by Kakaouskia

Greetings to the Saker community and readers.

Let us imagine that we are tasked with producing a sequel to the 1990s masterpiece “First Gulf war”, this time to be filmed in Syria.

We will definitely need a villain; lucky for us we have two: Vladimir Putin and Bashar Al Assad. Throw in a criminal organisation – let’s call them ISIS – for good measure and the cast is ready as the good guys are again the same. This is after all part of the franchise.

Now for the plot. Hmm, first we need drama. How it was done the first time? Ah yes, the Nayirah testimony at the UN. This time though Nayirah got a bit old to be a protagonist, so we should use Nadia Murad to testify.

Also how about a hospital bombing? Perhaps two? How about five on a single day? I have a better idea – how about showing a video of babies in incubators suffering?

If all the above sound familiar, then you are not mistaken. The events of the last 48 hours in Syria leave a bitter case of Deja vu to anyone old enough to remember how support was rallied for the First Gulf war.

The problem this time is that it is not the world versus a third-rate Army; this time the powers that be apparently have decided to take on Russia. Nuclear weapons aside, Russia is probably the only country along with the US who can produce first rate modern fighters, nuclear and diesel submarines, modern warships, missiles, space assets etc and can do so indigenously and simultaneously. This kind of industrial capacity is a decisive factor in wars.

While the Turkish Prime Minister has been calling Russia a terrorist organisation (in Kiev of all places) and the Saudis threatening to remove Assad by force, Russia has been acting:

  • A Tu-214R (modern ISR plane, replacement of IL-20 Coot) landed at Latakia, in a very visible flight. The plane had its transponder on for the duration of the flight so that everybody in the world could know where it was going.
  • Russian navy units keep pouring into Eastern Mediterranean. For those wondering how capable a tiny corvette can be, remember it was this kind of ships that launched the Kalibr cruise missile salvo some time ago.

Meanwhile, NATO has deployed Standing Nato Maritime Group 2 in the Aegean. This force consists of five frigates and is mission supposedly is “to conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of the illegal crossings in the area”. Despite the fact that 5 frigates cannot possibly patrol an island-infested sea like the Aegean, the catch here is that there is no framework what to do with any illegals they might apprehend. Task forces do not deploy without specific orders, therefore one can assume that its task is something more that refugees.

On the diplomatic front, Victoria Nuland had a meeting with the Polish defence Minister on February 11th during a visit to Warsaw. And three days later the same Defence Minister announces that Poland will deploy a small number of F-16s to fight ISIS in Syria.

Another piece of the puzzle is that the British have deployed 1600 soldiers to Jordan for a logistics exercise designed to simulate support for the deployment of 30,000 troops. This figure is quite large and personally I doubt that the Brits will commit such a large ground force. However it is an indication as to what they envision their role will be in the coming months; after all why hold this drill in Jordan? Still, according to an article in The Telegraph, an army source is quoted to say that “This isn’t a counter-Isil exercise. If anything, this is much more about us being prepared to join the US in Ukraine than it is in Syria.”

Saudi Arabia and Turkey are trying to build a grant alliance under the guise of a military exercise launched on 15th February dubbed “North Thunder”. In this war game forces from the following countries participate:

Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain, Senagal, Sudan, Kuwait, Maldives, Morocco, Pakistan, Chad, Tunisia, Comoros, Djibouti, Oman, Qatar, Malaysia, Egypt, Mauritania and Mauritius, in addition to the peninsula shield forces.

The fact to note here is that some of the participants, like the UAE, are already involved militarily in the Yemen campaign. And that Egypt has transferred heavy armour units to Saudi Arabia for the purpose of this drill.

