Escalation: Putin reportedly set to use Russian ground troops to back up Assad's forces in Syria

You tell me, military experts. Is this deployment happening out of necessity, because what’s left of Assad’s military is too weak to put a hurt on the rebels without help from his friends in Russia and Iran? Or is it happening for propaganda reasons, because Moscow thinks it’ll be good for its “strong horse” image in the Middle East to have Russian troops on the ground blowing up American-backed Sunni rebels?

That’s not necessarily an either/or, I realize.

The latest U.S. assessment of Moscow’s activity in western Syria indicates Russia has moved several ground combat weapons and troops into the area to potentially back up Syrian forces in the field planning to attack anti-regime forces, according to two U.S. defense officials…

The equipment includes several piece of artillery, as well as four BM-30 multiple-launch rocket systems — all considered to be highly accurate weapons. The latter is capable of rapid-fire rocket launches…

The officials also said that Russia has moved electronic jamming equipment into Syria. Both a truck-mounted system and a number of pods that can go on aircraft have been observed. This could potentially give the Russians the ability to jam electronics of coalition aircraft.

I assume the point of jamming coalition aircraft isn’t because Russia expects the U.S. to target Syrian or Russian positions but because they’re worried we’re going to feed intelligence on their positions to rebels on the ground. But whatever the reason, the more confusion there is about whose units are where, the more likely it is that we’re going to end up with a horrible “misunderstanding” in which either American or Russian servicemen die. How do you manage “deconfliction” with an enemy superpower, to borrow the White House’s new favorite term, when one side is trying to disrupt information-gathering by the other?

Obama claimed on Friday that Putin’s getting himself into a quagmire (or, as he pronounced it, quogmire), in Syria. Is he right?

More than 40 Syrian insurgent groups have vowed to attack Russian forces in retaliation for Moscow’s air campaign, in a show of unity among the usually fragmented rebels against what they called the “occupiers” of Syria.

The 41 Syrian rebel groups, which included powerful factions such as Ahrar al-Sham, Islam Army and the Levant Front, said Russia had joined the war in Syria after President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were on the verge “of a crushing defeat”.

The insurgents’ warning came as the chairman of Russia’s parliamentary defense committee suggested that Russian “volunteer” units could join with forces fighting for Assad.

Callings its troops “volunteers” is Russia’s way of maintaining a thin veneer of plausible deniability whenever it invades a foreign country. They did the same thing in Ukraine, removing the insignia from Russian soldiers’ uniforms before sending them into the field and then claiming that those aren’t Russian troops at all but rather “volunteers” or “separatists” who are fighting for a cause with which the Kremlin happens to agree. Same deal in Syria for now, apparently. For as much as $50 a day, these “volunteers” are willing to join the most nightmarish war on Earth and have somehow finagled some pretty advanced weapons systems in the process. There are no “volunteers” anywhere as well-supplied as Russian ones.

Here’s Putin just a week ago telling “60 Minutes” that he doesn’t anticipate using Russian ground troops in Syria. Good thing those volunteers are around to fight the battle for him instead. Note also what he says about how it’s better to fight jihadis who threaten Russia in Syria instead of waiting for them to show up in Moscow. That may sound familiar; the same argument, colloquially knows as the “flypaper theory,” was offered by U.S. hawks in defense of the Iraq war. Whether Putin’s borrowing that argument because he finds it useful or just to tweak his American critics, who knows. Re-read the second excerpt above, though, and ask yourself how much sense it makes — especially given that Russia’s targets in Syria so far aren’t the hardcore expansionist jihadis like ISIS but other Sunni groups.