President Donald Trump made the gesture of phoning President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday, March 20, to congratulate him on his re-election by a 76 percent majority of voters. Although they discussed disarmament, North Korea, and Ukraine, most of their conversation was taken up with the Syrian crisis.
The Turkish army’s conquest of Kurdish Afrin in northern Syria, and the Syrian army’s defeat of rebel forces in East Ghouta – backed by Russian air support and pro-Iranian militias – stole the limelight this week. These events further fueled the military tensions simmering in Syria between the US and Russia.
On Tuesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov brought this friction to the surface by calling on the United States to “abandon unconditionally its plans for a strike against the Syrian government forces and Damascus.” He went on to say: “Any such unlawful use of force like that almost a year ago at the Shayrat air base would be an act of aggression against a sovereign state, as defined by the UN Charter.”
The Russian official was referring to the US cruise missile attack on that air base which the Trump administration ordered in reprisal for a chemical massacre of Syrian civilians.
Ryabkov then commented: “The situation in Eastern Ghouta has changed radically for the better,” but warned against “provocations,” which he claimed could include “staging the use of chemical weapons by government troops” as they continued to advance.
Chief of Staff Gen. Very Gerasimov added that Russia would respond to a US strike on Syria “if the lives of Russian servicemen were threatened and target any missiles and launchers involved.”
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that, unlike last year, the Trump administration’s considerations over whether to inflict a major strike on the Damascus regime are unrelated to chemical warfare. This time, the Pentagon and National Security Council at the White House are pondering the fallout from two events:
- Assad’s wins against the rebel strongholds in East Ghouta, with Russian help, are bolstering his regime to a degree that is unacceptable in Washington. They provide the entire insurgent movement with a model and disincentive against continuing to fight. This effect may cut the local ground out from under the US military foothold in northeastern Syria and its strategic positions along the Iraqi border.
- But a greater peril to US military operations in Syria turned up this week: The arrival at the Russian Khmeimim air base of a helicopter carrying on board a Rychag-AV active jamming station, is reported here by DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources. This piece of Russian equipment is designed to detect and suppress electronic command-and-control systems as well as the radar of surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles. In this way, it provides protection for fixed-wing and rotor-wing aircraft, drones, land vehicles and surface ships within a 400km radius. The Rychag-AV station can suppress diverse targets simultaneously, and function on board ships, aircraft and land vehicles, as well as helicopters. Moscow is clearly striving to beef up Syrian defenses against sophisticated US and Israeli attacks.
The number of helicopters the Russians shipped to Syria is unknown. This package of sophisticated electronic jamming devices is tailored precisely to counter US and Israel air forces conducting any air and missile strikes against targets in Syria within a range of 400km. Such stations, if their spread is properly computed, are capable of disrupting any US military activities taking place from northern Iraq to the eastern Mediterranean and points in between. They can also interfere with IDF activity inside northern Israel and along the Mediterranean coast. Do the Americans and Israelis have counter-measures for neutralizing the Russian Rychag-AV? The answer to this must await another round of US or Israeli military operations in the Syrian war arena.