September 30, 2015

Russian airstrikes in Syria - the coming confrontation with the United States

Still from video taken near Hamah of suspected Russian SU-24 fighter-bombers

As predicted, the Russian Air Force fighter-bombers which recently deployed to Syria have conducted their first airstrikes against targets near the cities of Homs and Hamah. While the Russians have claimed that their deployment of over three squadrons of fighter/fighter-bomber aircraft and helicopter gunships to Syria is to join the fight against the Islamic State (also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), the targets struck by the Russians today belie that claim.

According to U.S. officials, the targets were anti-regime rebel positions. While there are some ISIS positions in the area near the central western cities of Homs and Hamah, none of the areas targeted by the Russians appear to be in areas controlled by ISIS. These areas are, however, strongholds of various anti-regime rebel groups, some of which are supported by the United States, including the Free Syrian Army.

The Russians' primary objective of their deployment to Syria is to prop up the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. The survival of the regime will guarantee the Russians continued access to Syrian military facilities - specifically the joint Syrian-Russian port facility at Tartus and now the Humaymim Air Base base at Jablah, just south of the port city of Latakia. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union over two decades ago, the Russians have had only sporadic access to Mediterranean port facilities for its naval forces.

The Russians continue to increase the capabilities of their expeditionary force in Syria. On September 29, six of the Russian Air Force's newest and most capable fighter-bombers, the Sukhoi SU-34 (NATO: FULLBACK), deployed to Humaymim air base south of the port city of Latakia, joining the 28 fighters and fighter-bombers already present at the base. There is also a report of reconnaissance sorties by Russian Air Force IL-20 (NATO: COOT A) aircraft over the Homs area.

The above photograph was posted on the semi-official Encyclopedia of Syrian Military Facebook page. The caption reads: First documented photograph of the presence of a Sukhoi-34 bomber at the Russian base at Humaymim airport in Latakia .. it is considered one of the modern bombers in the Russian Air Force.

As of today, we have Russian Air Force combat aircraft engaged in operations in Syrian airspace. Add the Russians to the already complex situation in which Syrian, American, Turkish, French, Jordanian and several Gulf Arab States, and likely soon to be British combat aircraft are conducting operations.

This many air forces operating so many aircraft in the same relatively confined airspace is a recipe for disaster. One small error or misjudgment at supersonic speeds could easily spiral into an armed confrontation between Russian and Syrian aircraft on one side and aircraft of the U.S.-led coalition on the other. Incidents involving fighter or fighter-bomber aircraft tend to end in fatalities.

Both the United States and the Russian Federation understand the dangers inherent in the current situation. The Russians' rather ham-handed attempt to preclude an incident on their first day of airstrikes - delivering a demarche to the American Defense Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad - indicates that they realize that having American and Russian fighter aircraft in close proximity without some deconfliction protocol in place is dangerous.

I applaud the American government response to the Russians - the Russians were told that the United States will continue to conduct operations over Syria (and Iraq) as it sees fit, and did just that. This is especially important if the Russians are not attacking ISIS targets, but anti-regime rebels.

It appears that what the Russians are doing is similar to the what the Turks have done - commit to fighting ISIS and then attack other targets of their own choosing. In the case of the Turks, it is attacks on Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) positions. In the case of the Russians, they are supporting the regime of Bashar al-Asad by attacking the rebel forces that seek to remove him from power.

At some point - soon - Russian and American interests in Syria are going to clash. Russian aircraft will continue to attack U.S.-allied anti-regime forces. Are American pilots going to be told to stand down while Russian pilots kill American-supported, in some cases American trained and equipped, Syrian rebels? Are we going to defend those who have agreed to be our "boots on the ground" or watch them decimated by Russian airpower?

From what I have seen in the last two weeks, Russian President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated that when he sees a threat to Russia's national interest, in this case the possible collapse of the al-Asad regime, he has the political will to act accordingly. He ordered a Russian expeditionary force to the area, and soon afterwards, used that military force. He has used that military force not against ISIS as he committed, but against those forces who threaten the Syrian regime.

The Russian airstrikes will continue against anti-regime forces until and unless challenged. Vladimir Putin has assessed that American President Barack Obama will not challenge Russia's attacks on our allies on the ground. He does not believe President Obama will risk such a confrontation over Syria -literally.

The Russians have thrown down the gauntlet - now we will see what Barack Obama, John Kerry and Ash Carter are made of.