Despite pullback, Putin’s ‘Fortress Syria’ is a regional threat
BEIRUT - Russia’s much-hailed partial military withdrawal from Syria after a withering five-and-a-half-month air blitz that saved the regime of Bashar Assad masks a winning strategic stroke of President Vladimir Putin by which he re-established Moscow’s power in the Middle East.
Recalling most of the 40 combat aircraft that formed the core of Russia’s expeditionary force to Syria in September does not mean Moscow is pulling out. On the contrary, Russia is in the Middle East to stay, adding a new layer of volatility to a region gutted by conflict.
Moscow now has the infrastructure in place for maintaining a military presence in the Middle East in the waning days of Pax Americana and the violent geopolitical transformation under way in the region. It can redeploy its forces in Syria swiftly any time it wants.
With the Russian intervention in Syria, which may have edged that benighted country closer to a peace settlement but has not crushed the Islamic State (ISIS), Putin has re-established Moscow as a formidable player in a region where it was a major power before the collapse of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago.
The Russians are expected to maintain a long-term military foothold in Syria, including various intelligence-gathering facilities similar to the ones Moscow had there before the war erupted in March 2011. These were primarily designed to monitor Israel, to the south, and NATO naval operations in the eastern Mediterranean, long a target for Russian expansion. With Moscow calling the shots, these are likely to multiply.
Even without the combat jets, Russia has significant military muscle in Syria, namely the S-400 advanced air-defence system, capable of countering ballistic missiles as well as aircraft, at its airbase outside the coastal city of Latakia.
This is a trump card for Putin. Its installation in Syria was one of the most important outcomes of his bold stroke in sending military forces into Syria. The deployment’s objectives were not just to rescue Assad, Russia’s sole remaining Arab ally, from the jaws of defeat, but to unilaterally install strategic weapons in the heart of the region that Putin could not have inserted without risking a confrontation with the United States and Israel.
The S-400 is one of the most formidable air defence systems in the world and one that worries the United States and Israel. Assad wanted to buy the S-400 but Moscow could not have sold it to him without provoking an international outcry.
As it turned out, Putin cannily slipped in an S-400 battery without opposition, justifying its presence after he provoked Turkey into shooting down a Russian jet that supposedly strayed into Turkish airspace on November 24th, 2015. Indeed, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg declared bluntly: “This does not look like an accident.”
There is much more to the S-400 than defending Syria’s forces in the country. Although defined as a defensive system, it is a strategic offensive weapon with an extraordinary reach, capable of tracking hundreds of targets simultaneously.
It has a killing range of 400km. This means it can reach deep into Israeli airspace, most of southern Turkey, northern Jordan and all of the eastern Mediterranean, including Cyprus, where Britain has an airbase, and shoot down aircraft or missiles without warning — in effect creating a Russian no-fly zone that encompasses two airbases where US jets are based — Incirlik in southern Turkey and Al-Shaheed Muwaffaq Salti in Jordan.
Compared to US President Barack Obama’s reluctance to get dragged into another Middle Eastern dogfight, Putin is demonstrating to Iran and the Arab world that Moscow puts its money where its mouth is. At the very least, the United States and its allies must now include the Russian factor into their regional planning.
Stoltenberg told the BBC that the S-400 deployment is part of a wider Russian strategy to inhibit Western military operations from the Baltic, through Ukraine and Crimea to the eastern Mediterranean — what is known in military-speak as “anti-access capabilities”.
But it is at sea, in the Mediterranean, where the Russians are reasserting themselves most visibly. They currently have a substantial naval squadron in the eastern Mediterranean, largely deployed to support the intervention in Syria, which it did with two barrages of Kalibr cruise missiles in conjunction with raids by long-range Russian strategic bombers based in North Ossetia.
The naval group is expected to remain while the small Russian naval facility at Tartus, which has long been little more than a supply depot, is expanded into a full-blown logistics base operating alongside the Russian airbase established outside Latakia in September. Damascus has given Moscow free rein to upgrade Tartus, through which Moscow had secretly delivered arms to Assad over the years.
The missile cruiser Moskva, which was the Russian flagship in the Mediterranean during air operations in Syria, has been replaced with the Varyag, from the Pacific Fleet. Russian reports indicate the flotilla totals 12-15 ships, led by the Kalibr-armed missile cruiser Varyag and includes missile-armed corvettes along with patrol, anti-submarine and amphibious landing ships cruising between Cyprus, Rhodes and Crete and the Turkish coast.
Analyst Stephen Blank of the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think-tank, cites Admiral Aleksandr Vitko, commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet (BSF), as saying that Russian warships armed with cruise missiles will be a “perpetual presence” in the Mediterranean as Moscow seeks to restore its influence in the region as the United States disengages.
“If Russia is successful in this endeavour, it would represent a strong challenge to the US and its regional and NATO allies in the Mediterranean — not least Israel and Turkey as well as the Balkans and the Caucasus,” Blank said.
There is a downside to the Kremlin’s muscle-flexing and that could inhibit further Russian adventures in the region. Russia is no longer the great power it was during the Cold War, although Putin seeks to reclaim that status, and it cannot afford a prolonged confrontation with the United States.
Russia “is facing a number of critical domestic problems: catastrophic population decline, economic recession, unsustainable military spending at the expense of much-needed infrastructure improvement and many other issues,” observed Anna Borshchevskaya of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Russia is also losing the domestic battle with radical Islam, a situation that will only likely be worsened by its Syria involvement.”