Last year the most likely flash point for a renewed east-west confrontation looked like Ukraine, where the USA and NATO were confronted with Russia’s occupation of disputed parts of the country. Now the focus has moved to Syria. The west would like to defeat Islamic State, but also wants President al-Assad out of office; Russia is equally committed to getting rid of ISIS but is solidly behind the current Syrian government.
There’s an obvious difference of opinion there, but while western governments debate what to do about the Syria situation Putin has taken bold action. Russia has now deployed a substantial air wing to the country and started a series of strikes against anti-government targets. The first attacks were against the Army of Conquest, a “moderate” Islamist coalition that fights against both ISIS and government forces but includes the al Qaida-affiliated al Nusrah Front. The western-backed Free Syrian Army seems to have been hit as well. This choice of targets was probably calculated to send a message that Russia will fight to keep Assad in power, but future raids are likely to hit ISIS pretty hard.
The presence of a wing-strength Russian air contingent puts them in a commanding position relative to the west. Anything we do will have to be done from outside the country, while Putin has substantial forces in Syria and closely embedded within the regime. Indications so far are that they’re willing to deconflict their operations with NATO strikes, so any planned US or allied attacks on ISIS shouldn’t be affected, but direct attacks on Assad’s forces are now a different story.
One key tool used by the United States and its allies is the imposition of no-fly zones, but as far as Syria goes that’s probably now off the table. It’s one thing to tell a Middle Eastern air force to stay on the ground, but nobody wants to be faced with the prospect of a Russian aircraft breaking a no-fly zone and a NATO jet being ordered to shoot it down. That could quickly escalate until ISIS and the fate of Assad were the least of anyone’s worries, so it’s likely Putin’s bombers will be able to fly with impunity. The Syrian Air Force is also equipped with Russian aircraft, so any attacks against them run the risk of a costly mistake.
The composition of the Russian air wing now operating out of Latakia sends a political message. ISIS and the other rebel groups don’t have any air capability, so Moscow hasn’t sent obvious air-to-air fighters like the Su-27 or MiG-31. The bulk of the force is dedicated ground pounders; 12 Su-25 Frogfoot close air support planes (the Russian A-10 equivalent), 12 Su-24 Fencer precision attack aircraft and 6 of the new Su-34 Fullback medium bombers. Of course, there are also 4 Su-30 Flanker-C multirole fighters. These have a useful ground attack capability, which was probably used as the pretext for adding them to the wing, but it’s also a formidable air superiority fighter with a heavy missile armament and electronics that come very close to most front-line US aircraft. It’s also a strong candidate for the most agile operational fighter in the world. All of the strike aircraft can carry defensive AA missiles too; Putin’s air group can hold its own against any likely threat at least in the short term.
By deploying this force, Russia has made a strong statement of its support for Assad. The Latakia wing is one of the most powerful air groups in the Middle East right now, and its bases are defended by advanced surface to air missiles – something Russia is traditionally very good at – and a short battalion of marines with heavy armor, artillery, and long range MLRS in support. Unless we’re prepared to go to war over the political future of Bashar al-Assad, the initiative looks to be firmly in the Kremlin’s hands right now. The reaction of our political leaders should be interesting. Military intervention was approved by the Russian parliament on the morning of September 30th; by that afternoon the first bombs were hitting their targets. Whatever else you can say about Putin’s government, it can turn words into actions very fast indeed. I somehow doubt our response will be as decisive.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.