Several weeks ago in this space (http://atombash.com/article/syria-any-good-options ) it was suggested that the best policy option for the US in the Iraq/Syria theater of operations, given the increased Russian involvement, was to continue to lead from behind. Events since then have generally proven the estimates made then to be accurate. Since then the Russians have used their involvement in Syria to highlight new / improved military capabilities and to further showcase America’s lead from behind policy.
The following summary of events is critical to understanding this weekend’s meeting in the Austrian capital between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his counterparts from the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
Yesterday, according to the New York Times the US and Russia agreed to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that regulates all aircraft and drone flights over Syria. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/21/world/middleeast/us-and-russia-agree-to-regulate-all-flights-over-syria.html?_r=0 ) Reportedly the memorandum of understanding, established safety protocols that require the Russians and the US-led coalition fighting ISIS to maintain professional airmanship at all times, use specific communication frequencies and establish a communication line on the ground. Aircraft are expected to keep a safe distance from one another. There were no provisions for sharing intelligence and the US held firm on its opposition to the Russian support for Syria’s President Assad, who is in Moscow coordinating with Russian President Putin. The execution of the MOU is dependent upon ground based air controllers ensuring that aircraft abide by whatever the still secret protocols require. This is consistent with the Russian concepts of controlling tactical aircraft. Russian doctrine calls for aircraft to be vectored to their targets by ground controllers. This is not the US/NATO approach. The coming weeks will be very critical to see if the Russians are using the components of this MOU as a methodology of developing targets.
Recent news reports (http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/10/13/us-mideast-crisis-syria-idUSKCN0S61LX20151013) of the US airdropping weapons and supplies to Assad’s non-ISIS opponents suggests a method for the Russians to target those opponents as they continue their efforts to eliminate Assad’s non-ISIS opposition. Knowing where the supplies were dropped provides a means of locating these opposition forces and then engaging them. The US, in leading from behind, is not providing air defense to these opposition forces. In other words the US is not protecting the forces on the ground in Syria that it is supporting from Russian air attacks.
Recent Russian air attacks have been focused on these non-ISIS elements. Putin is reported by al jazeera as saying: “Let’s not play with words and divide the terrorists into moderate and not moderate.” (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2015/10/putin-syria-russia-151023092849716.html ) His point is of course from Syria and its allies perspective anyone who wants to over throw Assad is a terrorist. As we pointed out in earlier articles this conflict is not two sided. (http://atombash.com/article/syria-any-good-options)
Russia has also said that it will not engage targets in Iraq—thus telling ISIS that there is a safe haven from Russian attacks in Iraq. This might force ISIS out of Syria and into Iraq. This possible concentration of ISIS runs counter to the original reason that the US was doing any bombing in the theater—the degradation and destruction of ISIS.
The recent Russian attacks against targets in Syria were also a demonstration of new Russian military capabilities. Though most of the Russian air strikes were using conventional “dumb” bombs there were some cases where they used precision guided munitions based upon drone target designations. They also fired a salvo of cruise missiles from ships in the Caspian Sea. These were fired on Putin’s birthday. Unfortunately, the strikes were not without failures (four missiles fell short and landed in rural Iran.) The Russian military is touting its success in Syria as a recovery from the doldrums that the Russian military was in following the end of the cold war. This, of course, is also part of Putin’s attempt to showcase Russia’s re-emergence as a super-power. At the same time he is making a disparaging about the US.
The Russian air attacks have facilitated attacks by the Syrian, Cuban, Iranian and Hezbollah force coalition. The coalition forces are regaining terrain lost to the opposition forces, but not ISIS.
What will come from this weekend’s meeting in Vienna?