US and Russia on Verge of Separate No-Fly Zones in Syria
In the face of the optimistic words of US Secretary of State John Kerry, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook warned on Aug. 22 that the clock is running out on “conversations” for a deal with Russia for cooperating in Syria. "Contrary to recent claims, we have not finalized plans with Russia on potential coordinated efforts. Serious issues must first be resolved,” Cook stressed, and “regime and Russian’s recent actions only make it harder to consider any potential coordination.”
Kerry, for his part, intimated that his talks with the Russians were close to a final conclusion.
The dodgy state of US-Russian talks falls on a fresh complication in Syria’s already chaotic war: A Turkish-Iranian-Syrian government offensive has been launched with US backing to cut down the Kurdish militias which the Americans supported hitherto (more about which in a separate story in this issue).
These developments have brought the US and Russia close to agreeing to set up separate no-fly zones in Syria. Their navies and air forces in the Middle East have accordingly begun operational preparations, in line with which the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group has in the last few days sailed close to Syria's shores.
DEBKA Weekly military sources reveal the complex blueprint for three separate fly-zones that the Pentagon has put before President Barack Obama.
One will cover the South near the Syrian- Jordanian and Syrian-Iraqi borders and range from the border towns of Abu Kamal and Deir ez-Zur, a space held by Syrian rebel militias trained by the US in Jordan (see attached map). The US will run this sector in conjunction with the Israeli and Jordanian air forces.
The second no-fly area will cover the northern Kurdish towns of Qamishli, Hasakah, Manbij and Azaz on the Turkish border. Here, the US will collaborate with the Turkish air force.
The third sector will run south from Jarabulus up to Al-Bab to the north of Aleppo, and will also be managed jointly by the US and Turkish air forces.
The Pentagon admits that its plan has a big hole in that the US does not have a working air base in Syria from which its aircraft can oversee the complicated no-fly zones system. Its only aircraft carrier in the region, the USS Eisenhower, might serve as a makeshift solution. But given the region’s political and military volatility, the carrier, or part of its strike group, might be recalled urgently to another pressing emergency elsewhere – like, for instance, the Ukraine’s Black Sea region, Libya or another North African arena.
The US is loath to run its Syrian no-fly zones out of Israeli or Jordanian air bases. As for the southern Turkish base of Incirlik, the mercurial Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is capable of dismissing the US air force from the strategic air base at Incirlik at the drop of a hat over some dispute that may crop up with Washington.
One such dispute was laid to rest for now on Aug. 24 – gaining the US permission for its air force’s unhindered use of base – when US Vice President Joe Biden lined up with Turkey on the Syrian Kurdish question during his visit to Ankara.
It is now up to Moscow, DEBKA Weekly military sources say, to decide whether to go ahead and follow Washington’s lead to initiate Russian-controlled no-fly zones restricted to its own and Syrian air forces.
A decision to do so would further fuel military tensions between Washington and Moscow over Syria, and aggravate the chances of a US-Russia clash in the sky. For instance, Moscow could use the Syrian air force as its trump card against the Americans. Bashar Assad could send his warplanes into the US-controlled fly-zones on the grounds that they were illegal and infringed Syrian sovereignty.
Moscow would then hold the powerful option of intervening or standing aside.
But Russia’s options are not yet in the bag either. After the Biden visit, Ankara seemed inclined to prefer a US-controlled no-fly zone in northern Syria to a Russian one – for the time being at least.
There seems to be no end to the number of cards these players are capable of slapping down against their rivals and allies alike.