Syria, Russia: It all looks different from out there

A country with a view.

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.

The situation

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.)


The region


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.”

Russian preparations

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.


The Caucasus


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 JapanRussian 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.


New strategic bomber support base


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.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

31 thoughts on “Syria, Russia: It all looks different from out there”

  1. Outstanding assessment. Given the geo-political dynamics involved, the most likely eventualities are either that Russian backing permits Assad to retain power or, even more likely, that a radical theological regime takes power. The momentum for change is on the side of the religious radicals and that’s who I’m betting will eventually emerge victorious. Russia always has the option of the ‘Iran card’ which demonstrates that Russian thugs can work with Islamic radicals.

    1. It will be interesting to see, GB. If I were to bet, I would bet that the current crisis is “resolved” — temporarily — with some sort of compromise that leaves Russia with a foot in. Russia will endure endless torture from getting what she wants, but Putin & Co still think that would be better that having their walking papers handed to them by an Arab coaltion, with a Western stamp on them.

      Make no mistake, I think Assad is evil and Russia is tarred by her association with him. Slaughtering Syrians is ghastly and evil. And if Russia had her way entirely, it would simply be Moscow brokering the deal with the Arab coalition rather than the Yanks and the Euros.

      But there’s one thing Russia is right about, and that is that it would change everything for the worse for radical Islamists to have Syria handed to them. The Russians are correct to worry about the US and EU being duped by Western-leftist ideology in that regard.

      The choices here don’t include a flowering of democracy and goodwill in Syria. They are between the West escorting radical Islamists into power in Syria, and Russia (and perhaps China) arranging — with the help of a different set of Arabs — for a less bloody autocracy to take over Syria. I suspect that in the end, some back-room coalition of perhaps Turkey, the Saudis, Qatar, and France will split the difference, and get enough Arabs to buy into a compromise position that accepts Russian influence, but cracks the door open to an Islamist surge in the future.

      I wouldn’t want to be Russia in that case, but a compromise would fend off the absolute loss — a particular loss that WOULD be a 10.5 on the Richter scale, geopolitical-earthquake-wise.

      1. “I suspect that in the end, some back-room coalition of perhaps Turkey, the Saudis, Qatar, and France will split the difference, and get enough Arabs to buy into a compromise position that accepts Russian influence, but cracks the door open to an Islamist surge in the future.”

        That’s certainly a possibility and certainly what the power brokers in the region are most likely to push for but I suspect that its an unlikely one to eventuate. Or perhaps what I think most likely is a replication of Erdoğan’s Turkish gov’t. One that pays lip service to secularism but in fact is Islamic in sympathy and policies.

        Nor do I expect such a cobbled together gov’t. to have much longevity, within a relatively short period of time, I expect Syria to, at the first opportunity, ‘elect’ an Islamic gov’t., just as Egypt shall do in the near future. And of course, barring violent revolution, that will be the end of elections in either country.

        IMHO, the region is already lost to the barbarism of radical Islam. Other than elites trying to cling to power and radical elements, there are no organized, internal power brokers in the region. Pragmatically speaking, firmer American leadership would be a good thing… were there an element in the region who shares our sense of democratic values, but such do not exist in anywhere near the numbers or political influence needed to effect coming events.

        The best that we can hope to do is, as much as possible, keep from appearing to meddle while firmly declaring our support for those who share our traditional American principles; the rule of law, freedom of speech, assembly and religion. The separation of church and state with respect for individual and minority rights.

        Until Islam is greatly discredited within the region however, those values will be held in little regard because Islam itself abhors those values.

        Perhaps an illustrative analogy is Europe’s Medieval Inquisition period from around 1184 – 1230’s when the form of Catholicism of that time, held Europe in an iron theological and intellectual grip. A similar case holds true in the M.E. today.

        84%+ of Egyptians support the death penalty for apostasy. Nor is Egypt a regional anomaly.

        That statistic alone bodes ill for any hope of anything less than multi-generational change. Change however, that will not come through internal reform, given Islam’s tenets, which make reform theologically impossible.

