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NIRAJ SRIVASTAVA | 14 OCTOBER, 2016

US Backs Down in Syria After Russian Warning


BERKELEY, California: Last week witnessed important developments regarding Syria, which are likely to have long-term implications for global security and geopolitics. The centrepiece was a categorical warning from Moscow to Washington not to launch missile or air strikes against Syria, in an effort to influence the outcome of the battle for Aleppo, which the Syrian Army is currently winning.

The Russians drew a line in the sand which the Americans realized, reluctantly, was too dangerous to cross, even with NATO behind them.

This marks an “inflection point” in global geopolitics, more than 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union in Dec. 1991. This is the first time after that, that a Great Power has stopped the US [and all its allies] dead in its tracks by issuing a warning. How this happened will be analyzed below.

The Kerry-Lavrov agreement of Sept. 10 was sabotaged by the neocons and the Pentagon by the deliberate bombing of Syrian troops in the town of Deir-ez-Zore on Sept. 17, just five days after the ceasefire came into effect. More than 80 Syrian soldiers were killed and 100 injured. It was a totally unprovoked attack, designed to send a message to the Russians that the US could enforce a military solution to the conflict in Syria.

But by doing so, the US overplayed its hand and made a gross error of judgement. This is not unknown when hubris takes over, which is likely to happen when a superpower reigns unchallenged for almost three decades. Even major foreign policy disasters, such as Iraq, Libya, and Ukraine, do not make a dent in its arrogance. Such is human nature.

Following the breakdown of the ceasefire on Sept. 19, the Russians and the Syrians renewed their efforts to take eastern Aleppo from the “rebels,” mainly the Western-backed and al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front. Earlier, they had managed to cut off all supply routes to the “rebels,” and impose a complete siege on that part of the ancient city. Deprived of fresh supplies and reinforcements, the Jihadis are steadily losing ground and facing the prospect of defeat.

This caused alarm in Washington, Tel Aviv, and other allied capitals. Something had to be done and done quickly. Op-eds started appearing in neocon-friendly papers such as the Washington Post quoting “senior administration officials” as saying that “kinetic options" were being considered to “save” the civilians of Aleppo, who were being exterminated by the Russians and the Syrians.

These included bombing air force runways in Syria by cruise missiles fired from US ships and aircraft. There was also talk of imposing a “No-Fly Zone” over Syria, which would have involved destruction of all major Russian and Syrian air assets in Syria. Since the US could not obtain a UNSC resolution to intervene in Syria, it was even being suggested that the US bomb Syria “covertly and without public acknowledgement.”

The Russians took these threats seriously, as any responsible power would. They saw them as a prelude to actual military operations by the US and NATO.

On a parallel track France, at the behest of the US, also introduced a draft resolution in the UN Security Council calling for, inter-alia, a complete cessation of Russian and Syrian air force activity over Aleppo, in the name of “humanitarian relief.” Not surprisingly, Russia saw the resolution as a device for obstructing its operations in Syria and vetoed it on Oct. 8.

There was also considerable belligerent talk from the US side. Obviously referring to Russia, the US Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, thundered at an annual US Army conference on Oct. 4, that “We will beat you harder than you have ever been beaten before—make no mistake about that.”

He went on to proclaim that any future war would “be highly lethal, unlike anything our Army has experienced at least since World War II,” involving fighting in “highly populated urban areas.” For good measure, the General added that the US would “retain the capability to deploy rapidly, and we will destroy any enemy anywhere, anytime.”

For Moscow, the moment of truth had arrived, and it rose to the occasion. The Russians conveyed their response not through their Foreign Ministry, but through their Ministry of Defence.

Speaking on Oct. 6 in Moscow, its Spokesman, Major General Igor Konashenkov, said that “any missile or air strikes on the territory under the control of the Syrian government will create an obvious threat to the Russian military…I draw the attention of the ‘hotheads’ that after a strike on Syrian troops in Deir-ez-Zore by planes of the coalition on Sept. 17, we have taken all necessary measures to rule out any such ‘mistakes’ against Russian military and military facilities in Syria.”

It may be pertinent to recall here that Russia’s newest air defence system, the S-400, was deployed in Syria in Nov. 2015, after a Russian Su-24 aircraft was shot down by a Turkish F-16 jet in Syrian airspace. On Oct. 4, the Russian defense Ministry announced that it had also deployed the S-300VM Antey-2500 surface-to-air missile system in Syria, to protect its military bases in Tartus and Khmeimim.

The Antey-2500 is a new system that entered service only in 2014. It can engage ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, very low “stealth” aircraft, and AWACS. It uses two types of missiles with hypersonic capability, and a unique capacity for terminal maneuvers against a target, one to counter aircraft and cruise missile attacks, and another to hit intermediate and short-range ballistic missiles. According to some experts, the Antey-2500 basically gives Russia the ability to impose a “No Fly Zone” over Syria.

Gen. Konashenkov also pointedly stated that the range of operation of the S-400 and the S-300 systems “may prove [to be] a surprise to any unidentified flying object.” He went on to say that “a number of influential Western media [have] published leaks regarding discussions in the White House about the possibility of delivering missile and air strikes on the positions of Syrian troops. I would recommend to colleagues in Washington to thoroughly analyze the consequences of implementation of such plans.”

