The strong presence of Russian ground, air and naval forces in Syria will diminish America’s military options there and across a wider spectrum that includes Turkey, Lebanon and the eastern Mediterranean. The first casualty to be knocked over, as seen by DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, is the US-Turkish-Jordanian plan for jointly establishing no-fly zones over sensitive borderlands – although this project, that was supposed to give rebel forces a leg up, never actually took off.
Now that Syrian air space is about to be crowded with flying Russian interceptors (MiG 31), uncoordinated with the US CENTCOM or air force command centers in Iraq or Turkey, US air units are bound to consider the danger of collisions between US and Russian warplanes.
It was this danger that White House spokesman Josh Earnest was referring to when he warned that a Russian military buildup would “risk confrontation with counter-ISIL coalition forces that included the United States.”
Language this harsh has not been heard between the two powers since they were ranged against each other in the 1973 Yom Kippur War between Israel and two Arab nations, Egypt and Syria.
US drone action in Syria seriously hobbled
American vulnerability is exacerbated by the exit from the region of the last remaining aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt-CVN-71, which sails for home port in San Diego towards the end of the month.
The long gap before the arrival of the next carrier, the USS Harry S. Truman-CVN-75, will no doubt be used by the Russians to strengthen their new military buildup in Syria.
But even with the Truman on hand, US drones will not be able to take to the sky without prior coordination with Syrian air force headquarters in Damascus or the Russian command center in Latakia. Since, as matters stand today, such coordination appears farfetched, US air force and special operations planners will find they are seriously hobbled in three spheres:
1. US air strikes against ISIS in Syria will have to be reduced or eliminated altogether, unless Washington reaches an agreement with Moscow over the sharing of “windows space.”
In fact, this standoff may eventually lead to a US-Russian deal for joint military action against ISIS. But this is a remote prospect at this point.
No more Delta commando raids against ISIS
2. The US will be constrained from assisting ground battles against the Islamic State launched by handpicked Syrian groups. Aid for the Syrian Kurdish YPG group was one example. Another rare US intervention took place on Aug. 31, to rescue “Division 30” rebels from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
Division 30 consisted of the first of the 54 Syrian rebels to be trained by US instructors. It went into action as the vanguard for a bigger operation by a moderate anti-Assad force. The US air strike came too late to save the group from Nusra fighters, who took them prisoner. And the larger operation was put on ice.
3. With flocks of Russian assault helicopters and drones buzzing over the different Syrian warfronts, it is hard to see how the US can repeat its successful, but extremely rare, raid of last May by a Delta special operations unit, which was dropped by Black Hawk helicopters and Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft on an Islamic State compound in eastern Syria. A dozen terrorists were killed in the operation, including the group’s oil smuggling chief, Abu Sayyaf, whose wife was taken captive.
The very notion of a possible collision between US and Russian forces in Syria is enough to curtail Israel’s military leeway as well, in four sensitive spheres.
Israel must reconsider ops against Iranian or Hizballah targets
a) The same limitations facing US air strikes against ISIS in Syria also confront the Israeli air force for operations against Iranian or Hizballah targets in that country.
Israel’s biggest special operation ever in Syria took place on Sept. 6, 2007. Its raiders demolished a nuclear facility under construction at al-Kibar in eastern Syria. The plant was a joint Iranian-North-Korean Syrian enterprise that was designed to supply all three with plutonium for their nuclear programs.
More recently, on Jan. 18, Israeli helicopter-borne missiles killed the Iranian general Mohammad Ali Allah-Dadi, military adviser to Bashar Assad, while he was surveying the Golan town of Quneitra opposite Israel’s lines. Six Hizballah officers also died in the attack, among them Jihad Mughniyeh.
The attack aborted their plan for an Iranian-Hizballah missile position to go up just across the border from Israel.
Any Israeli planning for such operations henceforth will have to take into account the presence of Russian forces at any targeted location, and their possible intervention to stymie it.
Russian forces may target S. Syrian rebel buffer on Israel’s border
b) Israel has invested time, money and planning in assembling certain local rebel militias in southern Syria as a shield against pro-Iranian forces, such as Hizballah, reaching its northern border, as well as that of Jordan next door. Some of those groups are associated with Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, which also happens to be the strongest and most effective arm of the Syrian rebel movement. Israel claims the groups it sponsors are not Al Qaeda, but local factions fighting alongside Nusra.
However, the Russian forces gathering in Syria now are under orders to go for Al-Nusra, both as an arm of al Qaeda and a dangerous threat to the Assad regime. This may raise the specter of an Israeli-Russian clash of arms. Nonetheless, loath to break up this important buffer, Israel will most likely provide its combatants with more intelligence and effective weapons, for the purpose of deterring Russian forces from messing with them.
Moscow hobnobs with Hizballah
c) Israel will keep a close eye on any interchanges developing between the Russian and Hizballah forces in Syria.
Will the umbrella Moscow is spreading over the Assad regime also cover Hizballah? It is possible, since relations between Moscow and Beirut have always been good and Hizballah delegations have visited Moscow more than once in recent years – openly and under cover.
Ten months ago, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who is in charge of the Kremlin’s Middle East desk, paid a short visit to Beirut and met Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Although Hizballah is listed in the US as a terrorist group, the arrival of Russian troops on the Syrian war scene demands an Israeli review of how to treat Iran’s Lebanese Shiite proxy in the event of it gaining a second sponsor, Moscow.
d) The Russian warships cruising opposite the Syrian coast may come uncomfortably close to Israel’s Mediterranean offshore gas fields. Their presence could well tie the hands of the Israeli Navy in this stretch of water.