Beyond the constantly escalating rhetoric pouring out of Moscow and Tehran, threatening “catastrophic consequences” and a Middle East “fireball,” if the US goes ahead with its military strike against Syria, there are no visible signs of preparations by Russia, Iran – and even Hizballah – to step in and help their ally in Damascus stand up to an American attack.
They may be wary of tangling directly with the US in armed combat, preferring to trust in Washington’s assurances that the operation, far from aiming to topple Bashar Assad’s regime, will confine itself to an accounting with those responsible for the Aug. 21 chemical attack east of Damascus.
Or else, Moscow and Tehran may be reserving their options for consideration when they see how the US operation turns out.
On the other hand, the Russians, Iranians, Syrians – and evidently Beijing as well – may be setting the US a trap. This could come in the physical form of a Russian military landing in Syria, which there would be no US troops on the ground to oppose, or a cyber attack to sabotage the effectiveness of the US operation against Syria.
The Yugoslavia war: A treasure house of Intelligence traps
Certain events of the Yugoslavia conflict come to mind in this context.
NATO intervention in the Kosovo war in 1991 and 1998, and US Operation Anvil in 1998 – in which the US Air Force bombed Yugoslavia for four months – were heavily diluted by the intelligence Russian and Chinese agents passed to enemy forces with precise data on the scheduling and locations of the US rocket and air attacks before they came.
Also in the Kosovo war, the Russians instigated a fait accompli at Pristina international airport on June 12, by occupying the airport ahead of a NATO deployment.
The result was a tension-laden standoff. The Western alliance command finally had to swallow Russian command of the control tower and, therefore, the airport and put up with it for four years.
On May 7, 1999, the US Air Force razed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, after discovering it was the center in Serbia of intelligence and electronic warfare against NATO allies.
Another striking instance of an intelligence trap occurred in Israel’s Second Lebanon War of 2006, when Iranian electronic warfare experts enabled a Hizballah missile fired from a shore battery to strike and almost sink Israel’s most advanced missile ship, the INS Hanit.
None of these traps changed the course of the military contest, but they seriously undermined the morale of the armies targeted by guile.
Russians to establish a presence on Syrian territory
DEBKA Weekly’s sources do not exclude the possibility of the Syrian ruler’s staunch champion, President Vladimir Putin, ordering Russian military forces to land in Syria and seize control of strategic areas, especially would-be sanctuaries for Assad. This landing might also save Assad and keep his army from collapsing under the first wave of the US operation. It might also deter the US from continuing and expanding its military operation in the country.
The Russians might decide to adopt one of the tactics postulated for the US operation whereby a limited initial strike would unfold into a broad operation, depending on circumstances and field conditions. At first, the Russians would captured a small piece of land for the sake of bolstering the Assad regime, and then bring in more forces to expand this holding.
Since the Obama administration has prohibited any US army boots on Syrian soil, incoming Russian landing forces would face no resistance except from Syrian insurgents. In any case Moscow prefers to avoid any military contact with the Americans
The Russian army has never had any trouble in handling rebel militias. In early 2012, when Russian plans started landing with supplies for the Syrian army at Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia military airports, they warned armed Syrian insurgents against daring to touch Russian soldiers or aircraft. The rebels have every since kept their distance.
Moscow, like Washington, would adhere to pre-defined objectives – possibly laying down markers for its presence in Syria, certainly not messing with the Americans.
Iran and China may try cyber sabotage
China and Iran are more likely to opt for stealth rather than direct military action.
Since the US warships firing Tomahawks cruise missiles at Syrian targets will be out of Syrian missile range, Beijing and Tehran may try to launch a cyber attack on the advanced US weapons and ships’ systems to disarm their capabilities.
Two years ago, Iran aided by Chinese cyber whizzes succeeded in commandeering America’s most secret advanced spy drone, the RQ-170 Sentinel, by overriding CIA satellite communications and command. The prized UAV was brought down intact inside Iran, and some of its stealth technology grafted onto an Iranian drone, which in October 2012, penetrated Israeli air space.
China and Iran may decide to use the occasion of an American cruise missile strike from warships cruising out at sea to make Syria their testing ground for cyber warfare against the United States.