Fresh from his Lord Halifax moment with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry wants to talk with Russia about its military build-up in Syria.
Seems that Mr. Kerry, along with the rest of Team Obama, is perplexed over Moscow’s deployment of more troops and military hardware to bolster the faltering regime of Syrian Dictator Bashir Al-Asad. In recent weeks, the Russians have dispatched hundreds of troops, along with tanks, support equipment, portable shelters and other items to Syria.
While there have been some reports of Russian advisers fighting alongside Assad’s troops, much of Putin’s efforts have been focused on bolstering (and protecting) the naval base at Lattakia, a long-time Russian hub on the Mediterranean. Intelligence and press accounts suggest the installation is getting a major upgrade; Russian military engineers are currently building an airfield at Lattakia, allowing Moscow to establish an even greater presence in the region.
As Lee Smith writes at The Weekly Standard, this latest push by Mr. Putin is hardly surprising–given his astute take on Obama’s disastrous foreign policy:
“Putin is making his move in Syria now, says Tony Badran, research fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “because he understands not only that Obama would never intervene militarily in Syria, but also because the [deal with Iran] means that the White House wouldn’t challenge Iranian, and by extension Russian, holdings in the region. Moreover, Putin saw that Obama continued to disregard the concerns of his traditional allies, both on the Iranian nuclear program and Syria, when they sought a more active policy to bring down Assad.
Putin read the tea leaves and apparently concluded that no matter how much he and Obama disliked each other, they were in agreement on one big thing: The Middle East’s traditional security architecture is a problem. Putin doesn’t like it because it’s the legacy of an order in the region upheld by America. Obama sees it similarly—it costs the United States too much, and we need to minimize the American footprint in the region. As the White House has said, other stakeholders need to pitch in and do their share. So Moscow is stepping up. Pity all those poor Russian mothers whose boys are going to be going home in body bags, but if Putin wants the job of Syria foreman, Obama all but offered him the post. The way the White House sees it, Putin is now doing the heavy lifting in the “new geopolitical equilibrium.”
From the perspective of the Russian president, his combat losses won’t be in vain. He is re-establishing Moscow’s presence in the eastern Mediterranean, giving him a perfect pressure point to exert more influence in western Europe. If the French and Germans want more natural gas from Russia–and fewer “refugees” from war-torn Syria and points beyond–they will have to play ball with Mr. Putin.
Mr. Smith argues that Russia’s latest adventure in Syria is actually a dress rehearsal for the biggest regional prize of all: the Persian Gulf. Iran, of course, is already aligned with Moscow and Putin may offer his military hardware (and protection) to countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, who have long been allied with the United States. With Washington retreating from the region, those nations may decide to throw in with Putin, who is presenting Russia as a much more reliable ally.
That’s why we shouldn’t expect too much from Mr. Kerry’s talks with his Russian counterpart–if they actually occur. Determined to protect the Iranian nuclear deal at all costs, President Obama seems quite content with the changing order in the Middle East. Secretary Kerry may bluster a bit for public consumption–or send a sharply worded diplomatic note–but Moscow won’t pay any price for its latest gambit. Meanwhile, Russian troops and military equipment will keep pouring into Syria, ensuring that Lattakia remains secure and helping Assad maintain a corridor from Damascus to the Mediterranean.
Mr. Putin has one more reason for strengthening his position in Syria, and it will play out quietly over the weeks ahead. Analysts are already watching for signs of an S-300 deployment to Lattakia, or other hubs supporting the Russian deployment.
Why would Moscow need an advanced air defense system, since ISIS doesn’t have an Air Force? The answer lies not in Damascus, but to the east. By positioning S-300 batteries at permissive locations across Syria, Putin will greatly complicate Israeli planning for a potential strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Many military observers have long speculated the IAF would send strike packages across Syria and southern Turkey to reach Iran, following air corridors normally used by commercial aircraft. With the S-300 (and more Russian intel assets) in Syria, the Syria/Turkey route just became much more problematic. And with the system’s extended range, a route across Jordan and Iraq would also prove more difficult. With limited air refueling assets (the IAF has only seven KC-707 tankers), any increase in flight time/distance to avoid potential threats means a smaller strike package and fewer bombs on target.
Securing the northern flight corridors to Iran was not a primary consideration when Putin executed his latest military move. But with American leadership all-but-gone in the region, he will maximize his opportunities–and his leverage in Tehran will only grow.