Last week, rumors began to swirl that Russia would sell Bashar al-Assad missile systems that would allow Syria to fight any NATO or US attempt to impose a no-fly zone. Russia immediately denied it, which of course means that that’s exactly what they planned on doing all along.
Time for another reset button?
Russia has sent advanced antiship cruise missiles to Syria, a move that illustrates the depth of its support for the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad, American officials said Thursday.
Russia has previously provided a version of the missiles, called Yakhonts, to Syria. But those delivered recently are outfitted with an advanced radar that makes them more effective, according to American officials who are familiar with classified intelligence reports and would only discuss the shipment on the basis of anonymity.
Unlike Scud and other longer-range surface-to-surface missiles that the Assad government has used against opposition forces, the Yakhont antiship missile system provides the Syrian military a formidable weapon to counter any effort by international forces to reinforce Syrian opposition fighters by imposing a naval embargo, establishing a no-fly zone or carrying out limited airstrikes.
“It enables the regime to deter foreign forces looking to supply the opposition from the sea, or from undertaking a more active role if a no-fly zone or shipping embargo were to be declared at some point,” said Nick Brown, editor in chief of IHS Jane’s International Defense Review. “It’s a real ship killer.”
Hey, who has ships in the Mediterranean that might be needed to impose a blockade or no-fly zone? Well, there’s the French, the British, and the US, of course. I don’t believe that Syria needs anti-ship missiles to defend themselves against Cyprus or Malta.
Russia has now clearly come down as an opponent of Western intervention, to the point of armed conflict by proxy. Never mind, for the moment, about what a ridiculously terrible idea Western intervention on behalf of the Islamist militias would be, although that may play a secondary role in Russia’s calculations. (Don’t forget about their own problems with Islamists in the Caucasus.) Putin is setting down markers and essentially positioning Russia in a superpower role in opposition to the US.
That has dangerous implications for the future even if we never lift a finger in Syria, and it also belies two canards. First, post-Soviet Russia is not an ally, although not yet an enemy. Second, despite the derogatory rhetoric from the Obama administration’s foreign-policy team about their predecessors, they’ve not done any better at dealing with Vladimir Putin, and arguably doing much worse. That’s because the problem wasn’t the US in the first place.
The UN wants a peace conference on Syria. At least on this, Russia and the US agree:
A proposed international conference onSyria should be held as soon as possible, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday, but no date has yet been agreed for a meeting that appears to face growing obstacles.
Ban spoke as U.N. officials announced that the number of refugees fleeing the fighting in Syria, a conflict that has claimed the lives of 80,000 people over the past two years, had exceeded 1.5 million as conditions there deteriorate rapidly.
Western leaders have been cautious about the prospects of the talks achieving any breakthrough, and Russia’s desire that Iran should attend could complicate matters because of potential opposition from the West. The main Syrian opposition, expected to decide its stance next week, has previously demanded President Bashar al-Assad’s exit before any talks.
A rising death toll, new reports of atrocities by both sides, suspicion that chemical arms may have been used and the absence of prospects for a military solution have all pushed Washington and Moscow to agree to convene the conference.
It’s unlikely to take place unless the rebels give Assad a reason to sit down at the table (and vice versa), which means … it’s unlikely to take place. Russia just upped the ante on intervention, and the question will be whether politicians in the US use that opportunity to get realistic about the choices in Syria or beat war drums over the need to look “credible.”
Addendum: Say, wasn’t John Kerry just in Russia? How’d that work out?