Russia and America Play Regional Chess
The internal War in Syria and about its future extends far outside the region as Russia is attempting to provide military support to the legitimate authority of Syrian President Assad, while the US tries to block that aid by pressuring regional countries to deny Russian military aircraft overflight permission.
This week, the United States moved to head off preparations for a Russian military buildup as Bulgaria agreed to an appeal from the Obama administration to shut its airspace to Russian transport planes. The planes’ destination was the Syrian port city of Latakia.
The administration has also asked Greece to close its airspace to the Russian flights, Greek and American officials said, but Greece has not publicly responded to the request. Many diplomats think that Greece is judging whether working with the US or Russia is in the nation’s long term interests.
The previous Syriza-led government sought to boost Greek-Russian relations with several visits by Greek government officials to Moscow. In June Russia and Greece signed a deal to build a $2.27 pipeline through Greece. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras made two trips to Moscow to consult with the Russians.
However the ‘warming up’ with Russia was abruptly put on ice when the Greek government resigned. It is unclear, what the snap elections results will be and if the Greek-Russian relations will be back on track.
The US retains some pull with Greece as they have considerable influence with the International Monetary Fund, which is looking at granting additional loans to Greece.
Although both Russia and the US agree that ISIS is a major threat, who the eventual winner will be is still a matter of contention. Russia wants a government that still includes President Assad, while the US prefers a different Syrian leadership. Putin spoke in Vladivostok last week about the need to form a coalition against ISIS.
However, Khaled Khoja, the chairman of Syria’s opposition National Coalition, said after a recent meeting with Russian officials in Moscow that there was no question of sharing power with Assad.
Some western sources spread rumors that Russia is trying to expand its role inside Syria so it can influence the choice of a new Syrian government in case Assad is ousted. Another rumored theory is that Russia is putting itself in a position to defend a rump state should Assad be driven from Damascus and find refuge in a stronghold near the coast. They claimed that much of the buildup military activity is centered on Latakia and Idlib province – areas dominated by the Alawite sect, which counts President Assad among its number.
The Russian Buildup
In order to strengthen Assad, Russia has recently started an aerial bridge to Syria to provide logistical and manpower support.
A Syrian military official told Reuters there has recently been a “big shift” in Russian military support, including new weapons and training. “Our ties are always developing but in these days a qualitative shift has happened. We call it a qualitative shift, which means big,” the Syrian official said.
At least three Russian military transport planes have landed in Syria in recent days, according to US officials. The aircraft landed at the airport in Latakia on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. In addition, there are reports of two Russian Roll-on/roll-off ships carrying armored vehicles to Syria.
Two of the aircraft were giant Antonov-124 Condor planes and a third was a passenger flight, an unnamed American official told reporters. The supplies and equipment came from an air base in southern Russia across Iran and Iraq to Latakia. The Russian troop transport plane, probably an Ilyushin model, also landed at the same airfield in Latakia over the weekend. That aircraft, which flew over Greece and Bulgaria, is believed to have carried Russian military personnel.
A Lebanese newspaper reported on Monday that Russian military experts who arrived in Syria weeks ago have been inspecting air bases and are working to enlarge some runways, particularly in the north, though Moscow had yet to meet a Syrian request for attack helicopters. The Syrians had asked to be supplied with more than 20 Russian attack helicopters, of the Mi-28 type.
The Russians have installed modular housing units — enough for “hundreds” of people — at the airport, as well as portable air traffic control equipment, the official noted. “All of this seems to be suggesting that Russia is planning to do some sort of forward air-operating hub out of this airfield,” the official said.
There are also reports of Russian Special Forces at the Syrian naval academy.
This build up has concerned the US. “Our concern would be that any effort to bolster the Assad regime right now would potentially be destabilizing,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said Tuesday.
US Secretary of State John Kerry called his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov twice in one week to warn of the dangers of stoking the civil war.
Russian Military Options
Although Russian aid to Assad is growing, Russia will find that its options, like those for the US, are limited. Not only would large ground units require more support, Russia is currently engaged in a land war in the Ukraine and is unlikely to commit itself to a major ground operation while the war in the Ukraine continues. Russian experts also note that such a major troop involvement would require the support of Russia’s parliament.
