Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Mr. Putin's No-Fly Zone

From the earliest days of the Syrian conflict, the U.S. and its so-called "coalition partners" have debated creation of a no-fly zone over that war-torn country.  Years of discussions and trial balloons have led to...nothing.

Now, barely a week after his warplanes began combat missions over Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be on the verge of creating--you guessed it--a no-fly zone.  Russian jets have become increasingly aggressive as they patrol the country's skies, conduct bombing missions against forces opposing their ally, Syrian dictator Bashir Assad, and even intrude into the airspace of neighboring Turkey.

Officially, the Russians have only a handful of air-to-air capable jets at their base near Latakia, on the Mediterranean coast, but those six SU-30 Fullbacks have been busy.  By various accounts, they chased away a four-ship formation of Israeli F-15s over Latakia, and entered Turkey's airspace as well, locking onto a Turkish F-16 for a reported five minutes (emphasis ours).  Readers will note these claims have not been verified and read more like Russian propaganda than reliable reporting:

Six Russian fighter jets type Multirole Sukhoi SU – 30 SM have intercepted 4 Israeli McDonnell Douglas F-15’s fighter bombers attempting to infiltrate the Syrian coast. The Israeli F 15 warplanes have been flying over Syrian airspace for months and in particular the coast of Latakia, which is now the bridgehead of the Russian forces in Syria.

The Israeli jets would generally follow a fairly complex flight plan and approach Latakia from the sea.
On the night of 1 October 02, 2015, six Sukhoi SU-30 Russian SM fighters took off from the Syrian Hmimim airbase in the direction of Cyprus, before changing course and intercepting the four Israeli F-15 fighters off the coast of Syria, that were flying in attack formation.

Surprised by a situation as unexpected and probably not prepared for a dogfight with one of the best Russian multipurpose fighters, Israeli pilots have quickly turned back south at high speed over Lebanon.
The Lebanese army has officially announced at 2313 Z (local time) that four “enemy aircraft” (Israeli) had crossed the airspace of the Lebanon.

This ‘incident’ between the Russian and Israeli combat aircraft struck with amazement the command of the Israeli air force, which has estimated that a possible dogfight between F-15 Israelis and the Russian Su-30 would have led to the destruction of the four aircraft Israelis.

But another incident has been confirmed.  U.S. authorities report that Russian fighters--perhaps the same SU-30s--intercepted Predator drones over Syria on several occasions last week.  More from Fox News:

Russian fighter jets shadowed U.S. predator drones on at least three separate occasions high above Syria since the start of Russia’s air campaign last week, according to two U.S. officials briefed on this latest intelligence from the region.


U.S. officials tell Fox News the drone encounters took place over ISIS-controlled Syria, including its de facto headquarters in Raqqa, as well as along the Turkish-Syrian border near Korbani. Another occurred in the northwest, near the highly contested city of Aleppo.

“The first time it happened, we thought the Russians got lucky. Then it happened two more times,” said one official. 

The U.S. military's MQ-1 Predator drone is not a stealth aircraft.

"It is easy to see a predator on radar," said one official.

Well, maybe not as easy as the unnamed official suggests. U.S. drones flew over Iraq during much of the 1990s--when Saddam was still in power--and his Air Force had virtually no success tracking or intercepting our UAVs.  There is also evidence that American and Israeli drones have been active over Iran, and Tehran has tried to shoot them down, but their efforts have been equally futile.  

Moscow's ability to track and intercept American drones over Syria indicates that Russia has a very robust SIGINT capability in the region, utilizing ground, sea-based and (possibly) airborne platforms. The Russians obviously have the ability to "meld" such information with their air picture, allowing controllers to steer fighters towards adversary aircraft.  

Meanwhile, NATO is still smarting from that recent intercept of Turkish F-16s inside that country's airspace by Russian-made MiG-29 Fulcrums, probably operated by the Syrian Air Force.  According to multiple reports, the Fulcrums "locked up" an F-16 for more than five minutes with its air intercept radar.  That account suggests that the Turkish jets were turning away from the threat as the MiG-29s gave chase.  Locking onto another aircraft with a fighter's AI radar is considered an act of war.  It is virtually unheard of for a warplane to maintain radar lock for that length of time.  Ask a fighter pilot to describe someone who is locked on for that long, and he (or she) will probably use one word: dead.  But the MiG-29s did not open fire, though the incident has further exacerbated tensions in the region. 

