Putin Flying Close to the Edge in Syria

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A pilot gesturing from a Russian air force Su-25 military jet, on the tarmac of Heymim air base in Syria, October 6, 2015.Credit: Reuters

On Friday morning, the Turkish Air Force shot down an unidentified military aircraft, most likely a drone, after it crossed the Syrian border into Turkish airspace. If it was indeed unmanned, the implications are not as dire as would have been the case if a pilot had been at the controls. But as the skies above Syria become overcrowded, following the recent deployment of the Russian Air Force there, this incident underlines the threat of sudden escalation.

Russia’s official news agency announced Thursday that an Israeli military delegation, headed by IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, will be arriving in Moscow for another round of “deconfliction” talks to allow the countries to coordinate their operations in Syria. A Russian military spokesman said the two air forces are already “training” together to ensure flight safety, and that there is even a direct channel of contact between the control tower at the Syrian airbase where the Russian planes are deployed and the Israel Air Force’s command center.

An Israeli military source would not confirm or deny the report, and said the agreed-upon mechanism between the two deputy chiefs of staff in the previous Israeli-Russian meeting was still being examined and that it was “meant to prevent friction and take all necessary safety measures.”

If the Russian report is true, it would mean rare contact between Israel and a foreign military unit operating in an enemy country.

The intensifying military coordination between Israel and Russia is occurring at the same time as the Pentagon and the Russians are haltingly embarking on their own attempts to create a similar mechanism to coordinate between U.S. aircraft on bombing missions against Islamic State targets in Syria and the Russians, who are keeping up their air campaign against the rebels threatening the Assad regime and providing close air support to the joint Syrian-Iranian offensive in the Aleppo region.

Reports that there has been at least one confrontation between U.S. and Russian aircraft over Syria means that both sides have an urgent need to prevent worse. Meanwhile, the possibility that Russia will respond favorably to the entreaties of the Shi’ite-dominated government in Iraq, under increasing threat from ISIS, to increase military aid and perhaps deploy aircraft there as well, is creating further potential for airborne mishaps with the U.S. aircraft operating there. The United States is also supplying the Iraqis with new F-16 fighter jets, and training its pilots. An explosive mixture is brewing in the region’s skies.

The United States’ official attitude remains acute unwillingness to deepen its involvement in Syria, beyond supplying a small number of “moderate” rebel groups with light arms, munitions and anti-tank missiles, while carrying out a handful of daily strikes on ISIS. The Obama administration’s line is that the Russians could ultimately land in deep trouble in Syria, and it has no intention of helping them do so. But America’s NATO allies could force its hand. Turkey is concerned that both Russia and Iran could end up helping the Kurds on its borders, and is keeping a watchful eye. And in recent days, Britain has also stepped up at least its rhetoric over Syria. British media reports this week said RAF planes operating against ISIS have been given orders to open fire if threatened, and the government in London is talking of finally creating a no-fly-zone inside Syria that could serve as a safe haven for refugees. It’s hard to see Russia going along with such a plan, and a clash between its planes and those of Britain or Turkey will mean that the United States will have to come to the aid of its allies.

For now, Russian President Vladimir Putin is prepared to deploy his military in the vacuum created by the Obama administration’s reticence – but he is flying perilously close to the edge. Russia’s armed forces are still undergoing a prolonged process of modernization after long years of neglect following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The Kremlin’s propaganda channels are filled with footage of new Sukhoi fighter bombers flying in Syria, but their actual numbers in the Russian Air Force are still small and they have yet to be fully proven in combat situations.

Footage made available on the Russian Defense Ministry's official website, purporting to show an explosion after Russian airstrikes on Idlib, October 15, 2015.Credit: AFP

Russia’s capabilities to maintain a large-scale deployment far from its borders for lengthy periods are limited. The United States, if dragged into a conflict, even a relatively small one, has at its disposal a vastly superior and more advanced military, experienced at operating on a global scale.

For more than a year, Putin has been testing the West’s limits, with Russian aircraft flying over the Baltic and North seas, very close to the airspace of NATO members and, in some cases, switching off their transponders and sneaking up on Western aircraft. They have also “buzzed” U.S. naval vessels in the Black Sea. So far, neither side has opened fire, but the skies above Syria are becoming much more crowded and combustible.

Earlier this week, the Dutch government published its official report on the circumstances of the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, which took off from Amsterdam in July 2014 and was shot down above pro-Russian, separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine. The report confirmed that the Boeing 777 was shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft missile, but stopped short of directly accusing the Russian government of the deaths of all 298 passengers and crew.

Still, it is hard to see how Western governments can ignore the report’s findings and lift their economic sanctions on Russia anytime soon. Putin’s hope that the campaign in Syria might create the basis for an alliance with the West against ISIS and end the sanctions is not about to be realized. And the next time a Russian missile shoots down a Western plane – military or civilian – America and its allies will be forced to retaliate.

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