Igor Korotchenko, a retired colonel of the Russian military’s General Staff who is now editor of the National Defence magazine, also said that while Russia has supplied Assad’s government with weapons, it has no intention to send its troops to Syria. A reliable Russian source confirm to thinktank monitor the same.
“Russia will not send its troops to the Middle East, it’s absolutely excluded,” he said. “It’s the U.S. problem. Russia will not pay for that with its soldiers’ lives.”
There is also the concern that fighting ISIS with Russian forces might precipitate terrorist attacks in Russia from Islamic extremists.
Air defense support would be contemplated as a last resort since ISIS has no air force and the only aircraft in the area would either be Turkish or American aircraft – definitely not desired targets for Russian air defense units in the current situation.
The buildup could support a small Russian ground attack squadron. This may be indicated by unnamed American officials noting that Russia appears to be building an air control tower.
Russian air support would hinder ISIS advances and support the weakened Syrian Air Force. However, the addition of a Russian air unit would require more logistical support and a continuing air bridge from Russia to Syria – something that is problematic given the US attempts to shut down those air links.
There is also the risk that the US and Russian aircraft could accidently engage each other – something neither country would wish. That means that any Russian aircraft employed would be for limited operations, away from any border area, where it might come in contact with Turkish or American aircraft.
The Russians could also be considering deploying Russian attack helicopter squadrons to support Syrian Army operations. However, helicopters would be vulnerable to ISIS shoulder launched air defense missiles.
Another option would be for the Russians to supply attack helicopters or fixed wing aircraft to the Syrian air force and then provide maintenance and supply support. However, given the current status of the Syrian air force, the Russians would have to spend at least six month in training new Syrian pilots to operate the new aircraft.
Therefore, it appears that Russia will provide limited assistance, much like that provided by the Americans to Jordan – logistics and training personnel.
This coincides with recent Russian statements. In the first statement on the Syrian aid, Putin said Russia is providing “serious” training and logistical support to the Syrian army.
Commenting on reports that Russian combat troops have been deployed to Syria, the Russian president said discussion of direct military intervention is “so far premature,” but did not rule out that such a step could be taken in future.
“To say we’re ready to do this today – so far it’s premature to talk about this. But we are already giving Syria quite serious help with equipment and training soldiers, with our weapons,” the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency quoted Putin as saying when asked about Russian intervention in Syria during an economic forum in Vladivostok.
Pavel Felgenhaeur, an independent commentator on Russian military affairs told the Telegraph this week that Russian support, “definitely includes technical advisers and engineers to maintain sophisticated military equipment, and marines to protect them. There is no way Assad’s jets could still be flying after four years of war without Russian technical assistance,” he said.
Mr Felgenhauer said it was “quite conceivable” that members of the advisory mission occasionally found themselves in combat or had even suffered casualties.
A senior Syrian military official who defected in 2012 told the Telegraph that he had personally worked alongside Russian officers, but that in his experience they were there “as experts, not fighters.”
“Most of the operations room and many of the defense lines are planned by Russian experts, so there are extra technical personnel now,” he continued.
The Russian Strategy
Some analysts see any possible Russian move to strengthen military aid now as a maneuver by Putin to embarrass the United States.
“It is basically a chance to play on Obama’s checkerboard,” said Konstantin Von Eggert, an independent political analyst, with Mr. Putin saying: “You want to fight the Islamic State. I am there. I am ready. Ah, sorry, you don’t really want to fight.”
Russia has maintained that America’s fight against ISIS is less about defeating ISIS than removing President Assad.
That being the case, the Russian strategy is more likely to focus on keeping Assad in the equation, thus forcing the US to choose either fighting ISIS or Assad. Consequently, the Russian strategy is to support Assad and play for a negotiated settlement that leaves Assad in any new government.
A recent diplomatic offensive by Russia has attempted to persuade western and Arab governments, as well as members of the Syrian opposition, that Assad should be part of a national unity government and an international alliance to fight ISIS.
Putin said last week that Assad had agreed to such a deal, “right up to the point of holding early parliament elections and establishing contacts with the so-called healthy opposition and engaging them in governing.”
However, Western governments and Syrian rebel leaders have so far insisted that there is no place for Assad in post-war Syria. Russia opposes that as they believe that it would lead to a complete collapse of Syria, much as the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq led to the collapse of the Iraqi central government
The Russian strategy may be to stall for time; in hopes that Syrian various rebel factions tire of the fighting, including ISIS who continues to gain or control some territories.
