Russian Actions Vs US Words

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There is a time for words and a time for action. Vladimir Putin plainly understands when the appropriate time and place is for both while Barack Obama remains woefully ignorant. Russia’s intentions and long-term goals in Syria and the entire Middle East go beyond its stated goal to combat ISIS. Simultaneously, US efforts to counter or contain the Russian moves through diplomacy are rapidly unravelling. The stage is nearly set for a showdown between the US and Russia over Syria, whether Washington and Moscow want it or not.

Russian efforts in Syria are increasing in numbers and intensity. For the fourth day now, Russian aircraft have hit targets across Syria. Russian military sources claim that 60 sorties have been flown in the last 72 hours. Moscow has stated that the strikes were launched against ISIS targets using precision-guided munitions. Western military officials have rebuked this claim, however. The British have stated that just one out of every twenty strikes have targeted ISIS. The remainder have been against Western and Gulf-backed opposition groups.

It has been clear from the beginning that the Russian intervention was going to be aimed at supporting the forces and government of Bashar al-Assad. Moscow’s primary objective in Syria is to keep al-Assad in power. ISIS simply provides a convenient justification for Russia’s entrance into the conflict. The fact that Russian munitions are falling on Western supported rebels is proof of this. It is Assad’s continued reign of Syria that constitutes the raison d’être for Russia’s involvement in Syria.

In the grand scheme of things, Russia’s expedition into Syria is part of a greater effort to expand its influence and power. Right now, we are seeing the potential formation of a new power bloc in the region with Iran, Syria and Iraq as junior partners and Russia as the major player. In a preview of the new power bloc’s military cooperation, Iran has expanded its efforts in Syria too.

To be realistic, Syria is nothing more than an instrument that Russia is using to become an influential power in the Middle East. The life or death of the al-Assad regime has not been of major concern to Vladimir Putin until now. Ensuring its survival presents an opportunity that Moscow would be foolish to ignore. There’s also a strong possibility that China could be included in the mixture. Reports from Israeli intelligence indicate that the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning and an accompanying escort vessel are in Syrian waters and the PLAN is preparing to conduct flight operations in Syria. If this proves to be accurate, the Syrian conflict will take on a new dimension.

The United States has responded to Russian actions with words. President Obama has spoken out against the airstrikes numerous times in the last seventy two hours. He has denounced the Russian actions and predicted that Moscow’s effort will fail. Obama has said that Russia is acting “not out of strength but out of weakness.” His statements have done nothing to deter Russia from continuing on the path it is on. Words, as we have seen all too many times, are useless without firm action to back them up. So far, Obama’s policy in Syria has been anything but firm. As the situation continues to deteriorate, the US is finding itself with diminishing control of events. Coalition airstrikes will continue and the arming of US supported opposition rebels is said to be increasing. But will that be enough?

As it stands now, probably not.

Syrian Update 30 September, 2015: Russian Warplanes Bomb Opposition Forces

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Escalation is a difficult animal to control, even in the most favorable scenarios. The only true way to avoid a dangerous escalation is not to escalate at all. There are too many variables present in the real world to upset the balance and turn a crisis into a regional war or worse. In short, escalation is a slippery slope and once a nation-state loses its footing anything can happen.

In the case of Syria, we’re talking about an escalation of hostilities in both the political and military contexts. The conflict escalated on the military side today with the Russian airstrikes against opposition forces in northwest Syria. Russia claims the strikes were targeting ISIS held areas, however, US officials have repudiated that claim, saying that so far the Russian strikes do not appear to be against ISIS controlled territory. US Defense Dept. officials have said that Russian fighters hit targets in Homs and Hama. There is no ISIS presence in either area.

Politically, the situation in Syria is running the danger of turning away from an action against ISIS and escalating towards a potential stand-off between the United States and Russia. As mentioned above, there is serious doubt about what opposition group Russian aircraft were actually targeting. As the strikes were launched, Russia requested that the US keep its aircraft away from Syrian airspace. That request was turned down. Secretary of State John Kerry said that US and coalition forces will continue air operations in the same manner they have since the beginning of their involvement in the conflict.