These episodes are anything but a coincidence.  Putin is clearly spoiling for a fighter, hoping to create an incident that would cause the U.S. and its allies to cease operations over Syria, while highlighting the capabilities of his own forces.  At this juncture, the Russians seem to have free reign in the skies; earlier today, a Pentagon spokesman announced that U.S. aircraft were rerouted in Syrian airspace, to avoid a nearby formation of Russian jets.  

And there's one more element that Moscow may use to reinforce a potential no-fly zone.  Eleven days ago, Russian TV released video of the cruiser Moskva leaving its Black Sea port, enroute to the Mediterranean, and most likely, a port call at the naval base in Tartus.  The Moskva carries the SA-N-6, the naval version of the SA-10 surface-to-air missile system.  

From positions in port or off the Syrian coast, the Moskva could engage targets at ranges up to 200 miles, covering a good portion of southwestern Turkey, western Syria, all of Lebanon and northern Israel.  How will the U.S. or Israel respond when the Moskva locks up one of our aircraft, or shoots down a drone?  We may soon find out.     


Strategika 51: Six Russian fighter jets type Multirole Sukhoi SU - 30 SM have intercepted 4 Israeli McDonnell Douglas F-15's fighter bombers attempting to infiltrate the Syrian coast.The Israeli F 15 warplanes have been flying over Syrian airspace for months and in particular the coast of Latakia, which is now the bridgehead of the Russian forces in Syria.
The Israeli jets would generally follow a fairly complex flight plan and approach Latakia from the sea

On the night of 1 October 02, 2015, six Sukhoi SU-30 Russian SM fighters took off from the Syrian Hmimim airbase in the direction of Cyprus, before changing course and intercepting the four Israeli F-15 fighters off the coast of Syria, that were flying in attack formation.

Surprised by a situation as unexpected and probably not prepared for a dogfight with one of the best Russian multipurpose fighters, Israeli pilots have quickly turned back South at high speed over the Lebanon.

The Lebanese army has officially announced at 2313 Z (local time) that four "enemy aircraft" (Israeli) had crossed the airspace of the Lebanon.

This 'incident' between the Russian and Israeli combat aircraft struck with amazement the command of the Israeli air force, which has estimated that a possible dogfight between F-15 Israelis and the Russian Su-30 would have led to the destruction of the four aircraft Israelis.
- See more at:
Strategika 51: Six Russian fighter jets type Multirole Sukhoi SU - 30 SM have intercepted 4 Israeli McDonnell Douglas F-15's fighter bombers attempting to infiltrate the Syrian coast.The Israeli F 15 warplanes have been flying over Syrian airspace for months and in particular the coast of Latakia, which is now the bridgehead of the Russian forces in Syria.
The Israeli jets would generally follow a fairly complex flight plan and approach Latakia from the sea

On the night of 1 October 02, 2015, six Sukhoi SU-30 Russian SM fighters took off from the Syrian Hmimim airbase in the direction of Cyprus, before changing course and intercepting the four Israeli F-15 fighters off the coast of Syria, that were flying in attack formation.

Surprised by a situation as unexpected and probably not prepared for a dogfight with one of the best Russian multipurpose fighters, Israeli pilots have quickly turned back South at high speed over the Lebanon.

The Lebanese army has officially announced at 2313 Z (local time) that four "enemy aircraft" (Israeli) had crossed the airspace of the Lebanon.

This 'incident' between the Russian and Israeli combat aircraft struck with amazement the command of the Israeli air force, which has estimated that a possible dogfight between F-15 Israelis and the Russian Su-30 would have led to the destruction of the four aircraft Israelis.
- See more at:


Saturday, October 03, 2015

Collateral Damage

The Pentagon has launched a formal investigation into an accidental strike on a Doctors Without Borders medical facility in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz.

A spokesman for the international charity said that twelve staff members and seven patients--including three children--were killed in a "sustained" bombing attack on the complex that began early Saturday morning and reportedly continued for more than 20 minutes.   Doctors Without Borders claims that the location of their facility had been provided to both sides in the Afghan conflict as recently as Tuesday of last week, to prevent a possible attack.

