Western air and missile strikes against chemical weapon production and storage facilities in Syria have ended. The strikes were successful in both military and political terms. Bomb damage assessments indicate that every site targeted was effectively destroyed. The Trump administration, through its actions and the end result, has reestablished and reinforced the credibility of red line threats. The predictions, and warnings that Western military action in Syria would bring about a Third World War have been fully discredited. Despite all that Russia has invested in Syria, and the staunch support it has given to Bashar al-Assad, Moscow is not prepared to start a major war simply to save Syria.
Friday night’s military action has also helped bring about the emergence of an official US strategy vis-à-vis Syria. Destroying ISIS, long the primary objective of US efforts in Syria, is now mated with the preventing Assad from using chemical weapons again. President Trump’s stated goal to remove US troops as quickly as possible can still be achieved. ISIS is on its last legs, and before long a US ground presence will not be essential. If Assad opts to use chemical weapons in the fighting again, any US and Western response will come exclusively from air and naval assets.
Russia’s next move remains a mystery. Vladimir Putin does not like to lose, so it is highly probable he will craft a response aimed at reminding the United States, Britain, and France that Russia remains a force to be dealt with. Since the situation in Syria remains sensitive and fluid, Russia’s countermove will not happen there. It could come in Ukraine, or Eastern Europe, and take the form of diplomatic pressure, heightened military maneuvers and activity, or shadow operations such as cyber strikes against the civilian infrastructures in the Baltic States. Cyber strikes would be the perfect tool to be used if Moscow wants to highlight the vulnerability of Western interests in the region. After all, the US-led strikes against Syria served to highlight just how vulnerable the Russian position in Syria is.
Then there are the numerous other proxy wars going on in Syria that will be affected by the West’s actions. It will be interesting to see how Iran, Israel, and Turkey react, and how Friday’s strikes will affect their respective plans for Syria.
If the Middle East were a forest, Syria would be a propane tank burning beside it. Despite the efforts of firemen, the blaze continues. It’s only a matter of time before the tank explodes and sets the trees afire. The Syrian Conflict has been raging for seven years and shows no signs of receding. The war has transformed from a civil war to an amalgamation of loosely connected blood feuds, civil, tribal, and proxy wars that have the potential to spark a major regional conflict or worse. To make matters more complex, the Syrian Conflict is now on the verge of escalating to a point where two allies are threatening war on each other.
Syrian Government forces, with the invaluable support of Russian, and Iranian forces, are rolling up rebel forces, and expanding the amount of territory it controls. ISIS is reeling as US, and British forces are moving in for the kill. Iranian actions have brought about Israeli air strikes and the threat of further Israeli involvement in the conflict. Meanwhile, in the north Turkish forces continue their offensive against Kurdish militias, and forces, some of which are supported by the US and other Western governments. France is now taking a stand against Turkish operations against the Kurds. Relations between Ankara and Paris are deteriorating amid reports the French are considering sending additional troops to Syria to aid the Kurds if Turkish forces extend their offensive east of Afrin. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated Turkey would regard such a move as an invasion. Turkey and France, both members of NATO, are sounding more like opponents instead of allies these days. The repercussions of a military clash between the two countries would be felt around the world.
The latest layer added to the conflict is President Trump hinting that the US will be scaling down or ending entirely its military presence in Syria. With ISIS close to defeat on the battlefield, the primary mission for US forces is ending and Trump sees no reason to keep them in country. A final decision has not been made, however, and some senior US officials have warned that a US pullout now could strengthen Russia and Iran’s influence across the entire region.
Later this week I’ll continue this subject by discussing the ongoing geopolitical chess match in the Middle East between the US on one side and Russia, Iran, and Turkey on the other.
Vladimir Putin sailed to victory in Russia’s presidential election on Sunday. He secured a fourth term in office with 77% of the vote. The result was hardly a surprise. Putin’s grip on power in Russia is ironclad and he faced no serious challengers in the campaign. The election was hardly fair, by Western standards, and has been described by some people as a sham. Even Edward Snowden was critical of the election results in his adopted homeland. It will be interesting to see how the Kremlin reacts to his criticism.
