It was just a matter of time before Russia’s new expeditionary pocket air force in Syria began its bombing operations. Over the last few weeks Russian drones have been flying missions out of Latakia Air Base looking for targets. Now the first Russian shots have been fired in what could be a very long battle to secure their interests in Syria.
After dueling speeches that blamed one another for destabilizing the situation in Syria, and what appeared to be an extremely icy face-to-face meeting at the U.N., Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin seem to remain totally at odds with one another on the Syria issue.
Making things worse, reports surfaced shortly after their meeting that Russian airstrikes in Syria could be imminent. The reports ended up being very accurate. A total of 20 sorties were said to have been flown today with some footage of the attacks released by the Russian Ministry of Defense. It looks like Russia has used cheap “dumb bombs” instead of precision guided munitions for its initial attacks, at least in those strikes shown in the video below.
According to Major General Igor Konashenkov, today’s inaugural airstrikes targeted ISIS equipment, communications, vehicles and ammo dumps. At the same time senior Obama Administration officials told CNN that the strikes near the city of Homs had no strategic purpose in combating ISIS. Some twitter reports state that strikes were actually targeted at the free Syrian Army, which the U.S. loosely supports.
Regardless of who or what exactly Russia attacked today, the fact of the matter is that they will use brute strength to combat anyone who opposes the Assad regime. This is especially true for those encroaching on, or operating within territory that the Syrian government still holds.
In fact, now that Russia is entrenched in Syria and is getting more so by the day, Assad himself does not matter as much as he once did as any puppet government that will ensure Russia’s interests in the Syria will do.
Putin says Russia’s mission is to fight ISIS in the best way possible, and that’s by working with the existing government in Syria. The reasoning behind this, at least according thim, is that thousands of Russians have joined the ranks of ISIS over the last two years and they could come home and attack targets across Russia. He also admits that the operation is also to stand by a longtime ally. But clearly, such a dynamic and large military move is not limited to those objectives alone.
Russia’s interests in Syria only grow as they commit more resources to the fight and further develop their strategic outposts in that country. Russia’s only Mediterranean port is in Tartus, Syria, which has long been a key reason for Russia to back Assad, but now they have a growing airbase south of Latakia and another growing garrison and helicopter base in Latakia city itself.
These are all great reasons for Moscow to deepen its claws into the Syrian government for the long-haul. Putin could one day appease the world community by forcing Assad out of power, giving him asylum in Russia, and installing a new provisional government tightly aligned with Moscow in Damascus. The whole affair would be in the name of a peaceful “political transition,” that will happen one day, maybe, of course.
On a larger scale, Russia’s overall strategy in the region is becoming clearer. With an reinvigorated relationship with Iran and a strengthening one with Iran’s good friend Iraq, Russia could soon wield some form of control over the northern Middle East, ranging from the Mediterranean to the edge of Afghanistan. The upside to such a strategy can be seen by recent agreements between Iran, Iraq and Russia to share intelligence on ISIS, with Russia being cleared by Iraq to perform intelligence flights over Iraq.
Of course, this would mean not just Iranian and U.S. led coalition aircraft would be operating over Iraq, but now Russian aircraft too. Russia has brought a large amount of its equipment and aircraft to Syria by avoiding closed airspace in Europe and flying down the Caspian Sea, over Iran and Iraq and into Syria.
Video of Russian aircraft in Syria:
Overall, this strategy could be seen as a counter-balance against Sunni-led Arabian Peninsula states that mostly all have tight relationships with the United States. Russia even has some access into the Sunni-Arab states sphere of influence as well, with its tightening relationship with Egypt, which was a long-time close U.S. ally before the Obama Administration cooled U.S.-Egyptian relations. This came after a military-led coup of the democratically elected, but highly controversial Muslim Brotherhood.
