Robert Mackey at New York Times’ The Lede has a Friday post entitled “Crisis in Syria Looks Very Different on Satellite Channels Owned by Russia and Iran.”
Well, no kidding. It’s nice to see NYT catching up with the rest of the infosphere. But it’s not just in Russian and Iranian media that the crisis in Syria looks different. It’s basically everywhere outside the United States. In the US, the news centers on what the Obama administration is doing about the crisis. Outside the US, the news is about what the nations of Europe are doing, what the Russians are doing, what the Turks are doing, what the Arab League and the OIC are doing, what alarms the Russians about Western policies (see here for a more explicit, populist-level view), how the region is reacting to the crisis, and which nations – Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, the other Persian Gulf nations, Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel – might be sucked into an armed confrontation between Russia and the West in Syria.
In American news coverage, Russia is seen as the spoiler in the UN, the bad-tempered world power that said no to an Arab-drafted peace plan backed by the US. In other news coverage, Russia is seen as the principal military patron of Bashar al-Assad, with military advisors all over the country and a serious determination to prevent the West from regime-changing Syria out from under Russian influence.
According to Le Figaro on Tuesday, Russian military “advisors” are “omnipresent” in Syria. Besides reportedly sending S-300 anti-air missile systems to Damascus and agreeing to deliver a new batch of military aircraft, the Russians this week celebrated the reopening of a Cold War-era intelligence listening post on Mount Qassioun, the summit that dominates Damascus from the northwest. The Russians appear increasingly dug in.
Russian advisors are also laboring to reorganize the Baath Party and arrange talks with members of the Syrian resistance. They are making their own contacts with Arab and Islamic organizations, seeking to dilute the solidarity of the West with Arab leaders on the Syrian problem. In a phone discussion with Nicolas Sarkozy this week, Dmitry Medvedev warned France not to use a coalition of the willing to take unilateral action in Syria. France – not the United States – was the Perm-5 nation that inaugurated the “friends of the Syrian people” effort immediately after the Russian and Chinese vetoes in the UN on 4 February. (Tunisia has reportedly agreed to host the first gathering of this coalition.)
On Thursday, Russia’s vice-minister of defense, Anatoly Antonov, was quoted as saying on Russian television that Russian military personnel are deployed in various sites around Syria. (See here as well.) This is the first high-level confirmation of such an extensive Russian presence, and it is obviously not a random comment. The Russians are anxious to have it understood that if a Western-Arab coalition fires on Syria, it will hit Russians. In Antonov’s words, Russia “cannot remain indifferent.”
Is Russia preparing to actually do anything militarily? She seems to be preparing to defend herself against the West and its allies, and indeed, to hold parts of the West (and perhaps Japan) at risk. On Thursday, the Russians announced that a new Voronezh long-range missile-defense radar will go operational near St. Petersburg this month. Along with the Voronezh radar operating near the Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic (since November 2011), the radar in St. Petersburg will provide coverage of much of the western and polar-northern approaches to Russia. This is one is a series of precautions, which also involve troop movements in the Southern Military District (facing the Black Sea and Caucasus), defensive exercises, and patrols.
One such patrol reportedly occurred in the Far East on Wednesday, when a flight of two Tu-95 Bear bombers, two Su-24 Fencer jets (outfitted for reconnaissance), and one A-50 Mainstay AWACS made a close approach to the airspace of northern Japan. Russian media reported this foray in detail, along with Japan’s reaction, making sure to point out that the incident marked the first time a Russian AWACS had approached Japanese airspace. The meaning of the AWACS participation would be twofold: first, that the Russians are ready to coordinate defensive responses to Japanese or US strike-fighters, and second, that they have the capability to coordinate air battles on offense.
Looking toward the near future, the Russians are improving the Severomorsk-1 air base near the Northern Fleet headquarters on the Barents Sea. The project will allow the base to accommodate the Tu-160 Blackjack, Russia’s long-range supersonic jet bomber, and the Tu-95 turboprop bomber. The move will put extended support facilities for the bombers in Russia’s remote northwestern periphery, allowing the aircraft, now based in Engels in the interior, to get to a Western- or Northern- (polar) front fight faster, and with less vulnerability over potentially hostile territory (i.e., in Europe). The new facilities are to be operational in May 2013; they would not be a factor in a near-term dust-up over Syria, but are another indicator of Moscow’s emerging posture toward the West.
