Location USA USA


By Patrick BAHZAD
04 September 2015
Following Parts 1 and 2 of “Russian expeditionary force in Syria”, posted recently on SST, various narratives were offered as an explanation for this alleged move and its potential implications. Col. LANG gave the most up-to-date summary of the recent sequence of events. While it is difficult to assess the scope of the Russian involvement, it would be premature to assume a large scale Russian deployment is underway. As Col. LANG duly notes, what seems beyond doubt is that “Russia has decided to raise the level of its intervention and risk in the Syrian Civil War” and that “the ultimate scope and size of that increased role are unclear as yet”.
Rumours, comments and half-truths are very common in fluid environments such as this. Various news-outlets are offering different theories regarding a large-scale Russian operation about to start in Syria. With information and evidence being often sketchy at best, it is most likely that various players in and outside the region are trying to push their agenda, either vis-à-vis Syria or vis-à-vis Russia. Trusting partisan and biased information, i.e. MSM accounts quoting “official sources”, would obviously be a mistake. That is why this piece offers a totally different read on the reasons and goals of the Russian move, just for the sake of argument.
Preventing a another Libya
Before getting to the core of the scenario that could explain events on the ground, it may be useful to recall the Libyan precedent: a “no fly zone” implemented by NATO under a UN-resolution was hijacked – in the Russians’ view – to support the anti-Gaddafi insurgents and give them close air support for several months, until the Libyan dictator was finally ousted from power.
Ever since the start of the civil war in Syria, the Russians have always made it clear that they would not tolerate another version of the Libyan precedent. In 2013 already, Russian officials made numerous statements formally objecting to a “no fly zone”. A few very strongly worded declarations by President Putin himself didn’t leave any doubt as to the Russians’ willingness to actively oppose such a development.
What has happened in Syria in recent months ?
Looking at recent military operations in Syria, Col. LANG rightly observed that due to Coalition airstrikes in Northern Syria, the Syrian air force was unable to fly combat missions in support of their ground forces, which partially explains the Jihadi insurgents’ gains in the region of Aleppo, as well as the extension of the Kurdish YPG “liberated areas” in Northern Syria.
The difference is of course that the YPG militias mainly fought ISIS and tried to establish a buffer zone along the Turkish border, in order to disrupt ISIS logistics. At the same time, various factions of the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA), as well as Jahbat al-Nusra (JaN), mainly fought SAA units and managed to defeat them.
What actually happened is that while US and Coalition airstrikes mainly targeted the Islamic State, they also represented a threat to Syrian air force missions against other rebel groups, because of Coalition aircraft patrolling the Syrian skies and Patriot missiles installed just North of the border. This precipitated and encouraged FSA as well as JaN groups to extend their offensive operations and make territorial gains in the region of Aleppo, or in the southern enclave controlled by JaN close to the Jordanian border.
Possible strategy behind these events
Based on the developments mentioned above, but also taking into account some of the recurrent background noise and chatter that can be heard way outside the beltway – remember Petreaus’ suggestion about “Jabhat al Nusra reconcilables” or Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent call for a “no fly zone” over Syria – it is pretty easy to figure out what some of the armchair strategists in DC had in mind.
Quite simple in its premises, their strategy is based on increasing the tempo of Coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State, particularly in Syria, thus winning over public opinion for such operations, and supporting Kurdish YPG militias all over the North. At the same time, efforts – quite unlucky and unsuccessful so far – to recruit and train parts of the FSA, and possibly the “reasonable fringe” of Jahbat al-Nusra, are continuing.
The aim is to arm these groups and turn them loose – officially – on the Islamic State, giving them the same air support YPG groups have been receiving, provided the main thrust is against ISIS held territory or disputed areas. Territory that is firmly in the Syrian government’s hands would be off limits in such a scenario, but given that these areas have become quite small in recent months, it is pretty safe to assume that about 75 % to 80 % of Syrian territory would be up for grabs.
In other words, the support of Kurdish peshmergas on the one hand, the help and training of “moderate” Syrian rebels on the other, would be combined with the benefits of a “no fly zone” or at least extensive air support. The official rationale for such a “no fly zone” would be solely the struggle against ISIS, of course, because that would be the easiest way – and actually the only one –to sell such a strategy to the US public.
Russian stance on Syria
Needless to say that if the Syrian air force was unable to support its ground troops not just in the North, but anywhere in Syria, the balance of power would inexorably shift towards the opposition groups and a de facto partition of Syria would be unavoidable. To the Russians, this is unacceptable. They may be willing to let Assad go, but not to abandon Syria as an ally and a Russian asset in the “grand game”.
Syria is still a sovereign country and there hasn’t been any UN-resolution that could bolster foreign intervention without the consent of the Syrian government. Furthermore, Syria has an extensive defense agreement with the Russian Federation and it would be perfectly within President Bashar al-Assad’s prerogatives to call in Russian military help in his fight against “terrorism” or foreign aggression.
There have been a lot of back-channel discussions and open negotiations going in recent weeks, with Russia mediating between Syrian officials and rebel representatives. It is quite possible that the Russians have been trying to implement a negotiated deal of their own, given that they are probably aware time is against them, and against al-Assad.
A negotiated settlement ?
The possible Russian roadmap could provide for a transitional period following a ceasefire agreed to by representative elements of the opposition and the current regime, followed by the establishment of a government of national unity (with Bashar al-Assad stepping down “in the interest of the country”). This is all conjecture of course, but the fact remains that an insurgent delegation recently visited Moscow for talks with Russian (and possibly Syrian) officials. The President of the Syrian National Council, the main rebel body, was leading this delegation.
