What’s going on in the Mediterranean right now is actually more normal than the odd hiatus we have inhabited for the last 20 years. Historically, nations have vied for influence around the Med, bringing ships and ground troops to bear on a regular basis. The Eastern Med has been a crossroads between East and West for a good 3,000 years, hosting land and sea operations by the Persian, Roman, Abbasid, Umayyad, Holy Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, British, Napoleonic, and Russian Empires. The Eastern Med was a nexus of dispute between the Soviet-led East and the US-led free West in the Cold War. A relatively pacified Eastern Med, like the one we have enjoyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is a historical oddity. And it’s coming to an end.
As the Assad regime in Syria launches an assault on the major city of Aleppo, a Russian naval task force has assembled in the Med. Along with a Northern Fleet destroyer and a Baltic Fleet frigate, the Black Sea Fleet destroyer Smetlivy – our buddy with the smokestack – is back in the Med. In company with these combatants are three Ropucha-class landing ships (LSTs) from the Northern Fleet, which are reported to be carrying a detachment of Russian naval infantry (i.e., marines).
If Russia sought to have the option of a forcible entry into Syria, she would want – among other things – more landing ships. And in mid-June, two amphibious ships of the Black Sea Fleet, a Ropucha and a newer Alligator-class ship, were ordered to be ready to deploy with a brigade of naval infantry. The five landing ships combined would, with the naval infantry brigade, make a full amphibious task force.
The Russians have said repeatedly that this naval deployment is not related to Syria. Russia will conduct exercise Kavkaz 2012 in the Caucasus in September, and the assembled ships are to participate in it. It being late July at the moment, they have arrived very early for an exercise that won’t take place for another six weeks. But if nothing occurs to forestall the exercise, the ships will take part. The most likely place for an exercise landing is the short Russian coastline in the Black Sea, very possibly spilling across the border to the coastline of Abkhazia, Georgia’s “break-away” republic, which Russia has recognized since 2008 as a separate nation.
That said, the situation in Syria is coming to a major decision point. If Assad can’t assume control of Aleppo, he can’t regain control of Syria, at least not without a major regrouping and an infusion of outside assistance. The battle for Aleppo is a must-win for him. Let me emphasize that I do not think Russia intends to project naval force into this battle. Aleppo is about 80 miles inland, and Turkish territory lies between Aleppo and the sea to the west. The path to Aleppo is inconvenient, and affecting a battle there from the sea is not reasonably within Russia’s naval capabilities.
But what Russia could do with the force she has in the Med now is protect a resupply route for Assad from the sea, protect areas of the coast (e.g., Tartus), and even land a force – under the right conditions – and move it to Damascus. For the latter two missions, the Russians would want to have air support, which they would presumably deploy to Syria if it were needed. (I doubt they would rely on the Syrians for air support.)
If the Russians had to fight a rearguard action between Damascus and the Syrian coast, they might ask Cyprus for permission to stage aircraft. The Black Sea Fleet destroyer Smetlivy conducted the first Russian naval port visit ever in Cyprus in mid-July. A Russian request for air access would create problems for Cyprus, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union right now. The EU wouldn’t like it. But in July of 2012, it’s not nearly as unlikely as it was a year ago that Cyprus might say yes.
The Russians don’t want to have to do any of these things. But at each juncture in the Syrian crisis they have responded consistently with statements of determination and increased levels of force. Moscow hasn’t signed up to lose this one. Russia’s concerns are deep-seated and defensive: Russia is even more worried about Syria turning radically Islamist than about losing her base at Tartus.
As it stands today, if Russian military forces get involved, they will be fighting poorly organized rebels with uncertain resources. They wouldn’t be fighting Western militaries. The Russians are fully capable of prevailing over a ragtag rebel army. The strategic issue for them is that they have no interest in occupying and pacifying Syria; what they want is a viable, non-Islamist client regime there.
Turkey and Iraq certainly think Syria may be about to blow. Turkey closed her border with Syria on the 25th and has moved surface-to-air missile batteries and a chemical-defense unit to the border. (Aleppo is very close to the Turkish border.) Iraq is accepting thousands of Syrian refugees, and while she has not closed the border, she has reportedly moved a brigade to the border (presumably an infantry brigade) to beef up security. Syria’s neighbors expect the fighting to be intense and bloody; Lebanon already hosts some 47,000 Syrian refugees, and a key fear is that chaos will rule across Syrian territory and spill out over her borders, with Assad losing his grip and no serious political centralization in the rebel ranks.
NATO, of course, must consider the possibility that Turkey will invoke the mutual-defense charter if the Syrian conflict does spill out. Turkey’s armed forces are capable of containing the potential spillover, but Erdogan may deem it prudent at some point, for geopolitical purposes, to leverage the involvement of NATO. This decision is likely to depend on Russia’s level of involvement and her apparent intentions.
Meanwhile, the competition for leadership in the Middle East – currently focused on winning the political battle for Syria – is heating up and becoming more explicit. A senior Iranian military official issued a warning on Tuesday to the “hated Arabs” (also translated as “outcast Arabs”) that Iran would strike out at them if they intervened in Syria. Arab media have been pounding the theme that Iran “senses defeat” in Syria, even the relatively staid The National of Abu Dhabi suggesting that Iran is hedging her bets. This is more a “push” theme than it is analysis; Arab opinion-makers want it to be true. The “Race to Jerusalem” continues to take shape.
USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72) left Antalya, Turkey on 22 July after a four-day port visit and is headed to Virginia for a major overhaul. She is not remaining in the Med, nor will we be deploying a carrier there for some time. There is no US amphibious group in the Med or the African theater.
The UK, on the other hand, will be sending a naval task force to the Med after the Olympics. The task force has been scheduled to deploy for exercises for some time; it is not deploying in response to the Syrian situation. But it will be able to provide evacuation support if necessary. The Royal Navy’s former aircraft carrier, HMS Illustrious, will be in the task force operating as a helicopter carrier.
A French carrier task force with FS Charles de Gaulle will participate in the naval exercises with the Royal Navy. The two navies are conducting a joint deployment under the bilateral defense pact signed by Britain and France in November 2010.
So, to summarize: the US isn’t there in force. The Russians are, and Britain and France soon will be, but no one is fessing up to wanting to have military power in the same vicinity as Syria. That means a complete absence of political leadership or initiative. Hey, forces are just going where they’re scheduled to, dude.
Our NATO allies are operating together but not under the NATO aegis. Contrast this with NATO’s comparative unity of purpose in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and Afghanistan in the 2000s. The mood and sense of a common understanding of threats to the alliance have shifted significantly. A healthy NATO could not possibly be unconcerned about Syria – to the point of inertia – given the implications of a Syrian blow-up for the Mediterranean, Suez Canal, Southeast Europe, and the Middle East. But NATO isn’t so healthy now.
For the last 20-odd years, the US has made things happen (or prevented them) by showing up with overwhelming force. But we’re not doing that today. No one with force in or near the Syrian situation has overwhelming force. There’s just a lot of non-overwhelming force converging on Syria.
That isn’t a recipe for peace, stability, or quick resolutions – but then, you knew that. I am happy to report that cyberspace is getting a warfare workout in the Syrian crisis. The Assad regime, reportedly with Iran’s help, has been phishing rebels’ emails queues. Not all the rebels are particularly knowledgeable, it turns out.
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