09 September 2015

This Business Will Get out of Control. It Will Get out of Control and We'll Be Lucky to Live through It.

It appears that Russia may be building a military base in Syria:
The anonymous officials say Russia has set up an air traffic control tower and transported prefabricated housing units for up to 1,000 personnel to an airfield serving the Syrian port city of Latakia.

Russia has also requested the rights to fly over neighbouring countries with military cargo aircraft during September, according to the reports.

The claims, which will raise fears that Russia is planning to expand its role in the country’s civil war, will ratchet up tensions between Moscow and Washington over the future of Syria and its brutal ruler.

Mr Obama on Friday met King Salman of Saudi Arabia to repeat their demand that any lasting settlement in Syria would require an end to the Assad regime.

It leaves the US and Russia implacably opposed in their visions for Syria.

I would argue that the vision expressed by Obama is being driven by the House of Saud and the rest of the antediluvian absolute monarchies that dot the Persian Gulf.

They supported radical Islamic opponents to the Assad regime, because they want to replace a secular Arab regime with Sunni dominated theocracy, because, I guess, it worked so well in Syria.

………

“We are already giving Syria quite serious help with equipment and training soldiers, with our weapons,” he said during an economic forum in Vladivostok on Friday, according to the state-owned RIA Novosti news agency.

Until now, Russia's backing has included financial support, intelligence, advisers, weapons and spare parts. Mr Putin insisted it was "premature" to talk of a direct intervention.

………

Last week the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth cited Western diplomatic sources saying that Russia was on the verge of deploying “thousands” of troops to Syria to establish an airbase from which the Russian air force would fly combat sorties against Isil.

Those details appear to be backed by satellite images of a Russian base under construction near Latakia, according to anonymous intelligence officials quoted by several American newspapers.

"If they're moving people in to help the Syrian government fight their own fight, that's one thing,” one told the Los Angeles Times. “But if they're moving in ground forces and dropping bombs on populated areas, that's an entirely different matter."

Moscow increasingly justifies its support for the Assad regime by pointing to the rise of violent jihadists in Syria.

………

Syria is already home to Russia’s only base outside the former Soviet Union – a naval station in Tartus.

The reported build-up of military activity, centred on Latakia and Idlib province, is in areas dominated by the Alawite sect, which counts President Assad among its number.
The House of Saud, the other petty tyrants of the Persian Gulf, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (the increasingly authoritarian, and increasingly unstable President of Turkey) have been actively supporting both the civil war and the most extreme religious fanatics in the region.

This did was a disaster in Libya, and it will be a disaster in Syria.

Getting rid of Assad in Syria would be a good thing, if the alternative were not immeasurably worse.

Of note, it appears that there are indications that the Russians might be sending Russian manned MiG-31s to Syria:
Rumours, comments and half-truths are very common in fluid environments such as this. Various news-outlets are offering different theories regarding a large-scale Russian operation about to start in Syria. With information and evidence being often sketchy at best, it is most likely that various players in and outside the region are trying to push their agenda, either vis-à-vis Syria or vis-à-vis Russia. Trusting partisan and biased information, i.e. MSM accounts quoting "official sources", would obviously be a mistake. That is why this piece offers a totally different read on the reasons and goals of the Russian move, just for the sake of argument.

Preventing a another Libya

Before getting to the core of the scenario that could explain events on the ground, it may be useful to recall the Libyan precedent: a "no fly zone" implemented by NATO under a UN-resolution was hijacked – in the Russians' view – to support the anti-Gaddafi insurgents and give them close air support for several months, until the Libyan dictator was finally ousted from power.

Ever since the start of the civil war in Syria, the Russians have always made it clear that they would not tolerate another version of the Libyan precedent. In 2013 already, Russian officials made numerous statements formally objecting to a "no fly zone". A few very strongly worded declarations by President Putin himself didn't leave any doubt as to the Russians' willingness to actively oppose such a development.

