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How Russia Checked the US Plan for a No Fly Zone in Syria

More information confirms the Russian deployment was intended as much to prevent a US plan to impose a no-fly zone over Syria - bringing about regime change there -  as to defeating the Islamic State

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

NATO’s over-the-top reaction to a minor violation by a Russian aircraft of Turkey’s air space underscores the key point about the Russian military deployment.

The West has lost control of the skies of Syria.

When I first discussed the line-up of Russian aircraft in Syria I said the four SU30 fighters were intended to provide top cover for the strike force.

I also speculated the six SU34s were not really needed, and that they were there to test them in a combat environment.

I was right about the SU30s; I was wrong about the SU34s.

I overlooked the fact that as well as being a formidable strike and ground attack aircraft, the SU34 is an extremely capable air to air fighter.  In this it differs fundamentally from the SU24, which it is replacing.

The combined total of ten SU30s and SU34s provides the Russians with a formidable air defence group. Whilst the SU34 is not as potent a fighter as the super manoeuvrable SU30, it is more than a match for the F16s that make up the bulk of the Turkish air force, and is a match for the F15s and F16s of the Israeli air force.

This is important because, as the incident on the Turkish border shows, the Russian strike group is carrying out air strikes in areas close to the Turkish and Israeli borders where, because of fears of intervention by the Turkish and Israeli air forces, the Syrian air force had previously not dared to go.  

This incluces strikes on Raqqa - the Islamic State’s de facto capital - and Idlib, both within easy distance of the Turkish border.

The presence of the SU30s and SU34s means that the Russians - unlike the the Syrians - can carry out these strikes without fearing interference by the Turkish air force.

This means that for the first time in the Syrian war there is no part of Syria where the Islamic State or other Islamic militias can hide from air strikes.

This dramatically changes the military picture.  It was partly because the Syrian air force was afraid to operate near the Turkish border that the Syrian army was driven out of places like Raqqa and Idlib, and why it has been on the defensive in the north of Syria, in the territories north and west of Aleppo, which are within easy range of Turkish F16 aircraft operating from bases inside Turkey.

Some reports suggest the presence of the Russian aircraft has even emboldened Syrian aircraft to re enter this airspace.  

There are reports that Turkish F16s flying during the weekend near the Syrian border were tracked (or “painted”) for 6 minutes by the radar of a MiG29 fighter. 

The Russian strike group does not include MiG29s. If this incident really took place the MiG29 must have been a Syrian fighter.

The ten SU30s and SU34s are only part of the air defence force the Russians have positioned in Syria.

The air base in Latakia is defended from air attack by Pantsir air defence systems. 

The Pantsir is a mobile short-ranged air defence system, combining 30 mm anti aircraft cannons and short range anti aircraft missiles. It is standard equipment for the point defence of air bases, and its deployment has no greater significance than this.

Of far greater significance, and the big game-changer, is the deployment of Russia’s missile cruiser Moskva off the Syrian coast.  

The Moskva has extremely powerful air defence radars, and is equipped with powerful long range anti-aircraft missiles based on the S300 system.

There is no evidence the Russians have deployed S300 missiles in Syria itself.  However the presence of the Moskva off the Syrian coast gives them essentially the same capability.  

The Moskva’s S300 missiles are believed to have a range of 90-150 km. Whilst apparently not one of the more sophisticated versions of the S300 - which should properly be seen as a family of missiles - the S300s carried by the Moskva are nonetheless powerful weapons, providing a formidable air defence capability.

The reason for the presence of these air defence systems - the SU30 and SU34 aircraft, and the Moskva with its S300 missiles - is now clear.

The article in the Financial Times I attach below confirms what many had already suspected: that the US was on the verge of declaring a no-fly zone over Syria.

Though the supposed target was the Islamic State, since the Islamic State has no air force the actual target was clearly the Syrian government.

It appears that a similar scenario to the one used in Libya in 2011 was being planned: the declaration of a no-fly zone, followed by a sustained bombing campaign against the Syrian army intended to deliver victory to the US backed Syrian opposition.  The declared purpose of the no-fly zone - to fight the Islamic State - was merely cover.

This explains the Russian deployment.  

The Russians obviously found out about the US plan, and rushed to carry out their own deployment in order to pre-empt it.

That they were able to do so despite having - unlike the US - no air bases in the region is remarkable, and is further proof of the Russians’ repeatedly shown ability to act with lightning speed, catching the US off-balance. Previous occasions when this happened were the 2008 Georgia war and the 2014 Crimean operation.

That the Russians found out about the US plan also shows how high the quality of their intelligence has become.

The article in the Financial Times shows the extent of the dismay in Washington, with the grudging admission - despite the hysterical demands for action by the war hawks - that the plan for a no-fly zone “is now impossible to enact”.  

