If history was to define a moment when the modern world changed before our eyes, it would be that fateful day when ‘Islamic Jihadis’(sic),in true kamikaze style, rammed commercial airliners to fire bomb the Twin Towers in Downtown, New York – the financial hub of the most powerful nation of the world, and the symbolic seat of the Multi-Nation United Nations.
…the immediate challenge that confronts the world is the explosive situation brewing in the desolate wastelands of Syria-Iraq.
Viewed with a strategic perspective, the indignity of 9/11 provided Washington the direction and energy to switch from her bridgehead made in (Soviet) Eurasia and extend her domination over the energy hub of the world. Skilfully packaged as a humanitarian crusade for fighting a Global War on Terror (GWOT), 9/11 provided the opportunity for an expanded role of the American military-industrial complex, an alibi for extending US’s occupation from Eurasia to the Middle East and South Asia; military operations in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Sudan followed in quick succession. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a Cold War creation for the defence of Western Europe was used to partake in military operations beyond European the guise of bringing peace to the people. While, US led operations in Kyrgyzstan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and Sudan followed, ongoing operations in the continent of resource rich Africa were given fillip by the creation of the Africa Command (AFRICOM), the ninth Unified Combat Command of the USA.
Though intended to extend the benefits of freedom and democracy, nations were divided and quasi-colonial governments were propped up in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, and Libya, and even a Syrian government-in-exile was created in Turkey since 2011.While the question that has this overarching US mission, ostensibly to protect the people from terror and tyranny brought stability in the world remains the nub of the larger question, the immediate challenge that confronts the world is the explosive situation brewing in the desolate wastelands of Syria-Iraq. It is recommended that this revisit be read in continuation of the earlier article published by the author on the subject Syria in the Crosswire of Great Power Rivalry.
The planned US-Iran nuclear deal seems to have been subsumed by the inflammatory situation in the Middle East, at least in for the immediate future. This has a spin-off for Russia especially to enhance her influence over Iran.
Review of the Russian led Military Operations
It would be an understatement that the speed and ferocity of the Russian pre-emptive military intervention on the side of the beleaguered President Assad not only took the world by surprise; in intelligence terms, for the USA, it was analogous to another Pearl Harbour. By itself, this is a major lesson as President Putin had been vocal in supporting Syria and meetings of the leaders of Russia, Iran and Syria had taken place much before the event. Underestimation of the opposition in terms of ‘operational capability’ and ‘intent’ is a recurring lesson from history that strategic planners can ignore only at their peril.
Having said that, despite the absence of authenticated news, an update of the conflict as it moves into the third week is mandated:
- While NATO military presence in Turkey has been beefed up, President Tayyip Erdoğan seems seized with the futility of taking up cudgels against the Russia-Iran-Syria combine. At the same time, security along the border, including the Kurdish Syrian belt has been beefed up to prevent a spill-over.
- While the US and Russia may have come to an arrangement for the use of airspace, President Putin has announced plans of deploying additional SU-30 Air Superiority aircraft to discourage his adversaries from disrupting the air war- in a not so subtle way, it is also a threat that aircraft being used to supply the ‘wrong’ rebels could also come under attack.
- While a Hezbollah inspired Intifada has rocked Palestine, Israel’s retaliation have come under attack not only from the Arab world, but also from the US.
- Qatar and Saudi Arabia have stepped up their rhetoric against Syria with threats of war, amidst renewed calls for the ouster of Bashar al-Assad. At the same time, despite their depleted strength, fissiparous Anti-Assad rebel groups led by the Daesh, seem to have joined hands against the common enemy.
- The planned US-Iran nuclear deal seems to have been subsumed by the inflammatory situation in the Middle East, at least in for the immediate future. This has a spin-off for Russia especially to enhance her influence over Iran.
The lack of MANPADS in the hands of the rebels to counter the Russian air onslaught, seems to be part of a deliberate policy of Washington – how far this situation would last is anybody’s guess.
- Though Russian airstrikes have intensified, there have been increasing incidents of use of ‘dumb’ bombs for ground attacks – Is this a result of shortages?
- Russia has still not committed ground forces in support of Assad’s forces. On the other hand, the Quds Force commander from Iran, Qasem Soleimani has been spotted on the battlefield occasionally. On the other hand, American servicemen have been in ground combat with Iraqi forces against the ISIS.
- Belaying expectations, Syrian forces have been unable to progress north of Homs – US supplied BGM 71 TOW Anti-tank missiles taking a heavy toll.
- Supply of TOW missiles, ammunition and arms, including the Yugoslav RPG-6, Multiple Grenade Launcher have been stepped up from US and her allies, mostly routed through Turkey.
- The lack of MANPADS in the hands of the rebels to counter the Russian air onslaught, seems to be part of a deliberate policy of Washington – how far this situation would last is anybody’s guess.
Sustenance of Russia’s Military Intervention
In view of the lack of spectacular success on the ground, especially since the initial ‘shock and awe’ of the Russian onslaught seem to be losing its sting, the question that comes to mind is that would Russia be constrained to put boots on the ground? The second flows from the first, if so, what could be the shape and size of such a force?
