A Russian AF Su-34 'Fullback' releases a precsion weapon over Syria. (Russian MoD)
Now the Russian air force has become directly involved in Syria - is this a unique case for air power? TIM ROBINSON assesses the signficance of Moscow's intervention.
The question "What happens if all parties* in a COIN conflict are supported by air power?" would be an interesting one to set to postgraduate international relations students or staff college officers. In Syria today, we may be about to find out.
If the situation of US and Iranian aircraft flying in the same airspace over Iraq to strike ISIS insurgents as they advanced on Baghdad last year made for strange bedfellows, the recent intervention by Russia in Syria has taken this to an entirely new level, where Syrian Government helicopters, US combat aircraft and UAVs, UK spyplanes and now the latest Russian fighter-bombers are all sharing the same skies – and attempting to keep out of each others way. Those planning deconfliction will be earning their pay.
The risk of accidental escalation from an unexpected incident has thus increased, but perhaps not in the way that might be imagined. Instead this multi-sided COIN air power battle has four main significant ramifications.
1) First, it is clear that Russian fighters and helicopters are there to support Russia's ally, the Syrian regime, and thus hit anti-Assad rebels of any colour. But Western coalition and Arab-backed air power are trying to strike ISIS and to aid those 'moderates' attempting to depose Assad. Both sides, (although they may on occasion strike the same target), have diametrically different goals. Whose air power will prove stronger in giving the advantage to 'their' side in this symmetrical asymmetrical war? It is worth noting however, that while air power support will be important, support on the ground (equipment and troops) will be as important too.
2) Second, is that the Russian intervention has removed at a stroke one of the West's air power options for a No-fly Zone over Syria, to limit Assad air power in barrel-bombing non-government-supporting civilians, or even create 'protected safe havens' within Syria, guarded by Western jets. A UN mandated no-fly zone will now be impossible, and protecting safe havens for 'moderate' rebels, would greatly increase the risk of aerial clashes between Western forces and Russian aircraft attempting to destroy these rebels on behalf of Assad. In short, while West/Arab Coalition is operating over Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government; it is operating over Syria with the tacit consent of the Syrian Government. Had the Coalition tried to impose a no-fly zone over part or all of Syria, then the Syrian Government would most likely have resisted. A UN mandate for a no-fly zone is therefotre unlikely, as Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, would veto it.
3) Third is that Syria is a testing ground for the latest Russian weapons. The conflict provides Moscow with a chance to assert its military power, under the guise of 'fighting terrorism' like everybody else. After Crimea, Ukraine, and sabre rattling with aerial intrusions in the Baltics ande testing NATO airspace, Russia now has the chance to show that its air power – particularly in precision weaponry, drones and long-range cruise missiles, has improved since the 2008 Georgia conflict – where the Russian air force suffered large losses. As well as effects on the ground, footage of Su-34s carrying out air strikes also has a subliminal message to others in Europe.
4) Fourth is that Moscow, providing military force for its Syrian regime ally, has joined in the de facto Sunni-Shia war raging in the Middle East, with Syria as a cauldron that pits Iran and Syria versus Saudi Arabia and its Gulf and US allies for title of regional hegemon. The escalation, then, could be not in the form of an air-to-air encounter with US jets, but by, for example, Saudi-supported FSA rebels downing a Russian aircraft with a MANPADS system or even with a US-made TOW anti-tank missile against a low-flying helicopter. Being based in Syria itself, Russia's aircraft are also vulnerable on the ground to the same type of insurgent raids, or vehicle suicide attacks that has reduced the Syrian AAF's numbers. What Russia's response would be if its aircraft began to get shot down in this proxy war would therefore be unknown. With tensions already strained between Russia and the West, a potential flashpoint in Syria is another dangerous factor to consider.
What is true, in this latest move in a multi-sided civil war with air power aiming to give an edge to certain groups on the ground, is that it is not likely to end the human suffering any time quickly. There are also disturbing (although inexact) parallels with another civil war in which both sides had air power intervention from great powers, Spain in 1936. Only five years after German and Soviet pilots had clashed in the skies over Spain – they were at war directly.
*ISIS of course itself does not have air power support (apart perhaps from shoulder-launched SAMs, but does benefit from rivals being weakened by air strikes.) The Western-Arab Coalition air campaign is directed against ISIS but not against the Assad regime forces. Russian air power is supporting the Asasd regime and is/will be directed against ISIS and anti-regime forces. The non-ISIS anti-regime forces are relatively unsupported .