Shadow of Guernica hovering over today’s Syria

The Russian military has newer, more lethal weaponry at its disposal.
Sunday 15/04/2018
A Russian helicopter flies over Syrian government forces on the south-western outskirts of Deir ez-Zor.(AFP)
Testing capabilities. A Russian helicopter flies over Syrian government forces on the south-western outskirts of Deir ez-Zor. (AFP)

Is Syria the Guernica of the 21st century? In the late 1930s, the Spanish town of Guernica suffered terribly in the country’s horrific civil war, serving as a testing ground for the new weapons Adolf Hitler was readying for the German Army to use. The carnage lives forever in Picasso’s famous painting.

Syria seems to be playing the role of Guernica for Russian President Vladimir Putin as he tests new weapons in a real war setting. This is key to the Russian Army’s transformation into a formidable force that is not to be underestimated.

Russian troops look nothing like the demoralised and defeated force that could not wait to get out of Afghanistan after years of battling Islamists, such as Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.

From their second world war-style helmets to their uniforms and from the familiar assault rifle the AK-47 Kalashnikov to ageing T-72 battle tanks, Russian soldiers have an upgrade. They now have better means to fight wars.

In the past few years, Russia has invested heavily in sophisticated radar and computer-jamming systems, surface-to-air missiles, tanks and armoured personnel carriers. The Russian military has newer, more lethal weaponry at its disposal.

The ageing fleet of MiGs and Sukhois is to be replaced with the Su-30 family of fighter planes, which is in development. Western military aviation experts claim Russia’s newest aircraft can perform as well as anything from the NATO bloc.

Just as effective as US deterrent systems is Russia’s S-300 missile defence system and the newer S-400, which ranks among the world’s most advanced and sophisticated military radar. The S-500 system is under development.

On the ground, the United States, thought to be the world’s most powerful country, can muster up to 9,000 tanks whereas Russia has 15,400. If a ground war were to be fought on the plains of Europe, battle tanks would play a vital role.

Russia is not the only country testing its capabilities in Syria. There appear to be three fronts involving Russia, Turkey and Iran, as well as the United States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and various European countries.

The three fronts — Afrin, Idlib, Damascus — have emerged as flashpoints. Each shows various strands of military activity, which add to the expanding conflict. With skirmishes and proxy wars growing exponentially, the possibility of the Syrian conflict becoming a full-fledged world war is amplified every day.

As tensions rise, the situation is not helped by rhetoric from the White House and the Kremlin, as well as from Tehran and Ankara.

US President Donald Trump threatened action against Syria in response to another accusation the regime deployed chemical agents against its civilian population. In doing so, Trump raised the stakes in an already high-risk game. A dangerous sidebar to the main feature — the war in Syria — is the dispute between Iran and the United States over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

Trump has threatened to withdraw from the deal agreed by the United States and the Europeans to regulate Tehran’s nuclear capabilities. Iranian President Hassan Rohani has warned that the United States would regret withdrawal and that Iran would respond in “less than a week.”

Considering that both Iran and the United States have troops and proxy forces in Syria, the risk of escalation and a major conflagration is all too real.