This much we know: Afghan Army troops, supported by U.S. special forces and airpower, have been attempting to dislodge terrorists from Kunduz, which was captured by Taliban forces last week.  Areas around the hospital were still in Taliban control late Friday night (and engaging coalition forces), prompting a call for air support.  An AC-130 gunship was dispatched to the scene and may have been the aircraft that mistakenly struck the medical complex on Saturday morning.   Taliban fighters were being treated at the hospital at the time of the attack; Doctors Without Borders provides treatment to personnel from both sides, along with civilians caught in the cross-fire.

But here's what we don't know, and answers these questions will go a long way in determining what happened.  First, no one has confirmed that the Doctors Without Borders facility was displaying the Red Cross, Red Crescent or other symbol used by protected facilities.  Hospitals in war zones typically show one of those symbols to prevent inadvertent attacks.
However, those symbols are sometimes deliberately misused to protect ammo dumps, command and control sites and other military facilities.  The Palestinian Authority has a long history of hiding military assets inside medical buildings and cultural landmarks that are normally protected from attack.  Such violations of the laws of armed conflict further complicate the targeting process.

Enemies like the Taliban (and others) also have a history of operating inside or adjacent to protected facilities, hoping to create collateral damage incidents.  At this point, it's unclear if the Taliban was firing on Afghan troops and U.S. special forces from inside the compound, but it is certainly a possibility.

The AC-130 carriers a variety of sensors to help it identify and strike ground targets, including low-light TV and IR.  It's a safe bet the investigation team will take an early look at what those sensors captured, before and during the engagement.  And if the data confirms the Taliban caused the attack on the hospital, the military should quickly release the video or FLIR footage and show how enemy actions led to the tragedy.

Unfortunately, investigations of this type take time--usually months--to complete.  By that time, the incident will have been largely forgotten by the global media, which will use the ensuring weeks to set the coverage template.   

Friday, October 02, 2015

Coming Home

Borrowing a phrase from Jeremiah Wright, it looks like President Obama's foreign policy chickens have come home to roost.

We'll start with the ugliest rooster in the bunch, our debacle in Syria.  As of this writing, the Russian Air Force is two days into a bombing campaign against "terrorist" targets, in support Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad.  According to satellite imagery, there are more than two dozen Russian warplanes at an airfield in Latakia, near the Mediterranean Coast; the jets began arriving there two weeks ago and initiated combat operations this week:

Russian SU-30 Flanker multi-role fighters (left) and SU-25 Frogfoot ground attack aircraft on the ground in Syria.  These assets are now flying ground attack missions in support of Moscow's objectives in the region (AllSource Analysis imagery via ABC News)

Of course, it's bad enough that Mr. Obama's dawdling--and sheer incompetence--have created a power vacuum that Vladimir Putin was happy to fill.  But the Russian leader added insult to injury by targeting U.S.-supported "moderate" rebels in the first missions flown by his aircraft.  That put the President in a rather embarrassing position; after initially telling Russia's military to stay out of the conflict, Mr. Obama's national security team had to scramble and develop a plan for "de-conflicting" operations between U.S. and Russia aircraft.  At last report, those talks are still on-going, and until some sort of agreement is reached, there is the possibility of an engagement between American fighter jets and their Russian counterparts.

Making matters worse, Russia issued its own ultimatum to Washington just before its air campaign began.  A Russian general delivered the message: American aircraft were to depart Syrian airspace immediately and remain outside the country's borders.  Of course, the U.S. ignored Moscow's directive, but the directive underscored the contempt Mr. Putin has for President Obama and the United States.

Meanwhile, the smart boys and girls at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department have another Syria-related problem on their hands: what to do about Russian airstrikes against our erstwhile allies on the ground?  According to media reports, discussions are underway about possibly creating a "no-fly zone" over areas occupied by U.S.-supported rebels. 

Presumably, that area would be very small, given the wholesale failure of American efforts to vet, train and equip moderates to fight against ISIS.  The Associated Press estimates that about 80 U.S.-trained fighters are currently battling terrorist elements in Syria, after an investment of more than $500 million. And late last month, Reuters reported that one group of American-backed rebels gave a portion of their equipment to the Al Qaida-affiliated Al Nusra Front, in exchange for safe passage.  

