Evidence has been growing in the last several days that Russia has moved air force assets into Syria and is operating them over Syrian territory.
Initial reporting came from Israeli media, but was rejected by Russian military sources speaking to Russia Today. The reports of a Russian deployment have also been tied in some media outlets to a delivery of Russian jets (MiG-31s) to the Syrian regime in August. The implication is that the arrival of Russian jets is merely the delivery taking place – or, alternatively, that a Russian deployment is occurring under cover of the delivery.
On Wednesday, however, the invaluable “Aviationist” rounded up some informative images that reportedly show Russian jets operating over Syria, along with a record of tracking on the FlightRadar24 site showing a Russian military transport aircraft flying to and from Damascus (identified by its IFF – Identification Friend or Foe – emissions.)
The images at The Aviationist, originally posted to Twitter, show Russian jets. (That is, jets from the Russian air force and not Russian-made jets sold to Syria, with the possible, although unlikely, exception of the MiG-29. See IDs annotated on the images, on which I concur with David Ceniciotti.)
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What we have to take on faith is where they were observed, which is said to be in the skies over Idlib, southwest of Aleppo (map below). The reported source is a Twitter account associated with the al-Nusra Front.
But cumulative signs are pointing to Russia having air force assets (including drones) now in Syria, and operating there.
Russian ground forces reported active in the last month
The evidence of air force operations must be added to earlier reporting, from the last several weeks, that Russian ground forces are joining the fight in an active role. Regional sources have been reporting a Russian presence in northwestern Syria since at least mid-August, with a Russian tactical base reportedly being built near Latakia at Jablah. In late August, Russian soldiers were heard communicating in combat near Latakia, in conjunction with the operation of Russian armored personnel carriers, BTR-82As (depicted in the Syrian National Defense Force video from 23 August).
The mainstream media have now picked up on this reporting.
A recent sighting in the Turkish Straits, moreover, reinforces that this is a definite trend. On 20 August, an amphibious landing ship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, Nikolay Filchenkov, was photographed heading toward the Mediterranean with a cargo of Russian infantry vehicles – including APCs – on the deck. Bosphorus Naval News, which has tracked naval activity through the Bosphorus for years, indicates that this is the first time a Russian naval ship has been seen transporting such military cargo en route the Med. Nikolay Filchenko’s destination was undoubtedly Syria (probably Latakia, where Russia has maintained shore facilities for decades).
This is not a disembodied tactical move to merely counter ISIS. It’s a major Russian geopolitical move to gain leverage in the region.
It is about ISIS, in part. Russia is uniquely troubled by the very Islamist jihadis — Chechens and other ethnic Muslims from the Caucasus — who have been closely associated with the formation and internationalization of ISIS. Russia has a legitimate concern about what ISIS may achieve in Syria, not just for the interests of the Assad regime but for her own homeland security.
But the game-changer for Russia is the recently launched joint U.S.-Turkey operation in northern Syria, which looks to proceed under the de facto leadership of Turkey. That factor alone will drive Russia to want a countervailing military presence in the area. Turkey isn’t as interested in destroying ISIS as in exploiting ISIS, and affecting the ultimate political outcome in Syria.
In the face of this new development on Syria’s northern border, Moscow won’t leave Iran to carry their alliance’s water in Syria. Iran is feeling the boost from geopolitical momentum in 2015, and will be increasingly likely to ignore what the Russians want.
Note, meanwhile, that Russia is putting forces in Syria in spite of the cost of other priorities, especially in Ukraine and Eastern Europe. This is not a mere gesture.
Game officially changes
Moscow has supported the Assad regime up to now in a more indirect and deniable way. That ends with this insertion of air power. This appears to be the regional-power fight over the fate of Syria, being launched before our eyes.
If you haven’t understood clearly that Obama’s U.S. is not in the driver’s seat on any of this, now is the time to take that onboard. (As various commentators point out, we need to be worried first about basic coordination with the Russians so we don’t shoot each other. Sharing a combat zone, but not being explicitly on the same side, is a very, very undesirable situation.)
Not only is the U.S. not in the driver’s seat: Vladimir Putin doesn’t expect Obama’s America to do anything about this. That’s why he thinks he can get away with it. We must anticipate this sea change in geopolitical calculations when there is no Western alliance pursuing alternative, positive policies. This is what the world does when it’s not being ridden herd on by a liberal-consensus superpower with energetic alliances.
Time has run out; changes that cannot be stopped — fundamental changes to the regional correlation of forces, and how the futures of Syria and Iraq (and their neighbors) will be decided — are already underway. The consequences may or may not include generalized “war” in some form. I tend to doubt the mass-scale war, largely because the status-quo-busters in 2015 (Iran, ISIS) don’t include a military power situated like Nazi Germany in 1939. Mass-scale war happens when it has to be waged to fight back against such a power.
But the fallout, from patches of disputed territory and instability across the Middle East and North Africa, can be as bad as the fallout from a mass-scale war. With America not exercising leadership, our forces in the region will be at the end of a long and lonely tether, and our core interests – maritime security, our allies’ security and independence of action, global trade – will go by the wayside.
America can’t escape the effects of the Middle East by disengaging from it. There’s no stopping the process now underway, and the fact that Russia has moved in while American forces are there, operating in Syria, is a measure of the new level of determination Moscow has transitioned to. Fasten your seatbelts.