Russian ground operation in Syria ‘under discussion’

Kremlin insider tells Al Jazeera that Moscow is considering sending special forces to fight against Syrian rebel groups.

Moscow – Russian President Vladimir Putin may deploy special operations forces on the ground in Syria, a former official has told Al Jazeera, a move that might be made to ensure “a decisive victory”.   

It has been more than eight months since Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict, and at the time Putin said there were no plans to participate in ground operations – but he also said “for now”.

Putin is reportedly discussing with military commanders the possibility of deploying combat troops on the battlefield.

“This is under discussion, there are plans for this,” Andrei Fyodorov, a former deputy minister for foreign affairs, told Al Jazeera.

The reinforcements could be special forces or volunteer soldiers who are willing to fight alongside the Syrian army and its allies.

“This is a delicate issue for our military. There are serious doubts that any participation by Russia on the ground would be favourable. [Rather it could] complicate the negotiation process and lead to further disagreements with the US,” Fyodorov explained.

But there are those in political and military circles who believe this deployment is needed.

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Russian firepower prevented the collapse of the Syrian government last year. Damascus was struggling to repel rebel advances on several fronts.

The Kremlin wanted to tip the balance in favour of its ally enough to allow it to benefit at the negotiating table.

But the battle lines did not change and peace talks led nowhere. Neither side was willing to compromise nor strong enough to impose a settlement.

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“From the Russian point of view, [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad should control 70 percent of Syria, and that way you can hold elections and they would be favourable for Assad. That is why the issue of ground operations is becoming more actual,” said Fyodorov.

Over recent weeks, Russia’s role on the Syrian battlefield was noticeably reduced as Moscow wanted to give a chance to political talks.

That message was clear when Russia did not provide close air power to the Syrian government and its allies in their military campaign in Aleppo in early May.

But on May 22, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the first Russian air strikes in Aleppo province since the US-Russian brokered a cessation of hostilities deal in February.

The Russian defence ministry has said it recently intensified strikes against al-Nusra Front in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, and said that the conflict would only escalate after blaming Washington’s refusal to join efforts in the fight against what it called “terrorism”.

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“Russia has little choice. It can’t allow itself to lose Aleppo. This would deprive it of a trump card. This would enable the other side to regain the initiative and [force Russia] to accept conditions not favourable for Assad,” Sergey Strokan, a political analyst, told Al Jazeera.

There are Russian voices within the government and military pushing for the ground operation.

Russia’s intervention in Syria has been costly – billions of dollars have already been spent, and the country is suffering from an economic crisis.

The Kremlin never wanted a permanent war, and it can’t just pull out of a conflict that has brought it back into the international arena.

That is why some analysts suggest a “Stalingrad” in Syria is what the Syrian government and its allies need – a final battle to decisively end the war. And that would require ground troops.

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Source: Al Jazeera