That disturbing development eliminates another option for protecting the rebels, by equipping them with advanced, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.  Obviously, if our carefully trained and vetted rebels are willing to hand over tons of equipment (including six new pick-up trucks), they'd have no qualms about surrendering MANPAD SAMs to their buddies in Al Qaida, which would use the weapons against U.S. warplanes operating over Syria (and elsewhere).

But the real concerns lie with those Russian jets at Latakia.  ISIS doesn't have an air force, but Moscow's airpower contingent includes at least four SU-30 Flankers which have excellent air-to-air and ground attack capabilities.  Why send the Flankers--roughly equivalent to a U.S. F-15E--if Putin wasn't preparing for all eventualities, including a potential dogfight with coalition aircraft.

And make no mistake: the Russian dictator isn't backing away from that contingency.  If Moscow were truly interested in coordinating the air campaign, they would provide a list of missions, callsigns, targets and IFF "squawks" that could be incorporated into an overall air tasking order, and directed by AWACS.  But Mr. Putin has a different agenda at work in Syria and partnering with the allied coalition is somewhere near the bottom of his priority list.

In fact, the Russians would like to inflict some sort of humiliation on western air assets.  Along with bailing out the Assad regime; protecting Iran's western flank, and extending Russian influence to the Persian Gulf and Red Sea (among other objectives), Mr. Putin wants to drive the U.S. out of the region and sell some military hardware to boot.  If a Russian pilot "accidentally" shot down an American jet-- or one belonging to our partners--the Kremlin won't lose much sleep, figuring correctly that Mr. Obama will never hold them accountable.

That's the price you pay for empty threats, endless vacillation and leading from behind.  Putin, the former KGB Colonel, has rightly sized up his adversary in Washington and finds him weak, feckless and incompetent.  It's an ideal environment for advancing Russia's aims, and Mr. Putin plans to take full advantage of the situation.  Having been largely banished from the key states of the Middle East over the past 30 years, Russia now finds itself as the new king-maker, supporting friends and allies and taking the fight to the terrorists while the U.S. slinks from the regional stage.                    

It is a positively stunning and frightening turn of events.  What's worse, some in the GOP see nothing wrong with this changing of the guard.  In a recent interview with CNN, Republican front runner Donald Tump seemed quite content to let Putin take on the Syrian problem.  In fairness, he has a point; our current Syria policy is an absolute disaster, and it makes little sense to continue programs that aren't working.

But Mr. Trump is missing the bigger picture.  Someone ought to ask him about the ramifications of a new Russian sphere of influence, extending southward into the Persian Gulf, across Iraq (which has grown closer to Moscow and Tehran in recent weeks) and westward through the Black Sea into the eastern Mediterranean.  With that move, the Russians gain access to even greater energy reserves, allowing them to increase their leverage with western Europe, and at some point, potentially fracture NATO.

Sadly, all of this might have been prevented, by following the recommendations of our generals in Iraq; avoiding encouragement of the Arab Spring, with no regard for the forces behind it and their long-term consequences, and pursuing coherent strategies in places like Libya and Syria.  Instead, Barack Obama has made a total hash of the region; Vladimir Putin is moving in and a man who wants to be the next President sees little wrong with that tectonic shift.                     


Monday, September 28, 2015

How and Why

You can count Hillary Clinton among the politicians who are glad that Pope Francis is visiting the U.S. this week.  And we're guessing that her "joy" has little to do with the Pontiff's presence on American soil, or his stated support for such liberal causes as immigration reform and climate change.

No, we're guessing that Hillary's happiness is rooted in the saturation, non-stop coverage of the papal visit.  With the news media--and public--so focused on the Pope, relatively little attention has been paid to the latest bombshell in the Clinton e-mail scandal.

Turns out that efforts to "wipe" her private server (you mean with a cloth?) may have been in vain.  According to Bloomberg, The New York Times and Fox News, FBI experts have been able to recover both personal and business-related e-mails from Hillary's homebrew server, messages that supposedly deleted, according to the former Secretary of State and her advisers.  As FNC reported:

"It was not immediately clear whether all 30,000 messages Clinton said she had deleted from the server had been recovered, but one official told the Times that it had not been difficult to recover the emails that had been found so far.