………

Based on the developments mentioned above, but also taking into account some of the recurrent background noise and chatter that can be heard way outside the beltway – remember Petreaus' suggestion about "Jabhat al Nusra reconcilables" or Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent call for a "no fly zone" over Syria – it is pretty easy to figure out what some of the armchair strategists in DC had in mind.

Quite simple in its premises, their strategy is based on increasing the tempo of Coalition airstrikes against the Islamic State, particularly in Syria, thus winning over public opinion for such operations, and supporting Kurdish YPG militias all over the North. At the same time, efforts – quite unlucky and unsuccessful so far – to recruit and train parts of the FSA, and possibly the "reasonable fringe" of Jahbat al-Nusra, are continuing.

The aim is to arm these groups and turn them loose – officially – on the Islamic State, giving them the same air support YPG groups have been receiving, provided the main thrust is against ISIS held territory or disputed areas. Territory that is firmly in the Syrian government's hands would be off limits in such a scenario, but given that these areas have become quite small in recent months, it is pretty safe to assume that about 75 % to 80 % of Syrian territory would be up for grabs.

In other words, the support of Kurdish peshmergas on the one hand, the help and training of "moderate" Syrian rebels on the other, would be combined with the benefits of a "no fly zone" or at least extensive air support. The official rationale for such a "no fly zone" would be solely the struggle against ISIS, of course, because that would be the easiest way – and actually the only one –to sell such a strategy to the US public.

………

Needless to say that if the Syrian air force was unable to support its ground troops not just in the North, but anywhere in Syria, the balance of power would inexorably shift towards the opposition groups and a de facto partition of Syria would be unavoidable. To the Russians, this is unacceptable. They may be willing to let Assad go, but not to abandon Syria as an ally and a Russian asset in the "grand game".

Syria is still a sovereign country and there hasn't been any UN-resolution that could bolster foreign intervention without the consent of the Syrian government. Furthermore, Syria has an extensive defense agreement with the Russian Federation and it would be perfectly within President Bashar al-Assad's prerogatives to call in Russian military help in his fight against "terrorism" or foreign aggression.

………

What came out of these talks – or should we say negotiations ? – is only rumour, but this rumour has it that a deal was struck for the nomination of a new intelligence chief, if a ceasefire and transitional phase are indeed implemented. The man for that job is supposedly no other than General Mustafa Tlass, formerly a close associate of the al-Assad clan, who jumped ship in 2011 but never formally sided with the rebels. He has been living in France ever since he left Syria.

Now of course, such a settlement to which the US administration would not have been part to would have the potential to drive the Neo-Cons, R2Pers and other D.C. hawks absolutely mad. Not only would it mean that the Syrian regime would not be destroyed, but it would possibly keep a strong foothold in Syrian politics, even if the country was to be partitioned along areas of influence. The biggest downside to such a negotiated solution though would be, that fighting the Islamic State could not be used anymore as a pretence for supporting the actions of the anti-Assad rebels.

The Syrians - and the Russians - certainly realize that contingency plans are also a necessity for them, whether the alleged settlement initiative succeeds or fails. The recent announcement of a second and larger Russian base on the Syrian coast is certainly part of such contingency plans. Both a naval base and a logistics base, it could help stabilize the heartland of the Al-Assad clan and bolster the Alawi minority's claim and dominance over these lands, cutting of any sea access to whatever Sunni/Jihadi political construct could be established further inland.

………

This is why the establishment of a "no fly zone" and increased operational tempo is so crucial to its most vocal proponents. Short of destroying the regime before any settlement is announced, Bashar al-Assad has to be weakened and his power base eroded to the point where even opposition groups currently willing to sign off on a negotiated peace might possibly change their mind.

This is the context in which Russian troop and equipment movements were recently spotted, allegedly. It all started on August 16th, when a Turkish News Agency (BGN) published a statement announcing that Russia had delivered 6 MIG-31s to Syria. Those planes' specifications and weapons systems make them an unlikely candidate for close air support to Syrian ground forces, which makes the delivery all the more interesting.

