Even before the ceasefire in Syria collapsed, Russia was already making preparations to reinforce its military contingent in Syria. Since the ceasefire’s premature end and the withdrawal of the US from bilateral talks on the Syrian conflict, Moscow has cast subtlety aside and is moving forward in Syria with little regard for the objections of the US government. Public and social media statements by members of the Russian government this week resembled taunts and with the general state of US-Russian relations rapidly deteriorating, it probably will not improve anytime in the near future.
Russia is moving additional forces and supplies to Syria. Additional Russian Navy warships have been seen transiting the Bosphorus on their way to the East Med, and another advanced SAM system is on its way to Syria. This one is the SA-23 Gladiator/Giant, known as the S-300VM in Russian military circles. It is an updated version of the SA-21 Growler (S-400) system that arrived in Syria last year. The Gladiator was designed to defend against and defeat theater ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and is also very effective against precision-guided munitions and perhaps even standoff jammers such as the US Navy’s EA-18 Growler.
On the surface it might seem the movement of additional advanced SAMs into Syria is textbook example of sabre rattling. That might be Moscow’s intent. However, the operational implications cannot be overlooked or ignored. With the incoming SA-23s, and the SA-21s and fighters already in place, Russia has the foundation for a very effective no-fly zone at its fingertips. At any given moment, Russia can choose to close off the skies of Syria to all aircraft except for its own and those of its Syrian allies. Such a no-fly zone would be invaluable in the event of a Syrian offensive against rebel groups around Aleppo or other parts of the nation. The US had made noise about targeting Syrian government forces and airbases with airstrikes to help alleviate the crisis in Aleppo. The presence of a potential Russian-enforced no-fly zone essentially kills the possibility of US/coalition airstrikes against government targets.
In a nutshell, what Russia is doing right now is locking down Syria tight. Moscow has gained control of the geopolitical and military situation in the country. Washington’s position in Syria has been largely minimized, due in large part to the mismanagement of the administration and the naïve, pie-in-the-sky expectations that Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama adopted when Russia intervened in the conflict last year. Back in September of 2015 it was obvious that Russia was not interested in a partnership with the US either to stabilize Syria and/or combat ISIS. Putin sent Russian forces to Syria to ensure the survival and eventual victory of Bashir al-Assad’s regime. Yet Obama and Kerry still went forward in the belief that Syria could be stabilized through US-Russian cooperation. The chances of that happening have evaporated, leaving Washington with two choices: do nothing further or respond to the Aleppo situation with airstrikes and run the risk of escalation and a wider conflict with Russia.
Have Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov manipulated Barack Obama and John Kerry effectively and deliberately in all mattered related to Syria? Yes. Has one year of Russian military involvement on the side of the Syrian government all but assured that Bashir al-Assad’s regime will emerge victorious from the Syrian conflict? Probably, yes. Is the United States currently in a position to influence events in Syria or help shape what the nation will look like post-war? Absolutely not.
Today, the US formally suspended diplomatic contact and talks with Russia on the Syrian conflict. This move effectively kills the chances of future joint US-Russian efforts to stop the civil war from worsening. The talks were suspended because of Russia’s involvement in the fighting around Aleppo, as well as its failure to abide by the terms of the ceasefire.
The game is over. The United States has finally woken up and accepted the reality of the situation in Syria. From the moment the first Russian troops set foot on Syrian soil it was obvious that Putin’s intention was not to help usher in a new era of stability and democracy to Syria. Russia’s actions were taken to ensure survival of Bashir al-Assad’s regime and minimize Western influence and actions in the Syrian conflict.
US-Russian relations have been deteriorating for some time now and not only because of what has been happening in Syria. We will discuss this further and look at the potential consequences later on in the week. Today’s announcement by the US and the Russian’s response will have ramifications around the world. Like it or not, the stage is being set for a very frosty winter in US-Russian relations.
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.