The FBI is investigating whether classified information that passed through Clinton's so-called "homebrew" server during her time as secretary of state was mishandled. Clinton turned over approximately 30,000 copies of messages she deemed work-related to the State Department this past December. Clinton said earlier this year that the emails she deleted from the private server she kept at her Chappaqua, N.Y., home mostly pertained to personal matters such as her daughter Chelsea’s wedding and the secretary’s yoga routines.

An intelligence source told Fox News earlier this month that investigators were "confident" they could recover the deleted records. The source said that whoever had been deputized to scrub the server must "not be a very good IT guy.  There are different standards to scrub when you do it for government versus commercial."

In many respects, this latest revelation represents a nightmare scenario for Mrs. Clinton.  While she claims all of the deleted e-mails were personal in nature, the latest leak from inside the FBI has demolished that flimsy excuse.  And given the bureau's superb capabilities in computer forensics, there's a good chance that most--if not all--of the "missing" e-mails may be recovered.  That means the files that Mrs. Clinton tried so hard to protect (and eliminate) may soon be a part of the public record.

From Josh Gerstein and Rachel Bade at Politico:

"..Hillary Clinton's decision to have a tech firm she hired turn the server over to the FBI last month at its request greatly raises the potential that messages she has claimed to be private will eventually make it into the public domain, lawyers tracking the case said. Clinton has said that she had tens of thousands of emails deleted after determining that they contained personal information, but now the FBI appears to have at least some of those in its possession. 

“This is enormously significant,” said Dan Metcalfe, a former top Justice Department official handling disclosure issues. “It’s one thing for the bureau to have taken control of the server itself, and when you add to that their technical capabilities to glean information from it, if there is information there that transcends what [Clinton] furnished to State, I think the odds are exceedingly high that that at least some if not all of that information will ultimately enter the public domain.”

Of course, we officially don't know what manner of correspondence may eventually see the light of day, but you don't need to be an FBI agent to follow the money trail.  As in Bill collecting big bucks for speeches around the globe (and offering favors), which Hillary delivered as Secretary of State, or would deliver as a future president.  Any documentation of that type of arrangement would spell doom for her political prospects and place her in even greater legal jeopardy. 

However, the Clintons won't go down without a fight.  During a Sunday morning interview, Hillary claimed she has been as "transparent as possible" about her e-mails, a claim that is not only demonstrably false, but downright laughable.  Meanwhile, Bill is trotting out the vast, right-wing conspiracy" card, blaming Republicans for extending the crisis.  Borrowing a phrase from Bob Kerry, not only are the Clintons exceptionally skilled liars, they are equally predictable in their deception.  Faced with scandal yet again, they simply revert back to the Lewinsky playbook, and utter the same, focus-group tested lines, reinforced by the usual crew of toadies and sycophants. 

Meanwhile, the FBI is reportedly focusing on how classified information wound up on Hillary's private e-mail network.  We're guessing the bureau already knows the answer to that one; files were either uploaded to the system, or various users of the system simply copied sensitive data from reports into their e-mails, minus the classification markings.  

We've long favored that latter scenario, for two reasons.  First, the classified data almost certainly originated on networks set up to handle that type of information, specifically SIPRNET (for secret-level information) and JWICS, for material at the TS/SCI level.  In the wake of the Manning and Snowden scandals, the government has made it extremely difficult to upload or download files from those systems.  In many cases, moving a document from SIPRNET to JWICS requires the assistance of a network administrator and must be approved in advance.  

On the other hand, it would be very easy for Mrs. Clinton (or a member of her cabal) to simply look at a classified report and then summarize the important findings in an e-mail, created and disseminated on the private, unsecure network.  Ask anyone who has held a clearance and worked with classified data and they will tell you: such practices are unpardonable sins, deserving of prosecution and punishment to the full letter of the law.  The fact that the former SecState (and her senior aides) held clearances for years--and deliberately chose to place classified information on an open network--gives you some idea of the contempt they hold for the nation's secrets and our laws.  

And why not?  The final decision on a potential prosecution of Hillary Clinton and her aides rests with political appointees at the Obama Justice Department.        

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Send in the Marines

A computer-generated image of the HMS Queen Elizabeth leaving Portsmouth harbor.  The Royal Navy has announced that USMC F-35s will be the first attack jets to operate from the new carrier, while British squadrons attain initial operational capability (IOC) with the aircraft (BAE Systems image via UK Telegraph) 

Suppose you have a brand-new aircraft carrier, but the jets that will operate from that ship won't be available in sufficient quantities for another five years.  How do you utilize that platform to its full capabilities in the interim, without its primary strike asset?

