October 20, 2015

The proxy war between the United States and Russia heats up

A new East-West proxy war has been heating up in Syria over the last three weeks, heralded by the deployment of more than three squadrons of Russian combat aircraft to an air base south of Syria's main port city of Latakia. The Russians wasted no time in commencing air operations against ground targets in the country.

Despite the Kremlin's insistence that the purpose of its air campaign is to fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), the vast majority of its attacks have targeted rebels attempting to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Asad. Bashar, as was his father, the notorious president/dictator Hafiz al-Asad who ruled the country ruthlessly for three decades, is a client of the Russians.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is committed to the survival of the Syrian regime. The Russians have been incrementally pushed out of the Middle East since the Egyptians severed military ties with the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s. The only Russian military presence in the Middle East two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has been limited to Syria.

Although the Russians maintained a small cadre of military advisors at a few Syrian bases, Putin is most concerned about the joint Syrian-Russian naval facility at the port of Tartus. His support for the Syrian regime is focused on continued access to this strategic base - it is Russia's sole foreign naval base.

Red dots indicate the Russian-used air base near Jablah
and the joint Syrian-Russian naval facility at Tartus

The naval facility at Tartus is located just 35 miles south of the Humaymim Air Base, formerly a sleepy naval helicopter base and small civilian airport used by the al-Asad family. The base is only five miles from the al-Asad familial home in al-Qardahah, and is now an expanding Russian joint operations base.

The Russians are flying daily combat sorties from the air base, striking targets mostly in the area northwest of Hamah and southwest of Aleppo (red box on map below) - some targets are as close as 20 miles from Humaymim.

This area in Idlib and Hamah provinces has been the venue of heavy fighting between the Syrian regime on one side and a loose alliance of moderate and Islamic rebel groups on the other. Some of the rebel groups being attacked by Russian pilots have been supplied with U.S.-manufactured TOW anti-tank missiles. Over the last few months, these missiles have taken a heavy toll on Syria's tanks and armored personnel carriers.

On the other side, the U.S. coalition continues its air strikes - by both manned and unmanned aircraft - against ISIS and elements of al-Qa'idah. An American armed drone (either a Predator or a Reaper) recently killed the leader of the al-Qa'idah element known as the Khorosan Group, a reputedly effective terrorist group located in the area west of Aleppo. The Khorosan Group has been accused of planning attacks on the United States - it was the perceived threat from this group that drove the timing of the initial American airstrikes in Syria last fall.

The city of Aleppo is about to become the venue of a new proxy war between the Russians and the Americans.

As the Syrian regime regains its momentum against the rebels under the umbrella of Russian airpower, the contradictory interests of the United States and the Russian Federation are about to collide. Although both countries are conducting bombing operations in Syria and have a common target in ISIS, their positions on the survival of the government of Bashar al-Asad are diametrically opposed.

The Russians and their allies are in Syria to support the al-Asad government. To that end, forces are converging on Aleppo, once Syria's largest city. Much of Aleppo, including several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, has been destroyed in the fighting, in some cases erasing thousands of years of history.

Forces moving into the Aleppo area to augment the re-energized Syrian Army and its associated loyalist militias (called the "shabihah" or ghosts in Arabic) include: additional Hizballah units from Lebanon (Hizballah websites report "two brigades" including armor, engineers and intelligence*), more Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force troops, other "elite" Iranian forces and interestingly, but not surprisingly, Iraqi Shi'a militias.

These additional non-Syrian forces will be under the leadership of well-known - and revered in Iranian, Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese circles - Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force. The Iranian government has now acknowledged Iranian forces' involvement in the fighting in Syria. Just last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani publicly issued condolences over the death of a senior IRGC commander in the fighting near Aleppo.

Things appear to be growing more serious on the American side as well. Over the last few days, the U.S. Air Force has deployed at least 12 A-10 "Warthog" attack fighters (above photo) to Incirclik Air Base on southern Turkey, less than 100 miles from targets in Syria - that is just minutes in a fighter jet.

The "Warthog" attack aircraft augment the U.S. Air Force F-16 fighters and armed drones that have been operating from the Turkish air base since August. However, the Americans have decided not to attack Syrian military or militia targets, Iranian forces, Iraqi Shi'a militias or Lebanese Hizballah fighters on the ground in Syria, limiting their air strikes to ISIS facilities. By doing so, they have ceded control of much of the battle to the Russians.

At some point, senior officials in Washington must realize that the Russians are now players in the region. We are involved in a proxy war again, albeit on a smaller scale than we "Cold Warriors" remember - we chose sides and did virtual but not actual battle with each other. The problem with proxy wars is that you must make sure that the side you chose to support actually represents your position and it worthy of that support.

Is the United States willing to confront Russia? Are we willing to have American pilots confront Russian pilots in the skies over Syria? Are we willing to have American-Russian relations defined by confrontations in the Middle East?

Good questions. The Russians have been clear about their objectives. Have we?

* For my Arabic-speaking readers, watch the video announcing the arrival of additional Hizballah units in Syria.