Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest volley into Syria reinvigorates the epic East/West struggle for Middle East control. The natural resource rich region once again is center stage of geopolitical struggles aimed at maximizing area influence.
The board has been reset and the pieces are carefully set. In his mind, Putin is the hero this time and swoops in to save the world. I can see the propaganda shot now: Camo-clad warrior Putin, hanging off the side of a Russian gunships, shirt less with a bloodied spear, fresh from Crimea no doubt. Cue Wagner Ride of the Valkyrie: Vladimir is on the way to save Syria.
Putin himself telegraphed his intent in June 2015, blaming a morally bankrupt for not being able to accomplish the mission. In a statement of self-aggrandizement Putin said: “Many Euro-Atlantic countries have moved away from their roots, including Christian values. Policies are being pursued that place on the same level a multi-child family and a same-sex partnership, a faith in God and a belief in Satan. This is the path to degradation.” Putin sees Russia as the defender of traditional values, dismissing the US like a washed-up has been. Eyeing warmer waters at the time, Putin was stacking the deck in efforts to set the change for his triumphant return.
Fresh off his maskirovka masterful campaign in Crimea, Putin continues his full contact passive/aggressive choreography on the world stage. His Syrian land grab delivers what Russia failed to accomplish in Afghanistan, a secure, warm water port and forward operating base closer to international shipping lanes. In earlier versions of The Great Game, Russia danced with Great Britain for control of the same areas under dispute today. Russia was geographically isolated from Europe and unable to expand further north or east, could on move to Central Asia for natural resources, commerce and population. For all intents and purposes, Russia is running the blockade that hemmed them in during the Cold War and the tragedy that broke up the USSR. Russia is redrawing borders and Europe needs to be more concerned.
Map1 shows the Afghan, Pakistan, USSR, Iranian and Indian borders circa 1979. The Iranian Revolution was in full tilt at the time, throwing the US Middle East plan into disarray. With their nemesis wounded, the Soviet Union jumped at the chance to expand their Central Asian influence and reach the Arabian Sea. Not unlike today, a weakened US in the Middle East seemed like an easy target.
Russia has been working to dominate Mediterranean sea lanes. In February, they announced a ten year deal with Cyprus for two ports and two airbases. Their naval bases in Syria provide Russia with plenty of regional presence from where they can observe and react to potential threats or even disrupt international shipping lanes, specifically oil transportation. This has been their intent since the early 18th century, when they sent their Naval fleet into Beirut, Lebanon. During the Cold War, the USSR supplied weapons to Syria by way of Czechoslovakia. Having such a large naval and air presence in the region gives Russia the unprecedented ability to choke off the West’s access to natural resources such as gas aind oil, something that Russia has shown a penchant for using against their adversaries in the past.
Russia’s agenda will be to safeguard and expand Russian bases, ensure Bashar Al Assad survives and to expand its operational footprint over Syria in order to mitigate American regional influence.
Putin’s allies on the ground: Iran, Hezbollah and Syria are giddy as schoolgirls, anticipating a tremendous display of righteous destruction. The net is electric with support. Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nisrallah, spent 3 hours on the terrorist al-Manar TV program extolling the newly arrived Russian weapon systems and shit talking the US regional impotence, calling Washington’s efforts in the area a “devastating failure”, adding, “The failure of America and the international coalition to bring defeat to Daesh was one of the reasons which called or pushed Russia to also come, and to get directly involved.”
The Russian land grab comes on the heels of the still emerging international embarrassment of the US military’s stinging loss of their second group of special trained “moderate” rebel forces. As of Friday, the fledgling group surrendered a major portion of their fighters and weapons to Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra Front moments after arriving in Syria. The first group of US trained fighters only made it a week in country before being compromised and hunted down by other “moderate” rebels, likely the same Al Nusra Front.
The truth is that there are no “moderate” rebel factions in Syria. Any moderates with means have fled. Islamic State, Daesh, continues to pillage the ungoverned (read:unprotected) areas of Iraq and Syria. As a result of the US allied bombing campaign, IS no longer parades targets of opportunity with newly acquired military hardware like before. It’s caused Daesh to shift tactics and avoid large, major battles. IS leadership has hunkered down in the security vacuum and either plans to melt away or is planning a cunning counter offensive. The most likely course of action is a comprehensive plan of smaller hit and run tactics on isolated Syrian government outposts, something the Russians look to counter.
Although largely viewed as ineffectual, the US air campaign accomplished the major tack of stemming the IS advance and fixing them regionally. However, without ground troops to coordinate precise targeting actions and clearing operations, the effort is at a stalemate. To eliminate Daesh, the US may need to work with Russia, at least to deconflict air operations. Conveniently, the Russians have moved headquarter elements into Baghdad, Iraq, perhaps in anticipation of such a relationship. The US will need to be mindful that alienated Iraqi Sunnis gave them hell in Iraq, prior to forming ISIS. Working exclusively with the Shi’a, Russians and Syrian Alawhite minorities to target Sunnis may not go over well with other Sunni alliance members, Saudia Arabia, GCC, Turkey and Iraqi moderates.
The entire Middle East is a proving ground for new military tech. US military commanders are concerned and have expressed their astonishment with how fast Russia has been able to close the technology gap. Decreased funding, years of hemorrhaging tech secrets to cyberattacks and lackluster engineering results have allowed China and Russia to nearly pull even with US capabilities. In certain categories, Russian capability may now exceed that of the US. They definitely have more nuclear weapons.
The US had no effective early warning that Russian fighter jets were on their way to Syria until they were spotted on the ground. Russian pilots were able to maneuver 24 attack jets in a tight formation with their cargo aircraft in order to mask the radar signature of the smaller craft with the size of the larger An-124. In order to maximize range, the smaller jets either re-fueled mid-flight or stopped over in Iran to re-fuel. Either way, the US was blind to such a large movement. Not an encouraging sign for our ability to provide early warning or detect imminent threats.
Europe should be concerned with this also, with several Russian airbases located so close to European borders and Putin’s demonstrated will and skill with huge denial and deception operations.
Overall, the effect Russia could have regionally in the Middle East will decrease any accomplishments the US intended. The deployment of Russian troops in Syria will end up helping Islamic State as Russian assets have been sent to areas where they are most likely to fight other groups opposed to IS, i.e. US backed Syrian rebels. This should be a major concern for any “friendly” elements the US might have on the ground. The principal disagreement the US has with Russia is Assad. The Russians see him as a part of the solution and the US see Bashar al Assad as the main problem.
Additionally, Israel needs to be concerned because it brings a better armed enemy force to its doorstep. Now that Russia is validating the Iranian forces and providing top cover for them, Hezbollah, Quds force and other anti-Israeli factions are now on the Israeli border. The likelihood that Israel will be able to continue bombing Syrian forces resupplying Hezbollah is in doubt now. Russia will likely be protecting those troops now. Which presents obvious problems for Israel and the US. The advanced surface to air missile systems and radar capabilities will prevent the Israeli air force from taking off undetected. Early Syrian and Iran warning from the Russians eliminate any Israeli surprise attack option.
One thing is for certain, Putin has been able to strengthen his position by diverting attention away from the bullying of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea while simultaneously embarrassing the US by saying “We have to go to Syria in order to fight terrorism because you can’t handle it on your own”.
The US is in a position of limited options: work with the new Putin coalition (joining with Iran, Syria and Russia), continue mission with what they have on hand(limited moderate rebel factions that truth be told hate democracy) and only de-conflicting as necessary, or reinvent their foreign policy and regional capacities. Cue the music, Putin’s coming to the party.
Handl Defense would like to thank Grey Cell for their contribution.