By maintaining a military presence in Western Syria, near the Mediterranean, Russia can guarantee itself an active player in preserving Syrian unity under Assad leadership and protect the Russian naval base in Tartaus.
The Most Important Defense Budget Issue To Watch When Congress Returns From Recess
By Todd Harrison
Center for Strategic and International Studies
September 8, 2015
When Congress departed for the August break, it left much of its work on the defense budget unfinished. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was still in conference committee ironing out differences between the House and Senate versions, and while the House had completed its version of the defense appropriations bill, the Senate had not yet passed its version. This tardiness is not unusual, especially in recent years, but when Congress returns on September 8th it will have just over three weeks left before the new fiscal year begins and a lot of important budget issues to resolve. Perhaps the most urgent budget issue is the topline level of funding for defense. The Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA) caps the total national defense budget in FY 2016 at $523 billion. DoD typically consumes about 95.5 percent of the national defense budget, so its proportionate share of the budget cap is about $499 billion. The Obama Administration requested $534 billion for DoD in its base budget, or $35 billion more than the budget cap allows. It requested an additional $51 billion in war-related funding, which does not count toward the budget cap, for a total DoD budget of $585 billion. If Congress passed the administration’s request and did nothing to modify the BCA, it would trigger an automatic across-the-board sequester that would cut the budget by the amount it exceeds the budget cap, $35 billion.
Trends in Iraqi Violence, Casualties, and the Impact of War: 2003-2015
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
September 4, 2015
The data on the patterns of violence in Iraq are uncertain at best, and so are the data on many of the factors that have generated that violence. There are, however, enough data to gain some insights into how the current fighting compares with fighting from the U.S. invasion to the withdrawal of U.S. combat force at the end of 2011, to illustrate the different patterns in casualties, and to show the importance of some of the factors that have driven the fighting and the growing divisions within Iraq. This analysis draws on a number of sources to portray the trend data in graphic form and map the patterns in the fighting from 2003 to the present. It also shows some of the key sectarian, ethnic, demographic, and economic forces that have helped shape the fighting.
Hard Aid: Foreign Aid in the Pursuit of Short-term Security and Political Goals
By Nathaniel Myers
September 2, 2015
Facing serious crises in the Middle East and beyond, Washington is again turning to foreign aid to help advance urgent short-term security and political priorities. This so-called hard aid entails goals and challenges that are distinct from traditional development and humanitarian aid programs, but Washington is relying on existing aid systems and structures to pursue such work in crisis countries like Syria and Yemen. While this ad hoc approach is administratively and politically convenient, it reduces strategic effectiveness and undercuts long-term development efforts. Both legislative and executive action should be taken to redress these failings.
Expanded Syria Presence Would Carry Big Risks for Russia
By Michael Singh and Jeffrey White
September 8, 2015
Wall Street Journal
In July 1972, Soviet forces were ordered out of Egypt by Anwar Sadat, signaling the end of serious military involvement in the region by Moscow. Now, forty-three years later, Russian troops are returning. According to the New York Times, “Russia has sent a military advance team to Syria and has transported prefabricated housing units for hundreds of people to an airfield near Latakia, according to American intelligence analysts.” The Times adds that “Russia has also delivered a portable air traffic station to the airfield and has filed military overflight requests through September.” The reports follow closely on the heels of similar allegations in recent weeks, including reports of new arms, and even combat troops. U.S. military officials said Tuesday that Russia has moved new personnel, planes and equipment into Syria in recent days.
Russia in Syria (Part 1): Declining Military Capabilities Won’t Hold Moscow Back
By Anna Borshchevskaya
September 8, 2015
According to photo evidence republished in a September 8 Daily Mail report, Russian troops have been on the ground in Syria since at least April. Other reports of Moscow’s increased military buildup there have mentioned additional deliveries of advanced weaponry to the Assad regime, a military advance team, and prefabricated housing units sent to an airfield near Latakia. On September 4, President Vladimir Putin described the talk of Russian troops in Syria as “premature,” but he confirmed that Moscow continues to provide serious assistance through training, weaponry, and equipment. Whatever its current extent, Russia’s increased involvement in Syria raises questions about its overall military capabilities.