Actually, the MIG-31s, possibly with a Russian crew aboard, are interceptors. They are designed to track, identify and destroy hostile aircraft. The fact they were stationed in Mezze airbase, with a large Russian security and logistics detail, implies the Russians meant business. What aircraft could these planes be possibly intercepting though ? Obviously, not the Coalition jets flying missions against the Islamic State. The Russians aren't that mad … or dumb.

However, if a "no fly zone" was imposed over Syrian skies without any form of basis in international or UN-law, what would there be to prevent the Russians from answering a call for help from the sill legitimate Syrian government ? Now that would be a worrying development and it should be taken seriously ! However, should there be any truth to such a theoretical construct, the MIG-31s would probably target something totally different from Coalition fighter jets.

………

If you take Libya as the example of what the Russians want to avoid at all cost, it's fairly easy to guess what their interceptors would be looking for. It's not the Patriot missiles stationed in Turkey. They only have a limited reach, meaning they can destroy targets up to a distance of about 70 km, enough to interdict Syrian air force operations all along the border, but they are useless for any action deep in Syrian territory.

Furthermore, the Patriot's radars don't bring any added value when it comes to identifying enemy moves on the ground. The key component in both a "no fly zone" and in monitoring moves on and off the ground, all over Syrian territory, are AWACS warning and control aircraft.

The Coalition is currently using such aircraft. Several countries are equipped with such planes, notably the United States and Saudi Arabia, but also The United-Kingdom and France. As long as the areas of interest for possible coalition airstrikes are limited to territory close to an international border, AWACS planes can remain out of Syrian airspace.Their powerful radars can monitor anything that happens from a safe distance.

However, if the goal of the coalition was to extend "interdiction areas" or to create "safe areas" deep inside Syria, there would be only one way of doing this: AWACS planes would need to fly over Syrian territory, as any operation of that kind while remaining outside Syrian airspace would require a unreasonable number of planes to cover enough ground.

………

That is where the MIG-31s come in. Sending in these planes, their crews, as well as all the necessary logistics into Syria, could be a clear message intended at disrupting any idea the Coalition might have of establishing "safe zones", "security perimeters" or "no fly zones", whatever you want to call them, without actual backing from international law.

Based on current Syrian-Russian defence agreements, Russian – or Syrian – MIG31s would be fully justified in shooting down any aircraft deemed hostile over Syrian territory. The MIG-31s are well equipped for that kind of mission: they can take off and reach a flight altitude of over 30 000 feet in under three minutes, making them immune from any MANPADs the rebels might be armed with.

Coordinates of an AWACS plane - or any other aircraft for that matter - could be sent in from radar stations on the ground, and the signal could not be jammed nor intercepted. The MIG-31 is also equipped with multimode radar, allowing for onboard monitoring over long distances, and it is armed with BVR missiles that have a reach of up to 400 km. Due to the ballistic trajectory of these missiles, their interception also would be very difficult.

In other words, once they are in the air, the MIG-31s could fire their missiles and, at that point, nothing could stop them from reaching their target, whether that is an AWACS or possibly even a fighter jet preparing for close support mission of anti-government forces.

Now, of course, if an AWACS was shut down by a Russian jet, that could be the starting point to something like WW3. The Russians don't want that, and neither do we. So what this means, is that their troop deployment is signalling us something: they know what we are up to and they are not willing to let go of it.

This aircraft, NATO Designation Foxhound, an update on the MiG-25 Foxbat is a single purpose aircraft designed as an interceptor.

It is designed to do one thing, get to high altitudes and high speeds quickly, and fire big missiles at long ranges to shoot down other aircraft, particularly large and highly visible aircraft, like AWACS,

We really need to tell the House of Saud that we will no longer support their moves for Sunni hegemony in the region, nor will we support the (over a thousand years old) "Great Game" between Sunni and Shia.

Doing the House of Saud's bidding serves no one but the house of Saud.

While we are at it, perhaps it would be a good idea to drone the guy who founded ISIS, Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who as head of the Saudi intelligence services, was instrumental in getting the group up and running.

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