Russia brings out big guns, threatening wider firestorm
BEIRUT - Russian President Vladimir Putin, incensed by Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian jet and the Islamic State’s bombing of a Russian airliner, is deploying Moscow’s most advanced air-defence missile and other powerful weapons systems in Syria. The move is likely to escalate a toxic war that threatens the entire Middle East.
This build-up underlines Putin’s determination to ensure that Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, remains in power but it risks escalating the conflict at the same time that the Islamic State (ISIS) is widening its operations from the Syria-Iraq theatre to other parts of the Middle East and Western Europe.
The Russian moves are taking place amid growing tensions between the various powers that are openly in conflict with ISIS — the United States, France and Turkey, with British Prime Minister David Cameron pushing hard to secure parliamentary approval for joining the air campaign.
Putin wants blood after Turkish F-16 fighters shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 jet, which allegedly strayed into Turkish airspace on November 24th. He denied any violation and branded the attack “a stab in the back”.
A US build-up at the strategically important Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey with A-10 Thunderbolt ground attack jets, F-15 air-superiority fighters and the deployment of the US Air Force’s elite unit for rescuing downed fliers in hostile territory suggests the Americans are taking precautions against possible aerial clashes.
They said November 20th they have also deployed an E-3 Sentry airborne early warning and control aircraft in the region, an ominous sign that they are expecting trouble.
With the arrival of France’s sole aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean, Syrian skies are becoming dangerously crowded with armed jets conducting divergent, and sometimes uncoordinated, combat missions.
The deployment of the carrier Charles de Gaulle, flagship of the French Navy, triples France’s air strength in the region. It was a direct consequence of ISIS’s recent wave of blistering terrorist attacks that targeted global powers battling ISIS’s Islamic caliphate spanning Syria and Iraq.
These began with the October 10th bombing of a political rally in Turkey, followed by the October 31st bombing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai peninsula, the November 8th suicide bombings in Hezbollah’s Beirut stronghold and the slaughter in Paris on November 13th.
It is not at all clear what triggered ISIS’s attacks outside the war zone but the terror onslaught began after Russia’s armed intervention in September to rescue Assad after he suffered a string of severe military setbacks.
If the Russians are raising the stakes with the deployment of heavy firepower and emerging as the central axis of an international military coalition dedicated to crushing the caliphate as a symbol of a resurgent Islam, ISIS may ratchet up its revenge attacks to exact an even deadlier toll than the 700 killed since October.
Much may hinge on what the Russians are doing now, particularly with reports of Russian ground troops joining the fray.
In recent days, Putin unleashed broadsides of cruise missiles from Russian warships in the eastern Mediterranean and the Caspian Sea, 1,500 km to the east, and from strategic bombers such as the four-engine Tu-22M Backfire, the Tu-95M Bear and the Tu-160 Blackjack.
These are updated versions of Cold War Soviet aircraft designed to drop nuclear weapons on the United States and Western Europe. They remain just as lethal in their new role, probably more so given that ISIS’s military capabilities are much less formidable than those of Moscow’s nuclear-armed Cold War foes.
These warplanes, the backbone of the Russian Air Force’s strategic command, doubled the strike force deployed at a Russian-controlled air base, established in September outside the Mediterranean port of Latakia in north-western Syria. That base, where 34 smaller fighter aircraft are deployed, is too small for the strategic bombers.
Twenty-five of the bombers, with eight Sukhoi Su-34 and four Su-27 fighters, have been deployed at the Mozdok air base in Northern Ossetia on Russia’s southern border with Georgia.
To hit Syrian targets they have to fly through Iranian and Iraqi airspace, as they did on their first strike mission on November 17th, when they pounded ISIS positions in the northern city of Raqqa, de facto capital of its self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate, and around the southern city of Deir ez-Zor.
A first wave of Tu-22Ms hit targets around the divided city of Aleppo while a second wave of Tu- 95Ms and Tu-160s blasted rebel positions in the countryside around Aleppo and in neighbouring Idlib province where the Russians have been supporting offensives by Assad’s forces.
All told, Russia’s Defence Ministry said it launched 34 Kh-555 cruise missiles and Kh-101 stealthy cruise missiles, by far the single most powerful air assault of the Syrian conflict and a possible harbinger of the firestorm that seems to be building up.