The Obama administration, according to various reports, could be considering talks with Iran on cooperating to prevent ISIS from gaining more ground in Iraq. It is nearly impossible to picture US-Iranian cooperation given the history between the two nations since 1979. A common enemy and threatened interests can make for strange bedfellows, however. The possibility of a US-Iranian alliance against ISIS appears to be a possibility at the very least. Whether the idea will become a reality is another story entirely. Make no mistake about it, though, a joint effort against ISIS would not signal rapprochement between the United States and Iran. But for now the animosity is taking a backseat as both nations look to find a way to prop up the Iraqi government, blunt ISIS and prevent Iraq from disintegrating into civil war à la Syria.
At first glance it might seem strange for Iran to be taking such a keen interest in the stability and well-being of its eastern neighbor. The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s was a bitter, bloody affair for both nations. A deeper look at the last ten years shows that Iran has a large stake of influence in Iraq and it begins at the top echelon of power in the Iraqi government. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has close ties to Iran. He lived in Tehran for eight years in the 1980s and while there, assisted in the efforts to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. Since taking power in Baghdad, Maliki has opened the door for Iranian influence in Iraq. Iran regards its relationship with Maliki and Iraq as essential. It does not want to lose the influence it has obtained. Therefore, it is shouldn’t come as a surprise that Iran is sending Revolutionary Guards to help bolster the Iraqi military, or that Tehran might honestly consider a partnership with the United States to combat ISIS.
As of this afternoon, the United States does not seem as upbeat about talks with Iran as it did yesterday and this morning. Secretary of State John Kerry suggests the idea of cooperation is possible while the Pentagon has stated emphatically that will be no military coordination with Iran. Collaboration between the two countries is something that will not be an easy sell inside of the Beltway or out. What could the US stand to gain from allying itself with Iran outside of a stable Iraq? The end result could very well be a wider open door for Iranian influence and a closed one for the United States.
US actions over the weekend appeared to be focused on evacuating the US embassy staff if the situation calls for it, instead of using military force against ISIS. The Fifth Fleet is moving assets into the Persian Gulf that will be able to support the operation. On Friday, President Obama called on Iraq to ‘settle its problems.’ This, along with Kerry’s comments today could point to the United States making a concerted effort to absolve itself of everything Iraq.
Iran and the White House are obviously on separate pages regarding the interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program that was reached in Geneva. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif contends that the concessions agreed to by his side have been misunderstood by the US. During an interview on CNN, Zarif was adamant that his country is not dismantling any portion of its nuclear program. “We are not dismantling any centrifuges, we’re not dismantling any equipment, we’re simply not producing, not enriching over 5%.”
The US and Iran each regard the language of the agreement differently. This comes as no surprise. What is questionable, though, is the level of expectation that the White House had in mind for the interim agreement. Did the Obama administration expect Iran to begin dismantling its nuclear program at some point in the near future? It’s apparent that is not going be happening. Zarif, using diplospeak, just told the White House to go take a flying f**k.
Clearly, Tehran wants to strike a long term deal with the West and they want the terms to be as favorable to Iran as possible. Favorable in this instance means the removal of the economic sanctions that have strangled Iran’s economy, without having to agree to restrictions being placed on the nation’s nuclear program. From the Iranian perspective, a best-case scenario would be the lifting of sanctions coupled with the eventual acquisition of a nuclear device. On the other side of the equation, this result is a worst-case scenario for the United States and the other Western powers.
Iran’s leaders understand that time is on their side. The longer the negotiation process is drawn out without resolution, the closer Iran gets to a workable nuclear weapon. US Secretary of State John Kerry has stated that if an agreement cannot be reached, the military option remains on the table. His words are little more than tough talk. Kerry’s hawkish warning has not been backed up by decisive action by the Obama administration. After the US inactions in Egypt and Syria, Iranian leaders probably believe that they have little to fear from American cruise missiles and warplanes. The sad part is that they might be correct.
Israeli missiles and warplanes, on the other hand…….