America now has to contend with another potent Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) capability, which has the potential of restricting manoeuvre space – this is a development that could threaten her global primacy.
Mission creep is a natural phenomenon in combat and it appears that Russia is heading this way. It is also possible that apart from being supplemented by Iranian forces in a major way, Russia might resort to administering the same medicine against US led rebels as was being done to topple Assad – large scale use of irregulars and Spetnaz forces. Either way, it seems that the end of the conflict could go beyond the immediate horizon – it could continue to simmer, the only difference being the active political, diplomatic and military participation of Russia in the quagmire.
The US Response or the Lack of it
Beyond making token noises and continuing with supplying arms and ammunition to the rebels, the US and the West seem to be caught in a policy paralysis. At the face of it, they seem to have limited scope for countering the Russian move, at the same time, it is evident that the USA may be better off in dragging the conflict into a stalemate. In fact, if keeping the Middle East internally fractured and caught in internal frenzy indefinitely was the original aim of the USA, the way the conflict seems to be panning out would be reassuring to Pentagon and Langley – the only delinquent in this paradigm would be the presence of a rejuvenated Russia with an military presence ‘on’ and ‘off’ Syria’s coast. Upping the diplomatic pressure while concurrently increasing the fighting potential of the rebels seems to be the way forward as the US would be wary of committing boots on the ground in Syria.
In military terms, the west could not have helped but note Russia’s formidable firepower. This firepower, especially the nuclear capable ‘Kalibir’ long range cruise missile capable of covering most of Europe and the Middle East, from multiple bases stretching from Ukraine to Syria has become a reality that USA and NATO will have to live with. In military terms, America now has to contend with another potent Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) capability, which has the potential of restricting manoeuvre space – this is a development that could threaten her global primacy.
…an IMF report has suggested that Saudi Arabia could become bankrupt as early as 2020. This is based on the fact that the country’s net foreign assets fell by about $82 billion from January to August…
The China Card
The Chinese reactions or rather the lack of it has been a revelation. While Beijing’s signalling has been cloaked in diplomatic niceties, it cannot be forgotten that the initial noise emanating from Beijing was vocal. Neither has the Lioning gone close to the action, nor have there been reports of Chinese advisors from the battlefield. Either way, the message is clear: despite her leaning towards the Russian cause, China wants to stay out of the operational quagmire. At the same time, her inability of operational capability to sustain an ‘out of area’ deployment has become apparent to the rest of the world as it was during the Libyan crisis. It is one thing to sustain ‘Anti-Piracy’ operations off the Somali coast, it is entirely another thing to sustain high intensity operations far from the mainland.
At the same time, the crisis in the Middle East could not have come at a better time for her, especially in terms of extending her creeping domination over the immediate seas. With the world’s attention focussed on Syria and the militaries of USA and Russia tied up against each other in distant Middle East, new strategic opportunities have emerged for China. The next few months would provide the answer in which direction this Sino-US competition could go in the Pacific.
Saudi engagement in Yemen and the Impact of Oil Prices
Faced with a growing budget deficit problem, the Saudi economy has taken a big hit due to her gamble of inducing a steep decline in global oil prices. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia went on an arms buying spree; with orders over 65 Bn USD last year, she emerged as the world largest arms importer. Extrapolating these figures, an IMF report has suggested that Saudi Arabia could become bankrupt as early as 2020. This is based on the fact that the country’s net foreign assets fell by about $82 billion from January to August and the government was constrained to sell state bonds worth $15 billion (55 billion riyals) this year. This has caused the cancellation of big contracts and there are reports that companies engaged in infrastructure projects of the government have not been paid for the past six months.
Whichever, way the conflict is seen, one thing seems certain – freezing of the grandiose energy pipelines plans of conduiting gas through Syria by all the parties – the USA, Iran, Russia and the GCC combine.
Adding to her fiscal difficulties is the fact that the Saudi led war in Yemen against Ansar Allah (Houthis) is not going well for her and her GCC allies – not only are the costs of war adding up, so are the body bags. With attacks increasing within the Sheikhdom and against her forces ‘in’ and ‘around’ Yemen, there is no immediate victory in sight. While this does not augur well for the new leadership in Riyadh, it gives an opportunity for Iran to keep Saudi Arabia tied down in an infructuous war.
Prognosis and Conclusion
The Russian foray into Syria has opened up new questions and unearthed old ones. On one hand, there is a clear and present danger of the conflict dragging on, there is also a danger of mission creep on the part of Russia. President Putin cannot be seen as backing down at this stage, and at the same time, the US cannot afford to surrender the initiative to her indefinitely.
What seems probable in the near future are the firming of de-facto frontiers as de-jure borders. Whichever, way the conflict is seen, one thing seems certain – freezing of the grandiose energy pipelines plans of conduiting gas through Syria by all the parties – the USA, Iran, Russia and the GCC combine. If this was a Russian aim, she too could claim victory, despite the stalemate and continuing cost of an ‘unwinnable’ war.
 IMF Report of 23 October, 2015,Saudi Arabia could be bankrupt by 2020 as posted on the net.