The southern border
The Russians are attending to their vulnerable southern border as well, and here, their calculations are as much about ensuring freedom of action for their own initiatives as for securing their flank. The geography is dictatorial: the Black Sea is the path to and from Syria (and the larger Mediterranean), and to hold the Black Sea, Russia must be able to secure the Caucasus. That means preventing Georgia from being turned against Russian purposes by an outside power. Russia is locally strong in the Caspian Sea, on the east side of the Caucasus; it is in the Black Sea and down the center-line, south through the Caucasus, where she needs strengthen her hand.
Reporting from December and January (see links at my earlier post above) indicated that Russia was moving troops into the Southern Military District. In late January, the Russian defense minister announced the deployment of additional special forces (Spetsnaz) troops to Stavropol and Kislovodsk, which lie in the Caucasus close to the border with Georgia’s breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see map).
The additional troops in the Southern Military District are unlikely to be used in Syria. Their new location is inconvenient for that; it would be easier to airlift them to Syria from better furnished logistics hubs. But the location is ideal for intervening quickly to take over Georgia, and thereby prevent the US from using Georgian territory, as well as establishing an uninterrupted line of military communication from Russia to Armenia, where the Russians already have a military outpost. Controlling the territory down to Armenia would put neighboring Azerbaijan – America’s other budding ally in the Caucasus – between Russian-held territory in the west and Russian forces in the Caspian Sea to the east.
This fight would involve “internal lines of communication” for Russia, and her preparations would not necessarily all be visible from outside the region. Air support, in particular, can be provided without visible pre-staging.
Meanwhile, Russia wants to hold the high card in the Black Sea to the extent possible, and to that end, has just – at the end of January – begun conducting strategic bomber patrols over the Black Sea.
The weather is immobilizing ships in the Black Sea at the moment, so naval manifestations from Russia are not to be expected. There has been a noteworthy change in the Med, however. The Admiral Kuznetsov carrier task force exited the Med at the beginning of February, and the Amur-class floating repair ship PM-56, which had been in Tartus, Syria, returned to homeport in the Black Sea on 31 January. But a Russian naval tanker, the Ivan Bubnov, remained in the Med when the carrier task force left.
Bubnov was north of Morocco heading east on 1 February; the tanker may well spend little time in Syria, because its presence gives the Russian navy a mobile refueling capability that is not dependent on Syria. Keeping Bubnov in the Med means the Russians intend to bring warships back as necessary, and be able to operate without a geographic tether. (For the time being, Bubnov can take on additional fuel in most Mediterranean ports. If tensions increased, the options could include Morocco, Algeria, Montenegro, and possibly Malta or Cyprus.)
Scope of the worst case?
It is inaccurate to underestimate or dismiss Russia. She is neither inert nor a non-factor in the Syria crisis – and she doesn’t need to be able to “defeat” the US or NATO in a confrontation, she just has to make the cost of a confrontation too high. I believe Russia is sending every signal she can think of to discourage the West from mounting a military operation. The Russians don’t want to have to fight. In Syria, that will mean breaking the already-fragile conventions holding the regional status quo together.
But they are warning in multiple ways that they will fight if they have to. If that actually happens, the calculation will be that the NATO nations will not choose to bring their superior force to bear, and break a military defense of Syria that is backed and shielded by Russia. Before counting Russia out, consider these questions.
1. Can Russia airlift a tailored, small- to medium-size force to Syria? Yes.
2. Can Russia overrun Georgia and force concessions on the use of Georgian territory? Yes.
3. Can Russia deliver large weapon systems to Syria by ship? Yes.
4. Can Russia hold all shipping at risk in the Black Sea? Yes.
5. Can Russia shut down NATO’s northern logistic pipeline into Afghanistan? Yes.
Russia has all these capabilities. The relevant questions of power and will would be these:
1. Would NATO actively prevent Russian warships, or cargo ships escorted by warships, from getting to Syria? NATO could, but the question is whether we would.