Consider this comment the Financial Times attributes to NATO’s military chief, General Breedlove:

“Nato’s supreme military commander in Europe, US General Phillip Breedlove warned last week that the alliance was “worried about another A2/AD bubble being created in the eastern Mediterranean.” A2/AD stands for anti-access, area denial.”

In other words the Russians have managed to deny the US access to the skies over Syria, thwarting their plan for a no-fly zone, and for a bombing campaign to force the overthrow of the Syrian government.

The Financial Times quotes sources that describe the Russian deployment to Syria as a “disaster”, showing the dismay US and Western leaders feel.

The Russian deployment to Syria has dramatically changed the geopolitical picture.  

It shows that 25 years after the USSR fell, the Russian superpower is back.

The following article was published in the Financial Times:

Moscow scuppers US coalition plans for no-fly zone in Syria

Russia’s bombing of anti-regime rebels in Syria has been described as a disaster for the US-led coalition’s efforts to destroy Isis, the Islamist militant group, but the Kremlin’s real challenge to Washington is in the skies above the war-torn country.

Alongside a modest Latakia-based contingent of two dozen Su-24 Fencer and Su-25 Frogfoot jets — planes designed to strike land targets — Moscow has deployed assets which render the prospect of no-fly zones enforced by the US or its allies over Syria impossible to enact.

Just weeks ago, after months of diplomacy, officials were close to an agreement on enforcing aerial safe-zones to end the Assad regime’s bombing of civilians in northern and southern Syria, according to diplomats and military officials in the US-led coalition. 

The agreement was based on Jordanian and Turkish plans presented earlier this year.

Many officials believe an imminent move to ramp up coalition activity in Syria precipitated the Kremlin’s sudden intervention late last month.

“The ultimate reason all this is happening is because of the renewed focus on Syria and the need for some sort of political solution there — something which we thought we could achieve by enforcing no-fly zones, safe zones,” said one senior European diplomat.

But any hopes of military co-ordination with Russia to achieve this, even in the wake of its disruptive deployment, are swiftly being dashed.

Nato’s supreme military commander in Europe, US General Phillip Breedlove warned last week that the alliance was “worried about another A2/AD bubble being created in the eastern Mediterranean.” A2/AD stands for anti-access, area denial.

Gen Breedlove’s fears have been realised in the past days as Russia’s small deployment of four Su-30 “flanker” jets, which are at Latakia’s Bassel al-Assad air base — highly manoeuvreable aircraft designed to shoot down other aircraft — has been augmented with a far more powerful arsenal.

Russia’s ministry of defence announced on Friday the deployment of its navy cruiser the Moskva to Latakia. The Moskva is armed with a complement of 64 S-300 ship-to-air missiles, Russia’s most powerful anti-aircraft weapon.

Deployment of S-300s — or other similarly sophisticated systems, also known as triple-digit Sams — has long been one of the Pentagon’s biggest fears in the Middle East. The S-300 system, which has an operating range of 150km, is capable of striking down all but the most sophisticated stealth aircraft. It means most missions flown by Washington’s coalition allies — Jordan, for example, uses F-16 jets — are now highly vulnerable. Even the UK’s deployment of Tornados and Typhoons at the Royal Air Force’s base at Akrotiri, Cyprus, is threatened by the missiles.

“The Russian forces now in place make it very, very obvious that any kind of no-fly zone on the Libyan model imposed by the US and allies is now impossible, unless the coalition is actually willing to shoot down Russian aircraft,” says Justin Bronk, research analyst at the Royal United Services Institute.

“The Russians are not playing ball at deconfliction — they are just saying, ‘keep out of our way’. The coalition’s operations in Syria will be vastly more complex from a risk assessment point of view and from a mission-planning point of view.”

Even surveillance missions above Syria by US and coalition aircraft will be complicated. One Nato air force officer said the organisation expected to start seeing the kind of “cold war tactics” and brinkmanship Russia has recently been using in the Baltics. Pilots will be briefed to expect powerful Russian radar systems “lighting up” their aircraft in shows of strength, he said.

Preventing the creation of US-led coalition no-fly zones in Syria is important for Moscow’s influence over events in the country. With the Assad regime’s territorial grip looking fragile in recent months, the added imposition of a US-led coalition no-fly zone could have forced negotiations that would have led to a loss of Russia’s influence. Now any diplomatic or political process that does occur will do so on Moscow’s terms.

“Russia’s military actions are serving political ends of which there are several,” says Alex Kokcharov, Russia analyst at IHS Janes, the defence consultancy.

For Mr Putin, US and Nato “no-fly zones” have additional resonance too.

“Putin was deeply shaken by the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya,” Mr Kokcharov notes. “There is something at a personal level that is motivating this.”

For Russia military planners, no-fly zones — seen in the West as a measure of humanitarian mercy — are often seen as tools of regime change.

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