Thursday, October 01, 2015
Are We Heading for the Crimean Showdown Only in Syria?
For months there were great fears that the standoff between NATO and Russia over Ukraine could get out of control, Cold War II turning into WWIII in a heartbeat. Putin even grumbled about using his considerable arsenal of nuclear weapons if pushed too hard.
True to form, the West got all hot and bothered until, in due course, it got bored with playing SitzKrieg on Ukraine's borders. Besides there were plenty of Muslims for the bombing in Iraq and Syria. If there's one game that never gets old, it's "Whack-a-Mole."
Putin could have done victory laps of Red Square to mark his stare down victory over the West. He could have but that's not Vlad's style. So where could he put a burr under our saddle? Of course, Syria!
There's a certain symmetry to what's going on. We, the West, are backing the Sunni Muslim potentates. We're even willing to overlook their indiscretions such as birthing outfits like al Qaeda and ISIS. So, in classic Cold War 101 fashion, if one side aligns with one side, the other cozies up to the other. We had first pick and chose the Sunnis. They'll take our leavings, the Shiites.
By throwing in with Assad, Putin gets something we can't have - a base of operations inside Syria itself. The Russkies took over a Syrian airfield, built up the runways, landed a bunch of tanks and naval infantry (Speznatz maybe?) before flying in a bunch of bombers and strike fighters. Word has it they're also bringing in Russia's supremely capable surface to air missiles, the S-300. Hey, at least they're not bringing in the S-400.
The S-300 batteries are Putin's calling card to the West. The rebs don't have an air force and neither does ISIS. No, the S-300 is designed to turn modern Western warplanes into lawn darts. Those missile batteries are Putin's way of proclaiming A2/AD, the ever popular anti-access and area denial capability. It's sort of like telling the West, "we'll let you fly here but we do reserve the right to change our minds." Short of a pre-emptive attack on Russian forces, we have to concede the point.
We're mighty miffed that Putin's warplanes aren't attacking ISIS but are, instead, going after the anti-Assad rebels that we're backing. So what? Assad, monster that he may be, is still the legitimate head of state of Syria and Russia is in Syria as his guest. And if, on behalf of their man Assad, Russian warplanes are targeting anti-Assad rebels, what are we going to do about it?
Are we going to funnel sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels knowing how ISIS often succeeds in getting its hands on that sort of thing? Dare we risk having the rebels down Russian warplanes, legally in Syria, with our weaponry that could have been given to them for just that purpose?
There's more of a showdown to this than we imagine and it has the potential to escalate. So far Putin hasn't deployed his capable air superiority fighters, the Su-30/35s. They would pose a direct and lethal challenge to Western aircraft, one that would invite Western escalation.
Update: Iran is now in the game in Syria. Hundreds of Iranian troops have been deployed to Syria to support a government offensive against the rebels and ISIS. It's hard to see how Israel will respond to having an Iranian military presence in Syria. Think Golan Heights.