For Britain's Royal Navy, that is the near-term challenge: their new fleet carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth, is in the final stages of construction and will begin sea trials next summer, with initial flight training in 2017-2018.  But with the RN's first F-35 squadrons not scheduled to achieve their initial operating capability until 2020 (at the earliest), the Brits are looking for aircraft that can embark earlier and provide a combat punch before their own Lightning IIs are ready for action.

The solution is a lesson in creativity and coalition warfare.  According to the U.S. Naval Institute, the RN has reached agreement with the U.S. Marine Corps to deploy F-35 squadrons on the Queen Elizabeth until British units achieve their IOC in the jet:

The U.S. Marine Corps will deploy its Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II strike fighters on combat sorties from Britain’s new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, a senior U.K. Royal Navy officer has confirmed.

Rear Adm. Keith Blount, who is responsible for delivering the two 65,000 ton ships, said that using Marine aircraft and pilots to bolster the U.K.’s nascent carrier strike capability would be a natural extension of coalition doctrine.

“We are forever operating with allies and within coalitions. It’s the way wars are fought”, the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff (Aviation, Amphibious Capability and Carriers) and Rear Adm. Fleet Air Arm told an audience at the DSEI defence exhibition in London on Wednesday.

“In order to get the best out of [the U.K. carrier program] we have to be able to situate it in a coalition context. That could mean that we operate with an American ship as one of the protecting escorts”, Blount said.

“But … given the fact that the U.S. Marine Corps are buying and will operate the same type of aircraft as we are buying and operating, it would make no sense whatsoever if we were to close down the opportunity and potential of the U.S. Marine Corps working from this flight deck.
“So yes, I expect the U.S. Marine Corps to operate and work from the deck of the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier. We are going to get the most bang for the buck we can for the U.K. taxpayer, and that’s one of the ways in which we’ll achieve it.”

A Marine Corps fighter attack squadron (VMFA-121) became the first unit to achieve an initial operating capability with the F-35B in late July; the squadron--based at MCAS Yuma, Arizona, currently has 10 Lightning IIs available for worldwide deployment, and might be an early candidate for for a visit to the RN's new carrier.  Two other Yuma-based squadrons are scheduled to convert to the F-35 by 2018.  

While British pilots and ground crews are currently training on the Lightning II in the U.S., the first UK-based squadrons won't begin forming until 2018.  Without the Marine presence, the Queen Elizabeth would be little more than an over-sized helicopter carrier for a couple of years, until the RN's first F-35 squadrons become fully operational.  

The interim combination could also provide a little more punch in places like the Persian Gulf and the Baltics, where the down-sized U.S. Navy is already stretched thin.  As we've noted previously, the American fleet suffered a "carrier gap" in the western Pacific this summer, and for the first time in recent memory, there will not be a U.S. carrier operating this fall in the Persian Gulf.  While the Queen Elizabeth is about two-thirds the size of a Nimitz-class carrier (and can embark no more than three dozen F-35s), it could be a useful gap-filler, or extend the coalition presence into areas where U.S. carrier groups aren't patrolling.  

At one point, the British government contemplated scrapping the ski ramp/VSTOL aircraft combination for the Queen Elizabeth and its sister ship, the Prince of Wales (still under construction).  Switching to a catapult/arresting gear system for launch and recovery would have allowed the UK to buy a more capable version of the F-35.  But adding the catapults, arresting gear and related hardware would have stretched construction times and increased costs.  With the Marine Corps already at IOC with the F-35B--and capable of operating from a ski-ramp carrier--the notion of embarking USMC squadrons on the Queen Elizabeth makes a great deal of sense.           



Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Securing the Flank

Fresh from his Lord Halifax moment with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry wants to talk with Russia about its military build-up in Syria.

Seems that Mr. Kerry, along with the rest of Team Obama, is perplexed over Moscow's deployment of more troops and military hardware to bolster the faltering regime of Syrian Dictator Bashir Al-Asad.  In recent weeks, the Russians have dispatched hundreds of troops, along with tanks, support equipment, portable shelters and other items to Syria.