As tradition dictates, many world leaders have sent formal congratulations, and spoke of desires to work together with Moscow on common issues. Behind the polite façade of diplospeak, there is less of a consensus about Putin and future relations with Russia. In Europe, many leaders and political parties are wary of Russia’s ambitions, and view Putin as a growing threat. Nations that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, or under the thumb of Moscow during the Cold War make up the bulk of this group. Other European nations, mainly EU member-states in Central and Western Europe, are less critical. From Brussels to Berlin the priority has been to repair relations between Russia and the West. Germany has led the repair effort in recent years, though Angela Merkel has little to show for it. EU sanctions against Russia remain in place but they have not persuaded Putin to cooperate on the Ukrainian issue or any of the other matters simmering between Russia and the West.
The current diplomatic crisis between Russia and the United Kingdom over the use of a nerve agent against a former Russian spy and his daughter on British soil will affect relations between Europe and Russia in one form or another. The EU is standing beside Britain in calls for Russia to disclose its development of Novichok, the agent used. The United States joined the leaders of France, Great Britain, and Germany in condemning the use of a nerve agent on British soil, and agreeing Russia was the party responsible for the attack. London expelled 23 Russian diplomats and Moscow mirrored the move a short time afterward, expelling 23 British diplomats from Russia. Tensions remain high, with Russia denying it had anything to do with the attack.
With the election behind him now, Putin might be looking to use the crisis with England to his advantage. Russia could use a victory of some type. In Syria, and Russia it appears to be mired in military and diplomatic stalemate, with no change in sight. It’s unclear exactly how Putin can turn the current issue to his advantage, but if anyone can bring it about, it’s him.
Western leaders have accused Russia of being responsible for being behind the nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter at their home in the United Kingdom. In a rare, yet encouraging show of unity, the leaders of the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom released a joint statement condemning the attack and calling upon Russia to live up to uphold peace and security. The statement was released one day after Britain expelled 23 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the nerve agent attack. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov labeled the allegations as ‘unacceptable.’ Moscow is expected to respond by ordering the expulsion of British diplomats from Russia in the coming days. Putin will possibly go beyond that and attempt to prod Britain in another way. Do not be surprised to hear about increased Russian air activity in close proximity to the British Isles over the coming days. Business might be about to pick up for the RAF Typhoons on QRA.
Author’s Note: Apologies for the shortness of this update. Scheduling conflicts have minimized the time I have available to write today.
The US Army is returning to Europe in force. Treads on the ground instead of boots, if you will.
Following almost two years of preparation and planning, the first elements of a US Army armored brigade are arriving in Poland. In a scenario that practically nobody in the world could’ve foreseen happening in 1989 without the aid of NATO winning a land war in Europe against the Warsaw Pact, US forces will be deployed to Eastern Europe. The deployment is not a permanent one per se. Some interpretations of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act argue that it prohibits the permanent stationing of US troops in Eastern Europe. The agreement, however, holds no stipulations concerning the placing of equipment. Consequently, the equipment will remain in place and US troops will be rotated in periodically, every nine months or so.
Moscow’s reaction to the arrival of the US troops was predictably negative. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman denounced the move, stating: “We perceive it as a threat. These actions threaten our interests, our security. Especially as it concerns a third party building up its military presence near our borders. It’s [the US], not even a European state.” For the moment, the rhetoric appears to be the only card Russia is playing. There are no signs of a countermove being planned in the Kremlin. Next Friday Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States and Putin is likely waiting to see the direction US-Russia relations take before deciding if a countermove will be necessary.
The first rotation of US soldiers is coming from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team/4th Infantry Division based at Fort Colorado and consists of 3,500-4,000 troops. The first contingent of men and equipment will be stationed in Zagan, Poland which is also home to the Polish 11th Armored Cavalry Division, also a heavy maneuver unit like the 3/4th ID. It’s ranges and training areas will be put to good use and permit US and Polish tankers to train together regularly. After the brigade is entirely in Europe it will fan out to other bases across NATO’s eastern flank, giving other member-nations concrete indications of the US commitment to Europe’s security.
This move comes three years after the last US armor departed the continent. Budget constraints forced the last two permanently stationed heavy maneuver brigades to be shipped home. In the wake of this deployment, US defense planners might be looking at permanently returning tank-heavy forces back to Germany as the next step should US-Russia relations continue to deteriorate through 2017.