In Syria, US and Russia edge closer to collision
BEIRUT - As a government offensive escalates across northern and central Syria, the United States and Russia appear to be edging closer to confrontation in the complex conflict as US aircraft dropped 50 tonnes of ammunition to rebel groups battling forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad with tank-killing missiles while Russian warplanes stepped up anti-rebel air strikes.
US officials stressed that October 12th airdrops to the rebels were not in areas where Russian jets are launching air strikes that are helping to save Assad’s beleaguered regime from collapse after four-and-a-half years of fighting.
Military sources told The Arab Weekly that large quantities of US-made TOW anti-tank missiles, mainly taken from Saudi Arabia’s vast stocks, provided to the northern rebels have been responsible for halting regime armoured forces.
The US action to bolster the rebels fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) group in northern Syrian puts American aircraft squarely in the war zone, as Washington shifts its strategy to support so-called moderate rebel forces to directly arming these fighters inside Syria after scrapping a $500 million programme to train a rebel army. That effort was undermined by a series of humiliating setbacks.
The United States, which heads a coalition conducting air strikes against ISIS in Syria, says some of its aircraft have had close encounters with Russian Sukhoi jets as the skies above Syria become increasingly crowded.
If nothing else, the Americans have been increasingly pressured into taking direct action in a war in which US President Barack Obama has sought to avoid entanglement but must now counter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bold intervention that led to basing Russian warplanes and attack helicopters in north-western Syria to provide close air support to Assad’s forces.
On the diplomatic front, Putin has sought to reach out to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, key backers of the “moderate” rebels, Assad’s virulent foes, being pounded by Russian jets. Not surprisingly, Putin’s approaches have received the cold shoulder.
The Russian blitz began on September 30th, largely targeting rebel forces supported by the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners. It included 26 cruise missiles fired from warships in Caspian Sea on October 7th.
“The strikes demonstrate that Russia’s naval assets give it power to hit targets in Iraq,” observed the US-based global security consultancy Stratfor. Russian inroads in Iraq are also challenging US influence there.
The US airdrops in Syria began on October 11th, nearly two weeks after Putin abruptly raised the stakes in the confusing, multi-sided conflict by launching the Russian air assault, the first time Russia has been involved in combat outside the former Soviet Union since the Red Army’s disastrous 1979-89 foray into Afghanistan.
Obama, seemingly anxious to adjust his controversial hands-off strategy in Syria to avoid yet another Middle Eastern entanglement as the US withdraws from the region after calamitous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, now seeks to achieve some success in northern Syria.