The problem for any invaders though is that only Turkey shares a land border with Syria; if the Saudis or whoever else wants to enter Syria, they have the following options, each with its own caveats:

  • Via Turkey: The most sensible route however this implies transport of heavy units by sea. Assuming that the expeditionary fleet exists, a movement of a few thousand troops and heavy equipment in Eastern Mediterranean cannot go unnoticed by the Russian fleet.
  • Crossing through Iraq from Saudi Arabia: Doubtful the Iraqi government will concede to this. Although doable, it has the risk of attacks of attrition long before any expeditionary force reaches the Iraq – Syria border.
  • Crossing through Jordan: Although easier task that crossing through Iraq; still it makes Jordan a legitimate target. Still, a rather decent option.
  • Crossing from Jordan to Lebanon and then on to Syria: A non-option as Hezbollah will do its best to bog down any force into Lebanon itself.

The Russians surely expect something like this, hence the deployment of the Tu-214R. This plane is practically an eye in the sky that looks down hunting for land / sea units and listening on everything in the air. The fact that Russia has perhaps 2-3 operational planes of this model and has decided to deploy one in Syria speaks volumes of what they are expecting that requires such capabilities to be present.

Public statements aside, it is logical to assume a ground force of perhaps 20,000 troops supported by a good portion of the Turkish air force with the addition of Saudi and other Arab air assets.

What can Russia and the other players do in this case?

As the Saker has pointed out, the Russian positions in Latakia are not easily defended; 45Km from the Turkish border is within artillery’s range. However as recent history teaches us when Shaakasvily attacked Russian positions on 08.08.2008 Russia did not abandon her troops and within 60 hours the road to Tbilisi was wide open. The Georgian army of the time was partially equipped and trained by Israel and the “West”. Russians did not even hesitate to pay a visit to US Marines in Poti and seize various pieces of equipment.

If things get hot, Russia has the capability to eliminate military positions and installations within Turkey with assets operating from within Russian borders. For this reason I fully expect Turkey to utilise the Incirlik AB as the main staging ground for air assets as it is a full NATO air base with significant US assets which include 21 USAFE units. The Turks might consider this presence as a form of “shield” against possible Russian attack.

However the Turkish Air force cannot afford to commit too large chunk of its 240 strong F-16 force to the Syrian border as what will stop Russian AF then from coming south?

As for the effectiveness of any invading forces, the ones with the most battle experience are the Turks. Small and medium scale incursions to both Iraq and Syria have been a usual phenomenon in the past years. Operations of this kind do generate considerable experience to participating commanders. On the other hand the effectiveness of the Yemen campaign by the Saudis leaves a lot to be desired from their military.

Depending on the level of any hostilities, I expect the Russians to demonstrate their ability for truly combined operations not only by defending themselves but by causing problems elsewhere for example in the Black Sea or even in the Aegean itself.

As for the Kurds and Hezbollah, I expect them to be the front line troops in a war of attrition as both forces have vast experience fighting against numerically superior enemies with full air force support. The Syrian army could be used as a means of plugging any holes and assisting the Kurds or Hezbollah wherever needed.

Iran will probably be the trump card in this potential conflict. It is the only player which has the capacity to counter any ground invasion of Syria with an equal ground force of its own. While I do not expect them to get involved in any skirmish at the Turkey – Syria border, I do expect them to hold the line at the south of Syria should the Saudis decide to enter from there. And I also expect them to assist with Special Forces or with medium-level ground units should any Saudi forces enter Syria.

All of the above of course assume a worst-case scenario of total war. If all the Turks want is to bolster their national image for the sake of internal politics, the Russians can look the other way and perhaps resort to tipping off the Kurds/Hezbollah/Syrian Army when strikes are directed their way in order to minimise casualties.

It appears that the pieces are being assembled and the game is afoot. Let us all hope that sane heads will prevail and stop this madness before it escalates further. Again, what might happens depends on how far each side wants to go or is trapped into. During the Georgian War, Russia used only elements of the 58th Army. In this case, the potential is for a whole military district to be engaged.

P.S. Speaking of history, it appears that Mrs Merkel needs a sharp lesson. She called for a no-fly zone in Syria. She should find a library and study what has happened the last time the Luftwaffe tried to impose something on Russia. The result was rather unfortunate for Germany.

The Essential Saker: from the trenches of the emerging multipolar world