So, now comes a game of diplomatic chicken with increasing stakes. Russia wants a free hand inside of Syrian airspace when it is conducting air operations. The United States will either give into the demand or it won’t. If it does, opposition groups supported by the US and coalition might find themselves targeted by Russian bombs and missiles. If the US refuses to allow Russia to control the airspace, we are looking at a situation where Russian and US aircraft are operating in close proximity and going after separate sets of targets in the same area while carrying live weapons. All it takes in a situation like that is one split second of indecision, or a miscalculation and suddenly Russian and US aircraft are shooting at each other. At that point, all bets are off.

Apologies for this post being so short. I will follow up with more this evening or early tomorrow morning.

Weekend Update Sept.26-27, 2015: A Quick Look At All Things Syria

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Syria will take center stage at the UN this week when world leaders convene for the UN General Assembly. Recent Russian moves in Syria, the fight against ISIS, and the refugee crisis in Europe brought about by the turmoil in Syria have combined to push all non-Syrian matters off the table. With the weekend drawing to a close, now is a good time to take a brief look at what has been happening in and around Syria over the past few days in preparation for what promises to be a busy week in New York.

Obama And Putin To Meet Monday

In the midst of increasing tensions between the United States and Russia, President Obama and Vladimir Putin will meet on Monday in New York when both leaders are in town to address the UN General Assembly. The two sides appear to be at odds as to what the main topic of discussion is going to be. The White House has stated that the primary subject will be events in eastern Ukraine. Moscow, on the other hand, insists that the discussion will revolve around Syria. Neither side can seem to decide who called the meeting either. The Russians insist the meeting was set up by “mutual agreement” while the White House has said it is being held at “Putin’s request.”

It remains to be seen just what fruit the meeting will bear for Washington, if any. The US will likely attempt to advance talks on Syria at some of the General Assembly meetings next week. Russia will probably look to do something similar. Through the diplomatic activity and meetings though, military steps continue to be taken. Russian combat aircraft are continuing to arrive in Syria. The amount of activity around Latakia suggests that the Russian military contingent will be ready to begin conducting combat operations soon. Whether those operations are against ISIS or anti-government forces remains to be seen.

France Begins Air Strikes In Syria

For the first time in the conflict against ISIS, French jets have gone into action against ISIS targets in Syria. Up to now, France has restricted its military involvement to Iraq. Great Britain has held back from flying missions over Syria too, although last month a drone strike was launched against two UK citizens in Syria.

The French air strikes indicate a change in policy for Paris. Thus far, France has resisted flying missions against ISIS targets in Syria because it could indirectly help Bashar al-Assad and his government forces. Now the priority is shifting from getting rid of al-Assad to combating ISIS and France appears to be accepting this.

The EU and the Refugee Crisis

In spite of emergency summits, inter-state diplomacy among EU members, and countless behind-the scene meetings in European capitals, the EU has still not constructed a collective response to the throngs of refugees streaming in from Syria and Iraq. In all likelihood, a united front will never be put forth by EU members. Too much has happened now.

Internal backlash is beginning to be felt in Germany. Angela Merkel’s popularity has taken a major hit. Her decision to open German borders to a large number of refugees is not being embraced by many Germans. Fears and concerns are increasing on the part of German citizens, and cementing into political opposition.

Syrian Update 11 September, 2015: Russia To al-Assad’s Rescue

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The last few months have not been kind to Bashar al-Assad. Setbacks on the battlefield are becoming a common occurrence. Government forces are falling back on a number of fronts. On Wednesday, rebel forces captured Abu al-Duhur Airbase in the Idlib province. The installation was a stronghold for government military operations in the area and the eviction of Syrian forces means the province is now entirely under rebel control. It is fair to say that after four years of civil war, the Syrian government and its beleaguered forces are on the ropes.

Relief is on the way for al-Assad though. Russia, a long-time ally of Syria, is deepening its involvement in the conflict. Over the past few days it has become known that Russian ‘humanitarian’ flights to Syria have included military hardware. Russian amphibious transports have arrived at the Russian naval facility in Tartus. Their arrival was preceded by naval infantry to provide security for the inbound ships. At Bassel al-Assad Airport near Latakia, Russian transport aircraft have offloaded a number of BTR-82A armored personnel carriers. Reports have also surfaced that Russian military ‘advisers’ are already in combat against rebel forces.

