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Russia & the Middle East
Russia Adds Troops to Syria, Opens New Air Base

In the coming days, reports from the Middle East claim, Russia is contemplating almost doubling in the near term the number of its planes committed to the fight in Syria—from 35 to more than 50. Thereafter, Moscow could increase the number to 100. To accommodate them, it will be expanding a small presence at al-Sharyat air base near Homs, which features fortified hangars capable of withstanding direct shelling, where Russian attack helicopters are already based.

Russia will deploy “an intelligence and special forces brigade and support personnel, estimated to be about 1,000 troops in total” to al-Sharyat, which will be its second major airbase in Syria, reports the Times of London, citing local sources. Russia is also reportedly planning on deploying to the theater thermobaric rockets, which are fuel-air explosive weapons designed for high-temperature explosions and more devastating blast waves.

Further reports suggest Moscow is insisting that its Iranian and Hezbollah allies commit to an offensive against the ISIS-held towns of Qaryatayn and Palmyra, both of which are located near the airbase. Yesterday, the White House confirmed that Russia had slightly ramped up its efforts against the Islamic State in recent weeks.

And finally, there are rumors that Moscow is reaching out to the Syrian Kurds. The Turkish press is full of (shakily-sourced) reports that Russians are starting to provide air support to the PYD (whether de facto due to overlapping interests, or through outright coordination). According to al-Jazeera, Putin has called on  the PYD to accept a settlement with Assad. While none of these reports should be taken as gospel, we do know that the PYD has previously sent a delegation to Moscow to try to open diplomatic relations. That some kind of negotiations are ongoing is not unlikely.

So what is going here? Vladmir Putin’s bid to keep his client, Assad, alive and gain a place at the negotiating tables as the future of Syria is working out pretty well, so it looks like he may be doubling down. Putin is a consummate opportunist. He may be trying to reach an accommodation with the Kurds that would accept Assad’s control over the part of Syria that Russia cares about—and tick off the Turks, to boot. He may also be considering boosting Russian commitment to fighting ISIS directly, rather than focusing exclusively on the rebels fighting Syrian government troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

It looks like Putin’s doubling down on three fronts: militarily, by increasing his presence in Syria; politically, by increasing his potential leverage with regard to the final settlement of Syria; and on the broader international stage, by positioning himself as a greater part of the anti-ISIS fight that matters to much of the West.

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  • Fat_Man

    Maybe Putin is preparing for the punitive raid on Turkey that will destroy Turkey’s air force.

    • Angel Martin

      i think that is coming but Putin would first want to drive some deeper wedges between Turkey and NATO. Pushing the cause of the Kurds is one way to do that. Exposing Turkey-ISIS co-operation to the public is another. Closing the Syrian-Turkey border is another. Pushing back on Turkish delaying tactics in the Dardanelles s another….

    • f1b0nacc1

      I would be somewhat surprised if Russia could pull that off without seriously imperiling their Air Force’s ability to function. Turkey sin’t a superpower by any means, but their Air Force is quite respectable, and they have a reasonably capable SAM coverage. Short of pulling just about all of their modern aircraft from everywhere else, the Russians would have a hard time even outnumbering the Turks (in modern aircraft, obsolete trash like the Su-24 would simply be target practice for the Turks), much less dominating it. Even if they could do so (and I repeat, I doubt that they could), their losses would be prohibitive and extremely difficult to replace.
      Finally (and this is the trump card), Turkey is a NATO country, and the US has a group of F-15Cs (air to air specialists) and F-22s in the theatre that would ‘complicate’ Russian planning beyond what might be considered acceptable.

