How many old, belching Russian destroyers does it take to establish an international veto in Syria?

One, if the US is weak and undisciplined.

A picture is worth a thousand words.  The Bosphorus Naval News blog, an excellent source for ground-truth naval information in the Bosporus and Black Sea, has photos of the Russian Kashin-class destroyer Smetlivy transiting the Turkish Straits on 2 April, on her way to Syria.  “As you can see,” says blogger Cem Devrim Yaylalı demurely, “she was smoking heavily.”

According to Russian officials quoted in an AFP report on the deployment, the visit to Syria is a “purely technical port call.”  I actually like that characterization, a lot, and I think we should use it ourselves.  If Israel attacks the Iranian nuclear facilities, we can point out that the event is a purely technical combined-force operation, so everyone should just cool his jets.


Kashin DDG-810 Smetlivy in the Bosporus on 2 April; image


The counterpoint with the current deployment of USS Enterprise (CVN-65) could hardly be starker.  As the Bosphorus Naval News piece observes, Smetlivy was commissioned in 1969.  Enterprise was commissioned in 1961.  This is her last deployment (a sad occasion indeed for Cold War sailors).  She is on the way from Norfolk to the Persian Gulf, but stopped in Greece last week for a port visit before heading for the Suez Canal.  A news photo of Enterprise at anchor off the Greek coast captures her size and capabilities.

All Hands on Deck! has excellent footage of the Enterprise Strike Group forming up for a photo op during its transit from the East coast in March.  The strike group includes an Aegis cruiser, USS Vicksburg (CG-69) and three Aegis destroyers, USS Nitze (DDG-94), USS Porter (DDG-78), and USS James E. Williams (DDG-95).  Enterprise spends a lot of time anchoring naval formations, as seen in this video from the Mediterranean in late March with warships from NATO allies Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, and Spain.

It’s only fair to note that Russia has an intelligence collection ship operating in the Eastern Mediterranean, and has been keeping one on station.  The Black Sea Fleet ship Kildin took up the patrol in March, relieving the intelligence collection ship Ekvator (which, yes, means “equator”).  So that makes at least two Russian navy ships in the Med at the moment.

It is equally fair to note that while the Enterprise Strike Group is just passing through, USS Vella Gulf (CG-72) and USS The Sullivans (DDG-68) are deployed to the Med separately, for ballistic missile defense patrols.  They are currently participating in joint exercise Noble Dina with the navies of Israel and Greece.  (See Elder of Ziyon’s takedown of the carefully edited Hezbollah – Al Manar – reporting on Noble Dina.)

Capability versus will

Why is it so important to go over these naval details?  To emphasize that merely showing up and tooling around in force doesn’t get the job done politically.  The US Navy has so much more force than Russia has in the Med right now that the comparison could be considered surreal.  But that force isn’t making a difference to developments in the Syria problem, because it is not being used in the service of any focused policy to settle the Syrian conflict favorably.  NATO has an overwhelming preponderance of force in the Med, but it is Russia that wields the effective veto over what the international community is going to do about Syria.

Situation to shift in Syria

The result is that the bloody crisis in Syria drags on.  The events of the last 48 hours suggest that the situation in Syria is going to change, but probably for the worse.  The second “Friends of Syria” meeting was just held in Istanbul, and the Friends (including the US) decided to support the Syrian opposition with, at a minimum, humanitarian aid and communications equipment.  (Arms will be forthcoming from some sources, as discussed below.)  The plan is basically to bureaucratize the Syrian civil war; as the BBC notes, the rebel fighters are to be paid salaries from the monetary aid provided by the Gulf nations in the Friends of Syria conclave.

But if Russian media are to be believed, that isn’t stopping the rebels from visiting Russia, perhaps to see if they can get a better deal.  That is by no means unlikely: Russia could be satisfied to resolve the Syria situation by installing a new client regime.

The rebels are also reported to have expelled 50,000 Syrian Orthodox Christians from the embattled city of Homs, forcing many to flee and slaughtering an untold number of others.  US congressmen have expressed grave concern over supporting the rebels given these and other reports (e.g., that Al Qaeda I represented in the rebel ranks).  But however Orthodox Russia may be, Putin is a pragmatist.

The question will be what he does as a long, drawn-out civil war unfolds.  Press reports have indicated that the Syrian rebels are pulling out of the cities, having determined that trying to hold them is a flawed and vulnerable strategy (which it is).  The UK Telegraph cites their intentions as a shift to guerrilla war.  If they can retain outside support, they can keep the fight going for a long time.

Bear that in mind as you see reports that the Assad regime has agreed to pull troops and heavy weapons out of the cities.  The cost of doing that is not nearly what it would be if the rebels weren’t pulling out and changing their strategy.  Assad will, of course, do what he can to prevent aid from getting to the rebels – and that’s where the strongest likelihood lies that his forces will come into conflict with foreign militaries.  He has already mined areas of the border with Lebanon and Turkey.  Reports that arms are flowing to the rebels via Iraq are probably prompting the regime to fortify that border to some extent as well (although Assad’s forces are overstretched around the country).

Iraq’s political leadership warns that arming the rebels is a bad idea and could provoke a wider regional war.  So does Egypt.  Much of the Arab League has preferred to look for a negotiated solution, rather than arming the rebels as Qatar and Saudi Arabia are eager to do.  Of course, Iraq and Egypt aren’t wearing white hats any more than anyone else is; they have their own, understandable – if not necessarily noble – interests in influencing the outcome in Syria.  Saudi leadership in arming the rebels works to their disadvantage.

Sadly, US media coverage of Syria tends to be disjointed on the one hand, and credulous on the other.  The Friends of Syria decision to inundate the rebels with cash – and arms, from some of the Friends – is mainly a portent of continued killing, and very possibly one of regional destabilization.  It’s not good news.  Russia will oppose it by funneling arms to Assad and seeking her own accord with the rebels, probably by trying to divide and bribe them.  Everyone else – Turkey and Saudi Arabia, regional jihadists – will continue to pursue a leadership role in remaking Syria.  Assad and the rebels will make no concessions that matter.  And China and Iran will continue to collude to evade sanctions on both Syria and Iran.

What Russia has that NATO doesn’t

The prospects for the conflict are framed – bounded – for all the actors in the drama by the Russian veto.  That current condition is to be contrasted with the situation only last year, in which developments in the Libya conflict were bounded by what the US was willing to do.  Geography does make a difference; the situations are not identical, but it is fair to say that the shift from 2011 to 2012 is a major one.  For the first time since 1945, the US has not been the principal limit-setter for the unfolding of a significant regional crisis.

Quite obviously, this is not because we lack power.  But unlike anything the West has done, Russia’s policy has been effective: for averting what she doesn’t want, if not for getting what she does.  The reason is not that she has greater military power – or more allies, or more friendship or credibility in the region.  She does have something important, however.  The remarkable contrast between her naval forces in the Eastern Med and ours is a study in an indisputable truth: the greatest military force on earth has no political force without a focused will behind it.

(Note for naval aficionados:  to see extra material with a lot of cool video links to naval operations and weapon systems, see this post in expanded form at The Optimistic Conservative.)

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at The Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Weekly Standard online, and her own blog, The Optimistic Conservative.