The Russian Defence Minister was also quoted by Sputnik International on Oct. 6 as saying that, “Russian S-300 and S-400 air defence systems deployed in Syria’s Khmeimem and Tartus [bases] have combat ranges that may surprise any unidentified airborne targets. Operators of Russian air defence systems won’t have the time to identify the origin of airstrikes, and the response will be immediate. Any illusions about “invisible” jets will inevitably be crushed by disappointing reality.”

The Russians also indicated that they knew the whereabouts of all US military personnel in Syria, including those present in various Jihadi “operations rooms” in the country. They implicitly conveyed a threat to retaliate against them if Russian soldiers in Syria were attacked by the US.

The categorical public warning from Gen. Konashenkov was quickly followed by a statement from the White House on the same day. Its spokesman, Josh Earnest, said: “The President has discussed in some detail why military action against the Assad regime to try to address the situation in Aleppo is unlikely to accomplish the goals that many envisioned now in terms of reducing the violence there. It is much more likely to lead to a bunch of unintended consequences that are clearly not in our national interest.”

When asked to comment on Russia’s warning, Earnest said that he had not seen “that statement.” He also said: “I am not going to take any options off the table.”

It is understandable that, to save face, the US will never admit that it was the Russian warning that deterred it from carrying out missile and air strikes in Syria. It is also apparent that for the same reason, it is pretending that the option of military strikes is still on the table.

The fact is that the Americans have understood that the price of a direct military intervention in Syria would be unacceptably high. The Russians have made that clear in so many words, with no room for doubt. And as a result, the US has backed down.

As mentioned above, this is an inflection point in global geopolitics. The “unipolar moment” enjoyed by the US since the collapse of the Soviet Union appears to be finally over. That collapse created a global “strategic imbalance,” or a power vacuum, during which the US and its allies did whatever they wished, unfettered by international law, norms, and conventions. Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, and Syria, all happened during that period.

In this sense, Russia’s re-emergence as a Great Power in Syria, capable of reining in the US, is to be welcomed. It is likely to foster greater strategic stability in international relations because checks and balances have been restored, albeit in a limited manner, after more than 25 years. The US cannot anymore run amok, as it has been doing during all these years.

This development arguably also conveys a message that Russia is a reliable friend and ally. It single-handedly saved the Assad regime from guaranteed collapse, in the face of enormous odds. True, preventing regime change in Syria was in its own interest also, as Russia knew very well that if Assad fell, Iran, and then Putin, would be the next in line for regime change.

Russian intervention in Syria in Sept. 2015 was, therefore, not due to altruism but self-interest. Syria is an existential issue for Russia. Nevertheless, what Russia has done in Syria does send an unmistakable message of reliability to the international community at large, including India.

The above, however, does not mean that Syria’s troubles are over. Not at all. The US, Israel, Turkey, and the Gulf are far from accepting defeat in Syria, yet. And so nobody should be surprised if they continue their efforts to overthrow Assad.

One possible scenario could be launching a “False Flag” operation in Syria and blaming the Russians or the Syrians for it, just as they did in respect of the attack on the UN humanitarian convoy near Aleppo on Sept. 19 which, in all likelihood, was the handiwork of US-backed Jihadi groups. There is no evidence, whatsoever, of Russian or Syrian involvement, while there is some evidence that Jihadi groups were responsible for the incident.

Such a false flag incident could be used as a pretext by the US and its allies to attack Syria. Already, they have launched a campaign for demonisation of Putin and Assad, accusing them of committing war crimes in Aleppo, and calling for their prosecution by international bodies. This campaign is likely to become more shrill in the coming days and weeks, but will ultimately not affect the course of events in Syria.

Other dangers include the US and its allies launching Jihadis to attack Aleppo from the “safe zone” set up by Turkey in northeastern Syria, or from a “Sunni entity” in eastern Syria, currently under the control of Daesh/ISIS, whose “headquarters” are in Raqqah.

To sum up, the immediate danger of a military strike by the US and NATO on Syria seems to have been averted by the Russian warning to the US. But that is not the end of the matter. The West and its allies will continue to look for ways to overthrow Assad, till the Russians and Syrians achieve a decisive military victory on the ground.

That would have to include taking back Aleppo and Idlib from the US-backed terrorist groups such as the Nusra Front. If and when that happens, Assad will finally have secured control of the whole of Syria’s populous western region, all its main cities, and its Mediterranean coast. At that point, the liberation of the rest of Syria from terrorist control would be a matter of time.

In short, the fate of Syria will be decided on the battlefield and not in the negotiations in Geneva. The Americans have burnt all their bridges with the Russians and lost their trust. They are now using the French and others to carry water for them, without much success.

The significance of the events of the last week is that, finally, Russia has stood up to the US, and forced it to back down from its threats of military action in Syria. Things are unlikely to be the same again for the US, EU, NATO, and the world. The limits of Western power and hubris have been exposed.

(Niraj Srivastava is a former Ambassador of India who has served in several Arab countries)

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