      • Fat_Man

        First, most military aircraft spend most of their time on the ground. Second, the Russians are installing S400 anti-aircraft missles in Syria. They could blow a lot of Turkish airplanes out of the sky without using a single Russian airplane.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Most Russian aircraft spend far more time on the ground because their maintenance problems (not to mention pilot issues) are so serious. The Russian air forces are more club than rapier, and while they are still dangerous, they are hardly dominant.
          As for the S-400, whether or not it can live up to its hype is an open question, as it has no combat experience. Even if it is effective however, it is only one system, there are few missiles available, and if it starts shooting and Turkish aircraft in Turkish airspace, the Turks might be encouraged to destroy it. SEAD and DEAD operations aren’t fun, but the one S-400 battery can be dealt with if it becomes too much of an issue.
          Escalating to direct attacks on Turkish assets would be a fabulously dangerous escalation, and would gain Russia very little. The Turks would almost certainly close the straits to Russia (which would imperil the logistical supportability of their force in Syria), and invoke Article V (given a Russian attack, I don’t see how NATO could turn them down), and Russia would suddenly be facing a much more serious state of affairs. Unless you believe that Putin is actually willing to engage NATO in open conflict, I simply don’ t buy that this is a realistic option.

          • Fat_Man

            I will bet you $100, that NATO will not respond to a direct military attack on Turkey. Everybody hates them. No NATO country except the US, and to a small extent, the UK, has the military assets to do anything, And Obama wouldn’t do anything even if the Russians attacked Michelle.

            Further, why do you think that the Turks could respond effectively to any Russian attack. These are Turks and Muslims we are talking about. The last time their army beat anyone was in the reign of Sulieman, the great.

          • f1b0nacc1

            NATO would have very little choice. Not to respond to an overt attack (and a Russian strike on Turkish air assets would be little else) would not only eviscerate Article V, it would reveal NATO for what it is, an empty shell. The EUnicks do not dare allow that, as without the fig leaf of NATO, their defense position would be untenable. As for the US, even Obama’s pusillanimosity has its limits. Personally, I wouldn’t response either if the Russians attacked Michelle…
            The Turks are actually a pretty capable military force, and their Air Force is well regarded. If Moslem militaries aren’t particularly impressive (and anyone who has served with Turks would doubt that), Russians aren’t all that effective either, unless they are defending their homes, and even then they are far less impressive than their reputation.
            I will take your bet, lets hope it never comes to that…

          • Fat_Man

            You have now explained why I am right. The Euniks won’t do anything because they can’t and the US won’t because Obama is really Bartleby the scrivener.

          • f1b0nacc1

            The EUnicks cannot do much, but they would be able to do ‘enough’….Russia isn’t willing to risk open war with the West, salami-slicing tactics are his SOP. A punitive airstrike is one thing, an all-out assault on the Turkish air force (the jumping off point of this thread, remember) is entirely another. Worse yet, a punitive airstrike would likely be extremely expensive for the Russians, unless they neutralized the Turkish ADIZ first, and they aren’t going to be able to do that cheaply or easily, if at all. They would have to do so much damage, and at such a high cost, that the EUnicks would have to take some action if only to avoid being seen as completely without relevance. Even the current European leadership (if you want to use that word) couldn’t survive that sort of debacle, and they wouldn’t risk it.
            As for Obama, you have his number, I agree, but ultimately he is too much of a political animal (and the rest of the Dems certainly are) to risk the backlash of simply dithering while Putin assaults a member of NATO, particularly after they call for help. The rest of the party would abandon him in droves, Hillary certainly would use the opportunity to distance herself from him, and the GOP would go ballistic (forgive the pun). While I rather doubt that would bother Obama much (he is simply delusional at this point anyway), I don’t believe that he would have put aircraft in Turkey already (the F-15Cs and the F-22s, both of which are designed to cope with exactly this scenario), if he hadn’t any intention of using them. More to the point, it wouldn’t shock me if someone in the field wouldn’t just ‘lose’ any orders to stand down, and risk the result.
            I don’t disagree with your overall assessment on the nature of the people we are dealing with, indeed I share it. Where we disagree is that I believe that they are too cowardly to risk the political consequences of being seen (correctly) as spineless cowards.

  • Pete

    It’s been a long time since the Ruskies flexed their muscles.

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