As far as Putin’s ability to control the airspace over Syria, he can do that right now by simply calling it his and launching limited fighter patrols. The U.S. would have to challenge it, or flat out destroy Russia’s capabilities in Syria in order to neuter it. The U.S. could easily do this at this point in time, but it is highly doubtful the Obama Administration would be even willing to float the idea of doing so. Such a standoff, or especially an attack, could lead to a game of potentially World War III inducing brinkmanship.
As time goes on, removing Russia from Syria or even challenging whatever airspace it wants to declare off limits — most likely that over western Syria to begin with — will become much harder. Russia has the ability to deploy advanced long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, some of which are the most advanced in the world. When paired with advanced short-ranged point-air defense systems already deployed to Syria, Russia’s S-400 SAM system could deny access to airspace within a 250 mile radius surrounding Latakia Air Base. Using the less advanced but still capable S-300 SAM system, the same one Russia is selling to Iran, they can defend airspace out to about 90 miles surrounding the SAM site’s location.
S-300 air defense system:
If counter-air multiple systems are deployed in a “layered” manner, accessing Russian-controlled airspace over and around Syria will become more problematic and dangerous, it is as simple as that. Even deploying the S-300 system would give Russia persistent anti-air capability deep into Syria and far out into the Mediterranean Sea, and even over Lebanon and southwestern Turkey.
In addition to its aerial arsenal in Syria, shore-based anti-ship missiles, land-based land attack cruise missiles and rocket artillery can also provide a defense against ships approaching Syria’s coast or potentially hostile land formations approaching from any vector. Additionally, if Russia were to eventually deploy conventional short or intermediate range Ballistic missiles to Syria, they could put U.S. and allied air bases and infrastructure at risk within many hundreds of miles of Russia’s outpost in Syria.
The big picture is that Putin will likely setup an invisible anti-access fortress over his bases in Syria, one that can keep NATO and allied capabilities at bay should Moscow decide it is necessary to keep them away. A similar anti-access scenario has been set up in Crimea, with the potential to put any ship in the Black Sea and any aircraft in the northern part of the Black Sea at risk. Ballistic missiles, even rudimentary ones, could extend Russia’s tactical umbrella far south towards the equator, over a region with vast oil reserves and sprawling U.S. bases.
The thing is, these are all options, none of them have to happen, but they are readily possible under the current circumstances. Putin knows that options are worth their weight in gold to any military commander, and his current force posture in Syria gives him just that, a lot of options.
Russia’s parliament has now approved Putin’s request (unanimously of course) for use of force in Syria, and so far Russian officials say it will only be air war that will be coordinated with Assad’s forces on the ground. This will give Assad a modern, well equipped air force to do his bidding virtually over night. This is a massive capability leap in comparison to the crumbling Syrian Air Force that struggles to exist today.
As for working with the U.S. on fighting ISIS, well it looks as if Russia has taken a “we lead, you follow” approach to the situation, going about their business as they see fit on their own timetable regardless of some key players in the region. Even though there have been some high-level steps to at least deconflict air operations in the region, the issue has been a major concern, not just for the U.S.-led coalition but also for Israel.
The Israeli Air Force has flown flights into western Syria to take out strategic Iranian-backed Hezbollah targets on a sporadic basis over the last decade. With this in mind, Israel has been executing military-to-military talks in preparation of Russian military actions in Syria. The results of that appear to be positive as Russia is said to have notified Israel in advance of today’s air strikes. Did the United States get this same warning? We do not know for sure, but it appears not at this time.
Above all else, Russia’s military moves in Syria and its geopolitical moves around the globe are aimed to embarrass and to weaken America’s image as the world’s only super power and as a reliable and brave player when it comes geopolitics and fighting terror.
In doing so, Putin hopes to decrease America’s diplomatic clout around the globe, and sits waiting in the wings waiting to fill any power vacuum that appears. Even with sanctions in place that have hurt Russia’s economy, some, if not many would say that this strategy is working marvelously in Russia’s favor.
Contact the author Tyler@jalopnik.com
Photos via AP top shot via Alex Beltyukov/wikicommons