        Rather, change which will be imposed externally and in reaction to extreme Islamic aggression. Just as Japan’s bushido culture was unable to internally reform until the external change of complete military defeat thoroughly discredited it.

        War is coming both because radical Islam will have it no other way and because the West, including the US refuses to militarily stop Iran’s push for nukes and refuses to de-fang a Pakistan teetering on the brink of allowing another theological takeover in that country. Perhaps less but probably in about 10 more years, we shall reap the whirlwind.

  2. —-“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.”——

    which traditional American principles AND

    what do you suggest is the way to handle this?

    If the Obama admin is wrong, what’s right?

    1. Quote: “which traditional American principles … ”

      No one expects you to have a clue about that, fuster.

  3. Thank you for another in a series of great tour d’horizon geopolitical briefs.

    ISTR the USN has an Arleigh Burke DDG in the Black Sea as a BMD asset. Is that warship being counter-marked by Russia?

    1. Welcome, NaCly Dog — good to see you here. Apologies for the delay in your first comment — there’s a one-time “approval” for new commenters. You’re “in” now.

      I’m not aware of an Arleigh Burke in the Black Sea at the moment. Vella Gulf was there in late-Jan early-Feb, but she and The Sullivans (maybe the Arleigh Burke you’re thinking of) are in or moving toward CENTMED for a big NATO exercise.

      Our warships can only stay 21 days at a time in the Black Sea, of course, due to the Montreux Convention. As I understand it, the BMD patrol requirement is sourced at less than 365 days a year, and manned on order, at least for now.

  4. If stopping Russia from re-establishing the sphere of influence it had acquired in the Soviet era were a priority for the US, why didn’t Obama’s predecessors do something about it before the Ruskies reasserted themselves and it was too late to do anything?

    The answer is simple. They didn’t because they couldn’t.

    And anyhow, wasn’t re-making the Arab world central to the Neo-Conservative agenda? And now that the Arabs themselves are re-making their world in a region where thedisasterous Iraq war has hugely damaged US interests and hugely increased the influence of Iran, you are (typically) trying to lay the blame on a president who had absolutely nothing to do with creating the mess in the first place.

    The Republican right needs to take responsibility for the complete and utter mess it made of both the economy and foreign policy and stop whining and blaming the NYT, Obama, and just about everyone else.

    So what would you do that would secure (for the first time in two generations) a Syria within the US sphere of influence. Bomb Russia? Bomb Syria? Engineer a naval confrontation with the Russians?

    As far as taking responsibility is concerned the Republican fringe is right down there with indigent single mums.

    1. Face it, the Obama Administration is totally clueless when it comes to real world strategy and action. They certainly are so in domestic policy when reality strikes, such as Macondo Spill. Zero had all the ammo he needed to undermine all the reporting by “conservatives” yet lost out big. He really screwed up in the only area which the Administration had any effective jurisdiction, shoreline oil. I could go on forever about the misreporting by ALL media what happened at sea.

      Keystone XL has immense geopolitical implications, mostly with Venezuela, as that it the main TYPE of crude oil which Canadian Syncrude would replace. Keystone XL crude would only go to refineries presently configured for such heavy crude, and is needed for them to run efficiently with the types of products they produce. Venezuela is in a severe downward economic spiral and loss of the refineries configured to handle their crude would put them down for the count.

      The Zero Administration was clueless on Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and elsewhere. Why would it not be clueless regarding Syria and Russia. Chess beats checkers everytime.

    2. Public Law 107-343, Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002, US House of Representatives 297 ayes, 133 nays; US Senate 77 ayes, 23 nays.

      Authorization for Use of Military Force, joint resolution of Congress, September 14, 2001, US House of Representatives 420 ayes, 1 nay; US Senate 98 ayes, 0 nays.

      1. Yup. After the Cheney administration had untruthfully claimed that Saddam had WMD and posed a threat to US interests.

        Unfortunately, after thousands of deaths and a trillion bucks of tax-payer money it’s a bit late to have a re-run of the votes.

