Nusra, one of the strongest military factions in the Aleppo province also linked to al Qaeda and against some terrorist elements failing to observe the ceasefire.

The Russian truce has allowed armed factions, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to reorganize and rearm their ranks and rebuild most of the infrastructure destroyed by the joint Russo-Syrian operations. This time Russian military operations will focus on isolating Jabhat al-Nusra from other armed groups. This would strike a painful blow to those factions since Jabhat al-Nusra’s military and ideological might form the backbone around which these factions unite. This represents yet another indication that a wide-ranging operation is being prepared. This operation may include Raqqa, where the Russians, with the Syrian Army, want to have a presence on the ground to rival that of the Americans and Kurds.

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