Russia's recent deployment of troops, helicopters and battle tanks to western Syria is a "Middle East game changer," says the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War in a bulletin released Thursday.
The ISW, which keeps a close eye on the movement of government, rebel and outside forces in both Syria and Iraq, notes that "military exercises inside Russia with the stated mission of training for long-range deployments of airborne troops suggest that Russia may intend to deploy additional forces, possibly further inside Syria."
U.S. officials say that at least seven Russian T-90 tanks, as well as artillery, have been positioned at a Syrian airfield in the predominantly Alawite west of the country, in an apparent expansion of military facilities, the purpose of which is unclear.
While the Russian move will help protect the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the ISW said, it also "will alter the nature of international negotiations, compromise and weaken the cohesion and efforts of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition … and initiate direct Russo-Iranian military operations for the first time."
Already, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced he will travel to Moscow next week for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the consequences of Russia's increased deployment to Syria.
The Israeli leader wants assurances that whatever new weapons are introduced to Syria, they will not be used to help arm Hezbollah, Israel's sworn Iranian-backed Lebanese enemy, which is fighting alongside Syrian government forces against various rebel groups.
The issue for Israel is its "ability to operate with impunity in Syrian airspace," said Andrew Weiss, an analyst on Russian and Near East affairs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. Until now, Israel has been able to stage attacks on Syrian convoys believed to be transporting sophisticated, long-range missiles across the border to Hezbollah.
Earlier this year, Mr. Netanyahu protested against another of Moscow's decisions – to sell powerful S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Iran – lest they be used against Israel. To many people's surprise, Mr. Putin acceded to Mr. Netanyahu's wish and annulled the contract.
Russia's doubling down on its military commitment to the embattled regime of Mr. Assad has more than Mr. Netanyahu worried. For the United States and its Arab allies supporting Syrian rebels, there is concern that the Russian move may prolong an already lengthy war that has killed 250,000 Syrians, just as those rebel forces appear to be getting the upper hand.
For countries, including Canada, currently carrying out air attacks on the rebel forces known as the Islamic State, there is concern that too many war planes and too many missiles deployed in the battle areas could lead to unintended military encounters.
And for just about everyone in the West, there is unease about what Russia's long-term goals may be.
Dmitri Trenin, Carnegie's Moscow-based Russia analyst, assures people that Mr. Putin has upped the ante in Syria largely because of the Islamic State becoming "a major threat to Russia."
Therein, some say, lies an opportunity: the U.S.-led coalition and Russia tackling IS forces together.
However, there is "zero chance" of Russia being subordinate to the U.S. coalition, said Mr. Trenin, a retired officer in the Russian and Soviet military. There could, though, be co-ordinated "parallel operations," he said.
Russia's primary interest in Syria is to show it can "hold the line for one of its allies … to show that it's a force" to be reckoned with and shouldn't be isolated the way it has been ever since seizing Crimea from Ukraine last year, said Mr. Weiss, a former director of Russian and Ukrainian affairs on the U.S. National Security Council.
"Putin's a serial opportunist," Mr. Weiss said. He's using Syria to get his way in Ukraine.
From the perspective of countries such as Israel and Sunni Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Russia's relationship with Iran is of growing concern.
When Bulgaria and other states recently declined Russian requests to fly military transports over their territory to Syria, Iran quickly stepped in and flights ferrying men and equipment to Syria now travel over Iran and Iraq. There also have been persistent reports that Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani has made a second trip to Moscow to discuss strategy in Syria.
A Russian combat presence would give pause to the Syrian opposition, argues Jeffrey White, a defence fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. After all, these rebels were not expecting a military contest with Russia.
The situation, he says, "bolsters the argument that there can be no solution to the conflict without Moscow's involvement."