        1. Oh please stop with the ignorant line about Cheney admin.

          There is a lot that the public doesn’t know and many should not know. The fact is that because of Sadam, San Francisco was in danger of WMD (chemical). I know where, & how, due the work in my field. The source was a research lab in the area and the individual was an immigrant chemist whose family was being held by Sadam. I was at the site afterwards to assess the equipment when the lab was completely shutdown, as well as all the pilot plant equipment.

          The situation was FAR worse than the public has a clue.

          1. Oh, and the UN WMD inspectors are the biggest joke that there ever was. They could barely tell the difference between a pump and a valve as exhibited when they trained at a business friend’s equipment yard and warehouse on equip identification. The staff there is still laughing about it.

            Their greatest expertise must have being related to someone in power.

          2. And, don’t tell me – you got all this sensational info from a source presently in long-term cryogenic suspension in Hangar 101?

  5. What follows doesn’t pretend to be an analysis. Just some thoughts to mull over.
    Best possible outcome for broader Western interests? Partition Syria (and Lebanon as well) along ethno-religious lines a la ex-Yugoslavia.

    This is all unfinished business stemming from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the bogus borders drawn up by the successor colonial powers.

    Population exchanges are the most “human” inhumane method of dealing with these issues (read population exchanges after the Balkan Wars 1912-13, Greco-Turkish war 1919-22).

    The Sunnis and Alawis (possibly Kurds) of Syria will never be able to live together under the same roof in peace again.

    You are right to be apprehensive about Russia. They’ve got us over a barrel (Iran and Syria) and they know it. They won’t allow themselves to be flanked in the south and they won’t forget we lied to them about NATO expansion. We should also stop treating them as the “poor relations” and give them an equal place at the (Western) family dinner table. That’s if we want to get any meaningful cooperation from them on matters of mutual interest of course. All this has to be done while the West still has something Russia needs. The “Nixon goes to China” analogy keeps popping up in my head.
    Regardless of the outcome in Syria, a continuation of Western policy of non-cooperation with Russia will probably result in the loss of Azerbaijan, its hydrocarbons and a direct land link between Russia and Iran, as you point out.

    Side note. IF Assad gets his way.
    Now if I were Assad, after I subdue the rebellion and re-secure my position, I’d want some payback for someone stirring up my ethnic divisions. Since I wouldn’t be able to extract it directly from The USA, I’d target Erdogan & Co, plus, yeah you guessed it, the Sunni Arab oil states. Not to mention Lebanon, obviously

    BTW, aside from appx 15m Kurds, there are appx. 15m Alevi (not exactly Alawi) in Turkey. That’s plenty of minority to stir up trouble with.

    I wish they read more history in DC.

    PS. Great work Ms. Dyer. I appreciate your info, analysis and insights.

  6. Leaving aside the obsequious bit at the end, your analysis is not that far off the mark (It is also more coherent and infinitely more concise than the rambling piece you pay homage to). However, I would have to disagree with the bit about balkanizing Syria. It would probably produce an even less stable outcome than the present setup, and is more likely to result in another (very large) Lebanon, and an invitation for destabilizing mischief and mayhem by the Iranians and Israelis.

    The Russian intervention to prop up Assad may or may not be successful in its objective. They may be able to prod their client into a reprochement with the insurgents. Most likely it will backfire horribly on them – particularly if it draws them into the nascient civil war their actions have made even more likely. It will serve them right (But, sadly, at a very high price for the Syrians). The real smart move for the US is to keep well away from the mess.

    1. Producing instability and breaking down Muslim states (Syria or any other state, doesn’t matter) into smaller components is precisely the point. It is at the heart of long-term Western/Russian mutual interest. Byzantine strategy actually, exhaust your adversaries by setting them at each others throats. Everyone knows that the Iraqis will begin slaughtering each other en masse soon after the last troops leave (with or without Persian encouragement). If the principle is applied all the way to the Hindu Kush, so much the better.Keep’em busy for generations I’d say.

  7. “nascient”? What’s that, a nasty imminent isolationist whine? It’s such a pity there just wasn’t enough “reprochement” (sic) with Hitler.

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