2. Would NATO oppose Russia directly and with force, if she overran Georgia? We could. Would we?
3. Would NATO threaten to shoot down Russian aircraft airlifting troops and equipment to Syria? We could. Would we?
4. If NATO were faced with losing Russian cooperation on the northern logistics route to Afghanistan, would the NATO nations be prepared to accept that as a cost of enforcing a solution on Russia in Syria?
It is not certain how these questions would be answered, and that’s where Russia’s dilemma lies. I do not by any means assess that Russia is ready to launch a campaign today. But I do assess that the West has not taken seriously Russia’s fundamental objection to seeing Syria regime-changed by an Arab coalition whose principal outside patron is not Russia. The problem for Russia is not so much that Assad has to be replaced as that the Western powers propose to do it in conjunction with the Arab League, an arrangement that diminishes Russia’s influence on the process while opening a door for state-Islamist radicals. If Syria is to be given a new regime through an Arab partnership, Russia wants to be in the lead.
The strategic issue for Russia here is not merely the narrow concern about having a base in the Med. It is the approach, ever closer to Russia, of a Western-backed “tectonic shift” – Medvedev’s expression for the Arab Spring – that keeps opening political doors to the Muslim Brotherhood. If common cause is going to be made with the Muslim Brotherhood, Russia will do it, selectively, and for her own purposes. She will resist having Muslim Brotherhood-led or -influenced regimes inflicted on her near abroad by the West.
Libya was a different story: always an outlier in numerous ways, and in any case having old and geographically obvious ties to the major economic powers of Europe. It was not a direct blow to Russia for the West to handle Libya in the peculiar, indeterminate manner chosen by France, the UK, and the US. But Syria is different. What happens in Syria will affect everything for 2,000 miles around on three continents. Russia can’t let Syria be handled as Libya has been. Neither can Turkey, for that matter, which is why the Turks have been eager to take the Syrian resistance under their wing, and keep coming up with new proposals for talks and coalition building.
Failures of US policy
The bottom line, however, is that the US could handle the whole Syria issue differently. What is missing in this saga is American leadership, on traditional American principles. The outcome in Syria is not solely about a revolution against a terrible dictator. It has repercussions for the power relationships and security arrangements of everyone in the region. If there is no great power seeking to foster a good outcome for the Syrian people, while also balancing the concerns of other interested parties, then there will be no balance: there will only be a back-and-forth scramble in which the chief victims are the Syrian people.
The back-and-forth scramble is what we are seeing. It is not strategically sound to simply back one faction in a situation like this, on the narrow basis of ideology, but that is what the Obama administration has done. Instead of taking leadership, it has backed a plan Russia has good reason to find inimical and dangerous.
The US should be concerned about the danger as well – but instead, the Obama administration is seeking reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, backing it in Syria (see here as well), and proposing to fund and treat with the terrorist group Hamas. The Russians are justified in being worried that the US shows little discrimination in our choice of clients and protégés in the region. Whether the reason is ideological sympathy or ideological naïveté, the US administration’s affinity for the most radical, repressive, Islamo-statist elements in the Islamic world cannot be a basis for strategically responsible uses of power.
The Obama administration showed clearly during the Libya operation that it was committed to not using US power to achieve decisive political outcomes. Yet US power is the element most badly needed in the situation in Syria. The feat needed in Syria is one to which only America, up to now, has been suited: acknowledging the regional implications of any Syrian outcome; bringing Russia into a group effort; and yet also bringing an end to the Assad regime on terms favorable for the Syrian people, and acceptable to the Arab world, the West, and Russia.
Perhaps, in the weeks ahead, another nation will find a way to fill that role. France may shift her focus: from dismissing Russia and setting up a separate coalition, to trying to engage Russia. Turkey may be able to broker a group effort in which Russia gets a role.
Russian intransigence is marginally more likely to win out; I don’t think France and the UK are really stupid enough to provoke an armed standoff with Russia, even if the US is. But we are in uncharted territory, and that assessment may be wrong.
It’s not as great as Obama and his supporters have suggested, for the world to be free of US power, exercised with purpose and clarity.