While there have been some reports of Russian advisers fighting alongside Assad's troops, much of Putin's efforts have been focused on bolstering (and protecting) the naval base at Lattakia, a long-time Russian hub on the Mediterranean.  Intelligence and press accounts suggest the installation is getting a major upgrade; Russian military engineers are currently building an airfield at Lattakia, allowing Moscow to establish an even greater presence in the region.

As Lee Smith writes at The Weekly Standard, this latest push by Mr. Putin is hardly surprising--given his astute take on Obama's disastrous foreign policy:

"Putin is making his move in Syria now, says Tony Badran, research fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “because he understands not only that Obama would never intervene militarily in Syria, but also because the [deal with Iran] means that the White House wouldn’t challenge Iranian, and by extension Russian, holdings in the region. Moreover, Putin saw that Obama continued to disregard the concerns of his traditional allies, both on the Iranian nuclear program and Syria, when they sought a more active policy to bring down Assad.    

Putin read the tea leaves and apparently concluded that no matter how much he and Obama disliked each other, they were in agreement on one big thing: The Middle East’s traditional security architecture is a problem. Putin doesn’t like it because it’s the legacy of an order in the region upheld by America. Obama sees it similarly—it costs the United States too much, and we need to minimize the American footprint in the region. As the White House has said, other stakeholders need to pitch in and do their share. So Moscow is stepping up. Pity all those poor Russian mothers whose boys are going to be going home in body bags, but if Putin wants the job of Syria foreman, Obama all but offered him the post. The way the White House sees it, Putin is now doing the heavy lifting in the “new geopolitical equilibrium.”

From the perspective of the Russian president, his combat losses won't be in vain.  He is re-establishing Moscow's presence in the eastern Mediterranean, giving him a perfect pressure point to exert more influence in western Europe.  If the French and Germans want more natural gas from Russia--and fewer "refugees" from war-torn Syria and points beyond--they will have to play ball with Mr. Putin.  

Mr. Smith argues that Russia's latest adventure in Syria is actually a dress rehearsal for the biggest regional prize of all: the Persian Gulf.  Iran, of course, is already aligned with Moscow and Putin may offer his military hardware (and protection) to countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, who have long been allied with the United States.  With Washington retreating from the region, those nations may decide to throw in with Putin, who is presenting Russia as a much more reliable ally.  

That's why we shouldn't expect too much from Mr. Kerry's talks with his Russian counterpart--if they actually occur.  Determined to protect the Iranian nuclear deal at all costs, President Obama seems quite content with the changing order in the Middle East.  Secretary Kerry may bluster a bit for public consumption--or send a sharply worded diplomatic note--but Moscow won't pay any price for its latest gambit.  Meanwhile, Russian troops and military equipment will keep pouring into Syria, ensuring that Lattakia remains secure and helping Assad maintain a corridor from Damascus to the Mediterranean.  

Mr. Putin has one more reason for strengthening his position in Syria, and it will play out quietly over the weeks ahead.  Analysts are already watching for signs of an S-300 deployment to Lattakia, or other hubs supporting the Russian deployment.  

Why would Moscow need an advanced air defense system, since ISIS doesn't have an Air Force?  The answer lies not in Damascus, but to the east.  By positioning S-300 batteries at permissive locations across Syria, Putin will greatly complicate Israeli planning for a potential strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.  

Many military observers have long speculated the IAF would send strike packages across Syria and southern Turkey to reach Iran, following air corridors normally used by commercial aircraft. With the S-300 (and more Russian intel assets) in Syria, the Syria/Turkey route just became much more problematic.  And with the system's extended range, a route across Jordan and Iraq would also prove more difficult.  With limited air refueling assets (the IAF has only seven KC-707 tankers), any increase in flight time/distance to avoid potential threats means a smaller strike package and fewer bombs on target.  

Securing the northern flight corridors to Iran was not a primary consideration when Putin executed his latest military move.  But with American leadership all-but-gone in the region, he will maximize his opportunities--and his leverage in Tehran will only grow.                           

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Moscow Moves In

Between wind-surfing sessions and waiting for his Nobel Peace Prize, Secretary of State John Kerry took time over the weekend to chat with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergy Lavrov.   The topic of conversation was Moscow's heightened military presence in Syria.