What came out of these talks – or should we say negotiations ? – is only rumour, but this rumour has it that a deal was struck for the nomination of a new intelligence chief, if a ceasefire and transitional phase are indeed implemented. The man for that job is supposedly no other than General Mustafa Tlass, formerly a close associate of the al-Assad clan, who jumped ship in 2011 but never formally sided with the rebels. He has been living in France ever since he left Syria.
Now of course, such a settlement to which the US administration would not have been part to would have the potential to drive the Neo-Cons, R2Pers and other D.C. hawks absolutely mad. Not only would it mean that the Syrian regime would not be destroyed, but it would possibly keep a strong foothold in Syrian politics, even if the country was to be partitioned along areas of influence. The biggest downside to such a negotiated solution though would be, that fighting the Islamic State could not be used anymore as a pretence for supporting the actions of the anti-Assad rebels.
The Syrians – and the Russians – certainly realize that contingency plans are also a necessity for them, whether the alleged settlement initiative succeeds or fails. The recent announcement of a second and larger Russian base on the Syrian coast is certainly part of such contingency plans. Both a naval base and a logistics base, it could help stabilize the heartland of the Al-Assad clan and bolster the Alawi minority’s claim and dominance over these lands, cutting of any sea access to whatever Sunni/Jihadi political construct could be established further inland.
Putting a serious dent into Coalition plans
This is why the establishment of a “no fly zone” and increased operational tempo is so crucial to its most vocal proponents. Short of destroying the regime before any settlement is announced, Bashar al-Assad has to be weakened and his power base eroded to the point where even opposition groups currently willing to sign off on a negotiated peace might possibly change their mind.
This is the context in which Russian troop and equipment movements were recently spotted, allegedly. It all started on August 16th, when a Turkish News Agency (BGN) published a statement announcing that Russia had delivered 6 MIG-31s to Syria. Those planes’ specifications and weapons systems make them an unlikely candidate for close air support to Syrian ground forces, which makes the delivery all the more interesting.
Actually, the MIG-31s, possibly with a Russian crew aboard, are interceptors. They are designed to track, identify and destroy hostile aircraft. The fact they were stationed in Mezze airbase, with a large Russian security and logistics detail, implies the Russians meant business. What aircraft could these planes be possibly intercepting though ? Obviously, not the Coalition jets flying missions against the Islamic State. The Russians aren’t that mad … or dumb.
However, if a “no fly zone” was imposed over Syrian skies without any form of basis in international or UN-law, what would there be to prevent the Russians from answering a call for help from the sill legitimate Syrian government ? Now that would be a worrying development and it should be taken seriously ! However, should there be any truth to such a theoretical construct, the MIG-31s would probably target something totally different from Coalition fighter jets.
How a “no fly zone” works
If you take Libya as the example of what the Russians want to avoid at all cost, it’s fairly easy to guess what their interceptors would be looking for. It’s not the Patriot missiles stationed in Turkey. They only have a limited reach, meaning they can destroy targets up to a distance of about 70 km, enough to interdict Syrian air force operations all along the border, but they are useless for any action deep in Syrian territory.
Furthermore, the Patriot’s radars don’t bring any added value when it comes to identifying enemy moves on the ground. The key component in both a “no fly zone” and in monitoring moves on and off the ground, all over Syrian territory, are AWACS warning and control aircraft.
The Coalition is currently using such aircraft. Several countries are equipped with such planes, notably the United States and Saudi Arabia, but also The United-Kingdom and France. As long as the areas of interest for possible coalition airstrikes are limited to territory close to an international border, AWACS planes can remain out of Syrian airspace.Their powerful radars can monitor anything that happens from a safe distance.
However, if the goal of the coalition was to extend “interdiction areas” or to create “safe areas” deep inside Syria, there would be only one way of doing this: AWACS planes would need to fly over Syrian territory, as any operation of that kind while remaining outside Syrian airspace would require a unreasonable number of planes to cover enough ground.
Targeting the key component
That is where the MIG-31s come in. Sending in these planes, their crews, as well as all the necessary logistics into Syria, could be a clear message intended at disrupting any idea the Coalition might have of establishing “safe zones”, “security perimeters” or “no fly zones”, whatever you want to call them, without actual backing from international law.
Based on current Syrian-Russian defence agreements, Russian – or Syrian – MIG31s would be fully justified in shooting down any aircraft deemed hostile over Syrian territory. The MIG-31s are well equipped for that kind of mission: they can take off and reach a flight altitude of over 30 000 feet in under three minutes, making them immune from any MANPADs the rebels might be armed with.
Coordinates of an AWACS plane – or any other aircraft for that matter – could be sent in from radar stations on the ground, and the signal could not be jammed nor intercepted. The MIG-31 is also equipped with multimode radar, allowing for onboard monitoring over long distances, and it is armed with BVR missiles that have a reach of up to 400 km. Due to the ballistic trajectory of these missiles, their interception also would be very difficult.
In other words, once they are in the air, the MIG-31s could fire their missiles and, at that point, nothing could stop them from reaching their target, whether that is an AWACS or possibly even a fighter jet preparing for close support mission of anti-government forces.
Additionally, rumour also has it that more Russian advisers will be sent to the front lines, to bolster Syrian defence lines around Damascus and in the North West of the country, specifically along the Alawi populated coastal strip. Speculating about numbers would be futile at this point, but if the Russians intended to send a message together with these planes and military advisers, that message should be heard loud and clear.

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