Officials in Washington and Moscow started to talk this week about a proxy war in Syria, specifically between the US and Russia, or US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that this perspective understates the case in Syria as in the rest of the Middle East.
The Syrian war has in fact generated a five-sided contest fought by the US, Russia, Iran, the Sunnis and Shiites of the Middle East, with ISIS looming at the center. It was touched off in mid-August by Iran which, for the first time since the mid-19th century, sent substantial numbers of troops to fight in a foreign land, Syria.
It is rumored that in the last few days, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave the commander of Iran’s forces in Syria and Iraq, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, strict instructions to take Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, even if its capture costs the lives of 100,000 soldiers.
That kind of bold statement has never been heard before from Khamenei, who typically seeks to achieve his ends in targeted foreign countries by secretive methods.
This determination has not only galvanized Syria’s Sunni rebels into frenzied warfare against Iran, but Sunni communities across the region as well. In other words, the Sunni-Shiite wars in Yemen, Iraq and Syria are intensifying.
Can US and Russian warplanes avoid trouble in the same airspace?
The second significant step that widened the proxy war was the arrival of Russian air, naval and ground forces in Syria in the second half of September and during October. In the beginning of October, the Russian air force deployed its advanced Sukhoi SU-30 warplanes. Shortly afterwards, those planes violated the airspace of Turkey, a member of NATO.
It took President Obama a month to respond to the Russian escalation, mainly out of reluctance to exacerbate the tensions between the US and Russia. Finally, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, the US announced that it was sending 12 F-15C Eagle fighters, armed only with air-to-air missiles, to Turkey. Each jet carries eight missiles.
The American spokesmen intentionally emphasized that the planes are for air-to-air combat, and that they would protect American and Turkish planes carrying out air strikes against ISIS targets. The F-15C warplanes are to operate from Incirlik airbase in southern Turkey.
The only threat to the F-15C in Syria is the Russian SU-30.
Ironically, on the same day that the deployment was announced, two warplanes, one American and one Russian, carried out a test drill for coordination between the two air forces in Syrian airspace. The test lasted just three minutes. While working to prevent clashes, it is also true that the US air force is taking no chances and preparing for the contingency of combat against the Russian air force.
The Kurdish military tossed between US and Russian rivals
Amid this escalation, where are the most probable flashpoints between the two world powers?
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources point to two areas, the Kurdish provinces in northeastern Syria and the districts close to the borders with Israel and Jordan in the south.
Until now, Washington and Moscow have been quietly but intensely competing to recruit the Syrian Kurds, or more specifically the YPG militia, which has between 25,000 and 30,000 men under arms and has proved the only ground force in Syria capable of effectively fighting ISIS.
The White House announced this week it is sending 50 military advisers to Kurdish areas, and that those advisers will not take part in operations but only advise Kurdish commanders. However, this announcement does not mean that Russia has lost out in its bid for the Kurds, or that the US has won them round.
A series of ultra-complex military situations are unfolding in which the Kurds will try to use the Americans, the Russians, Syrian rebel groups, the Iranians and even Syria’s army to achieve their goal of an independent Kurdish state extending from Irbil in northern Iraq to the coast of the Mediterranean.
The Kurds will determine whether to support US or Russian military operations depending on which will best help them achieve their national aspirations – not just against ISIS but their main adversary Turkey.
Americans and Russians taking opposing positions
As a result, the US advisers and pilots may find themselves drawn more deeply into standing behind Kurdish military efforts, while the Russians, whose main goal is to prop up the regime of Bashar Assad, may find themselves attacking the positions and the supply routes of the Kurds opposed to Assad and his Iranian allies.
The Americans and Russians may confront a similarly complex situation in southern Syria. The area is currently controlled by a coalition of rebels called The Southern Army that is supported mainly by the US, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel.
Russia, which judges this coalition a threat to southern Damascus, started bombing its bases and positions last week. Russian President Putin and the Russian army clearly had no qualms about striking rebel groups sponsored by the US and its allies in the Middle East.
Thus, the obvious question is how long it will take for the Americans, the Israelis, the Jordanians or the Saudis to take action against the Russian air strikes targeting the rebel coalition.
On Wednesday, Nov. 4, American and Israeli sources released data on the “Red Flag” aerial exercise held in July during which Israeli planes refueled Jordanian warplanes over the Atlantic Ocean. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon confirmed publicly for the first time the cooperation existing between the IDF and the armies of Arab countries opposed to Iran and Hizballah, meaning Assad and the Russian military intervention as well.
Russian missiles in place for US, Israeli, Turkish warplanes
The two countries were sending a signal to Moscow that the US-led coalition has the ability to refuel in Syrian airspace, while Russia has no such option under the current circumstances. Its planes must land and refuel at Syrian bases that are vulnerable to air strikes.
We can only assume that the Russians will try to rectify the situation by quickly deploying refueling planes to the Al-Hmeineem base near Latakia.
On Thursday, Nov. 5, the head of Russia's air force Col. Gen. Viktor Bondarev announced that missile systems had been sent to Syria to protect Russian military forces there. He spoke of the danger that Russian fighter jets could be hijacked in countries neighboring Syria and used to attack Russian forces. "We have calculated all possible threats,” he said. “We have sent not only fighter jets, bombers and helicopters, but also missile systems.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, those missiles were in fact Moscow’s response to the arrival of 12 F-15C Eagle fighters in Turkey and are designed for use against US, Israeli, Turkish and Jordanian warplanes. In other words, the proxy war is deepening.
As these situations develop, ISIS finds itself with a new range of options for making trouble.