Israel has shot down a Syrian Air Force Su-24 Fencer fighter-bomber after the aircraft entered Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights. The Fencer was engaged successfully by a pair of Israeli Patriot missiles. One of the pilots, Syrian Air Force Colonel Omran Mari, was killed. The fate of the other pilot is unknown at the moment. The incident occurred in the midst of increased military activity on the Syrian side of the border. The Syrian government has been fighting both ISIS-affiliated groups, and other rebel forces in southern Syria for some time now. For now, it seems likely that the Fencer strayed into Israeli airspace as the result of a navigation error. This incident is not anticipated to bring a major confrontation between Israel and Syria. It will, however, likely raise tensions in the region even higher.
The shootdown highlights both Israel’s staunch commitment to defending its airspace and frontiers. Yesterday, Israeli David’s Sling missiles knocked down tactical ballistic missiles fired by Syrian or Russian forces as part of the fighting going on in Syria. One of the SS-21 tactical ballistic missiles came down just one kilometer from the Israeli border.
The shootdown also serves as a reminder of how volatile the skies over and around Syria are. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, multiple incidents have played out in the skies. A simple navigation error led a Russian Su-24 into Turkish airspace in 2015 where it was promptly dispatched by an F-16. The close proximity between Russian, and Coalition aircraft in the skies over northern Syria led to the set up of elaborate deconfliction system between US and Russian defense officials.
It has taken years to bring to fruition but the largest arms procurement deal in Polish history has become reality. Yesterday, Poland reached an agreement with the United States to purchase the Patriot air defense system for the amount of $4.75 billion. The deal comes as the latest step in Poland’s effort to modernize its armed forces in the face of a growing Russian threat. Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Poland stepped up modernization of its aging military equipment and structure. This deal calls for the purchase of 2 batteries of the PAC-3+ variant of the Patriot system, which is the same advanced model fielded by US Army air defense units. They will take the place of the Soviet era SAMs currently in the Polish inventory such as the SA-2 and SA-6.
The deal has come just days after the United States and many Western nations expelled Russian diplomats in response to the use of a nerve agent on a former Russian intelligence officer in Great Britain. Warsaw is already in negotiations with the US to purchase more Patriots, advanced radar systems, and a separate interceptor missile as part of the next phase of its military modernization. The batteries purchased today will be delivered in 2022.
This deal could also potentially lead to the US offering stronger air defenses to the Baltic states. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have all been requesting just that in recent years. The Baltic region has become a military focal point since 2014. Russia has deployed SS-26 ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad, increased air activity around the Baltics, and held a number of major military exercises. NATO’s response has included strengthening the Baltic Air Police contingent for an extended period of time, rotating troops into the Baltic states on a regular basis, and the pre-positioning of US armor in Eastern Europe.
It has been a hectic past sixteen hours in Riyadh to say the least. The Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his immediate resignation, not from his own country’s capital, but from the Saudi capital. Hariri pointed to Iranian influence over Lebanon’s government as the reason for stepping down. The move puts Lebanon on the front burner of the Middle East, and increases the chances of a political crisis and potential conflict in the near future. Hariri’s departure should serve as a warning to the international community concerning Iran’s aggressive political and military moves across the region of late. Which brings us to the second major event of the day.
Shortly after Hariri’s announcement was made, Houthi rebels in Yemen launched a ballistic missile toward Riyadh. The missile was intercepted by a Saudi Patriot missile positioned battery east of King Khalid International Airport. Debris fell on the airport grounds and in the surrounding area causing no casualties or damage. The timing of the attack could be coincidental. A Saudi airstrike against targets in Yemen this past Wednesday killed 26 people at a hotel and neighboring market. The missile strike against Riyadh was likely Houthi retaliation for the airstrike.
While all of this was going on, the Saudi Royal Family appears to be on the verge of its own political crisis. At least a dozen Saudi princes, and four current ministers of the Saudi government have been arrested as part of a major anti-corruption sweep shortly after a committee to combat corruption was formed by a royal decree of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The decree appoints Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan as the head of the committee and grants him broad powers to fight corruption in the government. Along with the arrests of current government officials, a number of ex-ministers have also been taken into custody, and a number of current ministers were fired by the king.
It is clear that the forming of the committee and subsequent arrests are not underway purely to purge corrupt elements from the royal family and Saudi government. Prince Mohammed could be taking this opportunity to consolidate his position in the government, possibly in preparation for an abdication by King Salman in the near future. Which brings up a second, far more cynical possibility; that these arrests and firings are the beginning of an attempted coup. As more news comes out of Riyadh, it will become clear what direction this is going in. For my money, I believe this is a consolidation move by the Crown Prince and likely does signal that King Salman’s days in power are now limited.
Any way you slice it, this has been a stormy, unpredictable day in Riyadh, and the drama will no doubt continue in the coming days.
With the large scale Russian military exercise Zapad 17 scheduled to begin this September in Belarus, the level of tension associated with this year’s maneuvers is significantly higher than it was during the previous Zapad exercise. To be frank, Russian exercises of this magnitude have always caused a certain degree of concern in NATO, largely because of the close similarities between preparations for a large exercise, and preparations for war. This year, the concerns of NATO members transcend the possibility that Zapad could be a cover for the start of hostilities and focus on whether or not Zapad 17 will mark the beginning of a permanent Russian military presence in Belarus.
The joint Russian-Belarus exercise will include over 100,000 troops, hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles, air defense assets, elements of the Russian Navy, and a large number of combat aircraft. Plans for the use of 4,000 railway cars and carriages to move Russian troops and equipment into Belarus has raised eyebrows among many Western observers. The scenario for Zapad 17, according to sources in the Defense Ministry of Belarus, will center on a situation that will mirror NATO’s eastward expansion into the traditional Russian sphere of influence.
Thus far, Russia has revealed no specific details about September’s exercise. Moscow’s preference appears to be publicly regarding Zapad 17 as a limited exercise. The same was done when the last Zapad was held in 2013 although the number of troops involved was far greater than what Moscow initially announced. Also, expect lessons learned by Russian forces fighting in Syria to be incorporated into the new tactics that will be evaluated. This refers in large part to air defenses. There has been considerable suspicion in Western military circles that the Russian SAM sites in Syria had difficulty detecting the US Tomahawk cruise missiles that were launched during the April strike on a Syrian airfield. High level sources in the Pentagon have pointed to credible post-strike intelligence obtained by a friendly nation in the region (Israel most likely) as the basis for this notion.
As preparations for Zapad ramp up in the east, the United States is weighing whether or not to deploy Patriot missiles to the Baltics as part of an air defense exercise set for July, 2017. The Patriots would be gone by the scheduled start of the Russian-Belarussian war game, but their appearance will undoubtedly serve as a message to Moscow that the US and NATO will be monitoring Zapad-17, and subsequent Russian military moves in the region carefully.