Russian sea power deployed in Syrian campaign
WASHINGTON - While Russian air operations in Syria are gathering much media attention, Russia is flexing another of its military options to smite the terrorists battling the government of beleaguered Syrian President Bashar Assad — sea power.
Russia began its Syrian counterterrorist operations in late September. Following a series of air strikes, on October 7th a Russian Caspian Flotilla frigate and three destroyers launched 26 cruise missiles at 11 targets in Syria. The missiles flew about 1,500km through Iranian and Iraqi airspace before hitting sites in Raqqa, Aleppo and Idlib provinces.
The Syrian ambassador to Russia said the attacks took place after the exact locations of Islamic State (ISIS) bases were given to Russia. The missiles used in the strikes, the Kalibr 3M-14T, NATO designation SS-N-30A, represent an improved version of the Granat land-attack cruise missile, similar to the US Navy’s Tomahawk BGM-109.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said all the cruise missiles hit their targets, destroying them and causing no civilian casualties. The launches followed a wave of Russian air strikes in the same areas.
A second series of cruise missile launches on November 17th caused the European Air Safety Agency (EASA) to issue a Safety Information Bulletin (SIB) describing the low-level flight of the missiles across northern Iran and Iraq to reach Syria.
Most recently, Caspian Flotilla warships launched a volley of 18 cruise missiles at seven targets in Syria. The Russian Ministry of Defence reported: “All targets were hit successfully.” The Caspian strikes were assisted by cruise missiles from Russian warships in the Mediterranean, one of which Shoigu noted killed more than 600 terrorists in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province. Ten warships are deployed in Russia’s Syrian operation, six in the Mediterranean.
Given the barbarities perpetuated by ISIS in Syria and Iraq and now abroad in Egypt and Paris, one would think that Russia’s stout military response would win plaudits but such is not the case on the political front. Russia supports Assad’s remaining in power, a position anathema to the United States and Turkey, both of which support “good” jihadis seeking his ouster.
There are now two coalitions converging over Syria: a US-led one and a Russia-led one that includes Iran.
This divergence of political goals has intensified, leading to the November 24th shooting down of a Russian Su-24M warplane by a Turkish F-16, which was bombing ethnic Turkmen in northern Syria battling Syrian government forces. Ankara maintains the Russian aircraft violated Turkish airspace, a charge Russia denies.
In reply, Shoigu said that the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s flagship Moskva cruiser, which carries S-300 surface-to-air missiles among its armaments, was redeployed off the Syrian coast “and is ready to destroy any aerial target that presents a threat to our aviation”.
Russian naval deployments have a great advantage over both “boots on the ground” or air power, as Syrian terrorists can’t reach them. On shore, while Russian warships are using Latakia as a base, it is heavily guarded, and cruise missile launches from the Caspian are hundreds of kilometres from the war zone.
There is little sign that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan intends to modify his bellicose stance against Russia’s Syrian policy, leaving open the possibility of further armed conflict. But Russia is hardly likely to back down, as militants from its turbulent Caucasian region have rallied to ISIS eager to sharpen combat skills before returning to their homes.
Accordingly, Russia’s Syrian strikes not only assist an ally but forestall terrorists from heading to Russia.
Over the past three centuries the Ottoman Empire fought more wars with Russia than any other country — 11 — and lost them all. As Erdogan seeks to recapture Ottoman glory, he seems to have overlooked the inconvenient fact that if pressed, Moscow might use its armed forces, including its navy, to remind him.