In the words of Secretary of State John Kerry, "It is the judgment of our military and experts that the level and type represents basically force protection."
Kerry's comments are in line with pronouncements made by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, claiming that the deployment of over three squadrons of combat aircraft and hundreds of naval infantry troops was "defensive in nature" and there to protect the joint Russian-Syrian naval facility in the port city of Tartus.
The naval facility the Russian forces are ostensibly protecting is 30 miles south of the Humaymim air base near Latakia that the Russians now occupy. I understand why the aircraft are at the air base, but the troops should be at the naval base.
I am not sure who is being more disingenuous, Kerry or Shoygu. I understand Shoygu making the statement, but why is Kerry accepting his explanation? The force package that the Russians have deployed to Syria goes far beyond "force protection." The various vehicles and weapons systems provide not only the capability to defend the air base south of Latakia and the naval facility at Tartus, but the capability to launch offensive operations as well.
It is this offensive capability that has analysts concerned. There are three types of fixed wing aircraft in addition to Mi-24 (NATO: HIND) helicopter gunships deployed to Humaymim. The fixed wing aircraft include four Sukhoi SU-30SM (NATO: FLANKER C) multirole fighters, 12 SU-25 (NATO: FROGFOOT) ground attack/close air support fighters, and 12 SU-24 (NATO: FENCER) tactical interdiction fighter-bombers.
A closer look at this force package belies the "force protection" description accepted by Secretary Kerry. The SU-30SM is considered a 4th-plus generation fighter-bomber - it is one of the newer aircraft in the Russian inventory and is on par with American aircraft like the U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle and the U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet.
The SU-30SM has the ability to act as a command-and-control platform for a group of aircraft - it is likely for this capability the Russians deployed four of these aircraft to Syria. They will be used to guide and support the SU-24 and SU-25 fighters should they be tasked to conduct air strikes.
The SU-24 is an attack/tactical interdiction fighter bomber - the Syrian Air Force uses these aircraft extensively against both ISIS and rebel targets. The aircraft is similar to the now-retired U.S. Air Force F-111 Aardvark. It has only a nominal defensive role - it was built to strike targets deep inside enemy territory, not defend friendly formations or conduct close air support. Calling the SU-24 a "force protection" weapon is a bit of a stretch.
The SU-25 is a close air support aircraft akin to the U.S. Air Force A-10 Thuderbolt II (more commonly called the Warthog). You could make the case that the aircraft has a force protection role - it, along with the MI-24 helicopter gunships, could provide defensive air support if Russian positions came under attack.
The coastal areas of Latakia (including Jablah where the Humaymim base is located) and Tartus thus far have not seen any fighting, although the rebel groups, including those allied with the al-Qa'idah affiliate in Syria - Jabhat al-Nusrah (The Victory Front) have indicated a desire to take the fight to the 'Alawi homeland. President Bashar al-Asad and most of his senior civilian and military leadership are members of the quasi-Shi'a 'Alawi sect of Islam.
There has been some notable activity by the Russian task force since the defense chiefs of Russia and the United States had their conversation in which Minister Shoygu claimed that the Russian deployment is defensive in nature. Almost immediately after the deployment of the fighter aircraft to Syria, the Russians began manned and unmanned flights over Idlib province.
Flights over Idlib is interesting since one of the stated reasons behind the Russians military deployment to Syria is the threat posed by the Islamic State (also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) to Syria and Russia. Idlib is not controlled by ISIS, but rather by the rebel groups that pose the most serious threat to al-Asad regime military and militia forces. In the past few month, a coalition of rebel groups, many of them Islamist, have routed the Syrian Army from most of Idlib province.
I think we can assume that the Russians have gone far afield of what would be legitimate "force protection" for their naval facility at Tartus. The force package that has been deployed possesses sufficient combat power to commence offensive operations against either ISIS or the various rebel groups and tactical coalitions arrayed against the Syrian regime. The U.S.-led coalition has been conducting operations against ISIS targets in Syria (and Iraq) for over a year. The anemic nature of that campaign no doubt led to the Russian decision.
That said, it appears to me that we may have another what I will call the "Turkish conundrum" on our hands. The Turks agreed to allow the United States and its coalition partners the use of several Turkish air bases just north of the Syrian border - drastically reducing flight time to ISIS targets in both Syria and Iraq. The Turks also committed to conduct airstrikes against ISIS targets.
However, an overwhelming majority of Turkish air strikes have concentrated on facilities of the Kurdish Workers Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK; the PKK has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and other countries. Not complaining about the Turkish operations appears to be the price paid by the United States for access to the Turkish air bases.
The Russians have claimed they are in Syria to address the threat posed by ISIS. Yet, it appears from their initial reconnaissance and familiarization flights that they are actually there to prop up the failing al-Asad regime. They may actually do both, which presents us with yet another awkward situation.
The Russians have joined the Iranians, Iraqis and Syrians in the formation of an anti-ISIS coordination and intelligence exchange center in Baghdad. While this is a prudent step, it excludes the U.S.-led coalition, although coalition operations information exchanged with the Iraqis no doubt will find it way to the "other coalition."
It should come as no surprise that the Russians are in Syria to protect Russian interests, primarily continued access to the Mediterranean. That access is a vital interest to Russia - they need the al-Asad regime to survive. That is the tactical mission in furtherance of a strategic policy objective. While Secretary Kerry and Secretary Carter might accept the fiction that this is "basically force protection" - I don't.
I suspect we will see Russian air attacks against anti-regime rebels in the near future.