Multiple reports state that the Pentagon air-dropped cargo pallets full of small arms, ammo, grenades and other weaponry to supposedly vetted forces known as the Syrian Arab Army operating in the Al-Hasakah province of Syria. The drop was made via a division of C-17A cargo aircraft flying under fighter cover.
Although the air drop sounds quite bold seeing as Russia’s air power is now operating over Syria with impunity, Al Hasakah province is in the far northeast of the country. The area is one of the furthest from the central Syrian coast, where Russia has aircraft and support elements based. Additionally, the vast majority of Russian air strikes and patrols have occurred in the western half of Syria, with just a few strikes venturing towards the west, where ISIS largely rules.
Here’s an idea of what an air drop looks like from a C-17 under combat conditions:
The air drop was to forces much more inclined to go after ISIS than taking on the Assad regime, which has no presence in the eastern area of Syria today. Nor was it to the PKK faction of the Kurds, who may be the most successful fighters against ISIS as of yet, but are viewed as terrorists in nearby Turkey. Turkey is now a key player in the anti-ISIS air war, providing access to its bases for missions and flying its own as well, including those against the aforementioned ISIS fighting PKK. As a result, this air drop was about as uncontroversial as one can be in the complicated mess that is now Syria.
If such a resupply mission was executed over, say, northwestern Syria, where anti-Assad forces are deeply entrenched, it would have been a whole other type of geopolitical event.
The weapons and ammunition that were dropped were reportedly being held for the now laughably defunct Train and Equip program that few thought would actually ever succeed. In the end, many millions of dollars were spent with only about training the five fighters still alive who had not either been killed, defected or just outright sold their gear. As such, it is a sign that the Pentagon is changing its strategy from train and equip to simply equip when it comes to supporting forces aimed at fighting ISIS in Syria.
When it comes to equipping those directly fighting the Assad regime, which Russia is now outright supporting militarily, the U.S. seems to take a third-party approach. It’s widely known that some of the Sunni gulf states, namely Saudi Arabia and Qatar, move arms to anti-Assad fighters, some of which are heavy in nature. This includes TOW anti-tank missiles, which are said to be provided by the CIA. These missiles have been very effective against Assad’s armor and supply lines over the last year, helping shrink the territory held by the Assad regime drastically.
Although some of those fighting ISIS in Syria’s far west may have now gotten a boost via this recent air drop, and more TOW missiles for those in the east will help, Russia’s still very fresh air campaign has allowed Assad forces, which are now bolstered by Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters, to get decisively back on the offensive. Without being armed with shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, which represent their own security conundrum, to fend off aerial attacks and rebalance Assad’s now overwhelming air power advantage, anti-Assad forces are not likely to be able to hold the territory they do today, which has already shrunk from just last week.
It was the anti-Assad forces’ taking of this territory, a shrinking edge around the central and southwestern part of Syria, that threatened Assad’s seat of power and caused Russia to intervene in the first place. Now, with only increasing capability at their fingertips, the potent mix of Russian, Assad regime and Iranian-backed forces are likely to continue retaking what was lost. Eventually they will turn their focus on an offensive against anti-Assad forces in the northwest of Syria. Considering the heavy firepower President Putin has already deployed to the region, it seems like Russia is committed and willing to do whatever it takes to crush the anti-Assad rebellion.
As for what President Obama thinks of all this? He did an interview with 60 Minutes that aired yesterday that made it clear he sees Russia’s involvement in Syria as a failure in policy in Russia’s end, and not a lack of leadership on his.
Contact the author Tyler@Jalopnik.com
Photo Credits: C-17 via USAF, all others via AP