The writing on the wall is clear. Russia is expanding its support for al-Assad and his forces. Russian military involvement in Syria is not entirely new. There have been a limited number of advisers on the ground for some time. But the scope of efforts to prop up the Syrian government is ramping up.

The United States is wary of the latest Russian moves for a myriad of reasons. The more assistance that Russia offers Syria, the less likely it becomes that al-Assad will be removed from power and replaced by a democratically elected leader any time soon. Increased support and involvement by Moscow also enlarges the Russian footprint in the Middle East, which has been growing steadily for some time. More military assistance for the Syrian government also reflects the closer relations between Russia and Iran as that relationship begins to bloom. There are even confirmed reports that the Iranians have sent hundreds of soldiers to Syria to help shore up al-Assad’s regime. This explains Iranian General Qasem Soleimani’s recent visit to Moscow.

Despite an increasing amount of concern, US reaction to the Russian actions has not yielded any tangible results. Talks between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, have yielded nothing. Realistically, the stern warnings of the US alone will achieve nothing. The current administration’s reluctance to take the lead on Syria and its limited effort against ISIS has all but minimized US power and influence in this particular area of the Middle East.

What’s happening at the moment in Syria is a piece of a much bigger picture. With the ink on the Iranian nuclear deal barely dry, Russia is wasting no time in exploiting opportunities in the Middle East. Bolstering al-Assad, fostering a new partnership with Iran, and nuclear-energy deals with traditional US allies in the region all indicate Russia’s desire to become an influential power there and serve as a counterweight to US foreign policy.

Syria: The Coming Storm

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The Syrian Crisis has entered a new phase with the reported chemical weapons attack on 21 August. The US is preparing to intervene in the civil war if it turns out that the chemical weapons usage was in fact committed by the Syrian government’s forces. As time goes on, it appears that Bashir Assad was responsible for the attack. Western military intervention is all but certain at this point. However, the size and scope of that intervention has yet to be decided upon. Neither has the diplomatic side of the intervention equation.  The only cast-iron certainty at this point is that the number of questions outnumber the answers available by a considerable margin.

It is widely held that the US and her allies have not yet intervened in Syria. That is not true. The US and her allies have not overtly intervened militarily. Up till now the United States military role has been behind the scenes and limited to the delivery of weapons to opposition groups deemed to be ‘acceptable successors’ to the Assad regime. It is safe to assume that US Special Forces groups are operating in Southern Syria to help instruct the opposition fighters on weapons and tactics, as well as paving the way for a larger US military role in the future should the situation call for it. The time for that larger role could be fast approaching.

If and when it comes, what will intervention look like? Will it be unilateral, or will the US build an international coalition to confront Assad’s regime? Will it be a limited strike restricted to the use of Tomahawk cruise missiles and air launched stand-off weapons against a small number of targets? Or will it take the shape of a larger effort to topple Assad? An operation using the Libyan blueprint as its foundation.

Given the outrage caused in Washington by the use of chemical weapons, the destruction of Syria’s remaining chemical weapons stockpiles should be an immediate objective of any intervention. Destroying them will not be an easy task. Assad no doubt has them dispersed in hardened, well defended locations throughout the country. When the locations are determined, it will not be as easy sending a fighter or bomber overhead to drop bombs on them. Air defenses have to be degraded, command and control sites neutralized and most importantly, air superiority must be established across the width and breadth of Syria.

The aforementioned things need to be done prior to any military action aside from a limited strike. Right now, the US forces in the area are limited to four destroyers and an unknown number of attack submarines in the Eastern Med, as well as a contingent of USAF aircraft in Jordan. More military assets will be needed. The numbers and types of forces that move into the region in the coming days will provide an idea of what type of action is coming. British aircraft are already arriving at RAF Akrotiri. US aircraft are probably not far behind. Akrotiri, bases in Jordan and the large airbase at Incirlik, Turkey are all available locations for US warplanes, as well as warplanes belonging to the other nations of a forming Anti-Assad coalition.