Like the proverbial blind hog that stumbles across an acorn, Mr. Kerry (along with the rest of the Obama foreign policy team) have suddenly realized that Vladimir Putin is significantly increasing military support for the government of Bashir Assad.  While Moscow has been training and providing logistical assistance for Assad's army for many years, Putin's support appears to be entering a new phase, with recent reports of Russian troops fighting alongside Syrian forces; the delivery of additional equipment and supplies, and claims that Moscow is preparing an airfield to serve as an operations hub in Syria.

From the U.K. Telegraph:

Russian troops are fighting alongside pro-Assad forces in Syria, state television in Damascus and several reports have claimed. 

The video footage claimed to show troops and a Russian armoured vehicle fighting Syrian rebels alongside President Bashar al-Assad's troops in Latakia. 

It is reportedly possible to hear Russian being spoken by the troops in the footage. 

In further indications of Russian "mission creep" in Syria, a Twitter account linked to Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, published images of what appeared to be Russian planes and drones flying over Idlib. 


Russian drones over Syria last week (photo posted at Twitter account linked to Syria Al Qaida affiliate and published by U.K. Telegraph)

Why the sudden escalation by Putin?  There are several factors at work.  First, the war continues to go badly for Bashar al-Assad; as ISIS steadily gains ground, Mr. Putin and his military advisers may have decided they had no choice but direct intervention, otherwise, the Syrian regime would face near-term collapse, giving terrorists full control of the country and its military resources.

Moscow may also be concerned about Assad's weakened grip on weapons of mass destruction within his arsenal, specifically, chemical and biological rounds.  There have been several chemical attacks by ISIS forces in recent weeks; on-line postings from various terror groups suggest the weapons came from Syria's military stockpile.  The introduction of Russian troops could improve security of Assad's remaining assets.   

But Moscow may have another strategy in mind, with regard to Syrian WMD.  Russia currently holds the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council and it has delayed efforts to assign blame for chemical attacks in Syria.  Putin's decision to stonewall the inquiry may reflect efforts to hide the responsibility for recent attacks, particularly if Russian advisers and combat forces played any role in carrying out those strikes.

Another possibility?  Assad is planning a heightened chemical warfare campaign against insurgents, and will utilize Moscow's technical expertise to carry it out.  If more chemical attacks are in the offing, Putin certainly doesn't want UN inspectors nosing around the countryside, or debating responsibility at hearings in New York or Geneva.  However, the timeline for that sort of strategy is very limited, since Russia will hold the Security Council presidency for only one month, before handing it off to Spain in October.

Russia will also gain brownie points among allies (and potential allies) in the region by stepping up to defend a client state.  While the U.S. makes--and breaks--promises, Vladimir Putin looks like a man of his word, something that isn't lost on other countries looking for support against ISIS.  So far, he hasn't committed enough forces to make a difference militarily, but the Russian leader understands the power of symbolism and its importance in the Middle East.  Against the backdrop of a U.S. retreat in the region, even a token deployment by Moscow projects an image of power and strength.

The Syria expedition can also serve other purposes.  As Moscow's military presence grows, it would not be surprising to see a deployment of the S-300 air defense system, ostensibly to protect Russian forces from ISIS drone strikes, or attacks by captured Syrian military aircraft.  Never mind the terror group's capabilities in these areas are virtually non-existent; the manufactured "threat" will allow Moscow to extend protection for Iran's nuclear facilities to the edge of Israeli airspace, greatly complicating any potential strike by the IAF.  It has long been postulated that Israeli fighters would cross Lebanon and southern Turkey to reach Iran; the presence of S-300 batteries in northern Syria might force the Israelis to abandon that route, forcing them to fly across Jordan and Saudi Arabia, or take a long, over-water route across the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and into the Persian Gulf.

In any event, Putin has once again out-maneuvered the U.S., at minimum cost.  He has accurately assessed the weakness and fecklessness of the current administration and is prepared to maximize his opportunities over the last 500 days of Obama's Presidency.  It would be nice to say our Commander-in-Chief has some sort of counter-strategy, but he doesn't.  Barack Obama helped make a hash of Syria and now he simply doesn't care.  There's a library to build and more rounds of golf, far more pleasant tasks for his last 16 months in the Oval Office.