By Tim Marshall.
Talk of a No Fly Zone in northern Syria, and of French and British airstrikes against ISIS in the north, is becoming louder. At the same time there are whispers of a Russian military build-up in Syria. The two things are not compatible.
First the No Fly Zone (NFZ). The French appear to have already made their decision. Reconnaissance flights by war planes have taken place, Paris is clear that air strikes will follow.
In the UK the debate is heating up. First the opposition Labour Party has to elect a new leader, (results are due this weekend), then the idea of extending the RAF’s bombing role from Iraq into Syria may be put to a vote in Parliament.
Concurrent with this the debate on a NFZ appears to be heading towards the possibility of imposing one without a UN Security Council Resolution if deemed necessary. The air strikes would be against ISIS. The NFZ would be aimed at preventing the Syrian Air force from flying and dropping its barrel bombs – a tactic which kills far more people than does ISIS. So far, so uncharted and dangerous territory. The Laws of Unintended Consequences will apply, although that is not an argument for or against a NFZ.
Now put into the mix the Russians.
Unconfirmed reports, taken seriously by the Americans, suggest that prefabricated housing units capable of housing up to a thousand military personnel have arrived along with a portable air traffic control station. One US official told the New York Times that the Russian deployment might grow to 3,000 personnel. On the record the State Department says “we’re also watching their actions very carefully. If these reports are borne out, it would represent a very serious shift in the trajectory of the Syria conflict..”
This does not mean, as some unsubstantiated speculation has it, that Russia is about to move combat troops into Syria, nor does it mean that the Kremlin intends to bring in fighter jets and start bombing Assad’s enemies.
However, it might, and that ‘might’ needs to be factored into the decisions the other great powers make over the next few weeks.
Various photographs are doing the rounds on social media purporting to be of Russian troops inside Syria. None are compelling proof that anyone is operating outside of the Tartus base, and some are questionable – for example would the Russians be wearing these uniforms in the searing heat of Syrian summer?
Russian combat troops in the field alongside the Syrian army seems unlikely even if a recent video does show that the Syrians now have at least one BTR-82A armoured car – which is one of Russia’s most advanced army vehicles. We knew they had been delivered, we knew that Russia arms Assad.
So, if the reports of extra personal, and housing, are correct, they are more likely for one, or two, of two things.
They might be extra security for the Tartus base (fighting has neared the coastal plain this summer). And or, Russian planes, and even pilots, may be coming to the assistance of the Syrian forces. If so, they would require maintaining and guarding.
This would seriously complicate matters. The US -led coalition is already conducting missions in Syria and the French and possibly British are about to join in. They do not want to operate in a crowded airspace. Also, if the Russians went after opposition forces which were not ISIS, they might be bombing some of the ‘moderate’ fighters armed and trained by the Americans.
This all becomes even more serious if a NFZ has been declared and of course if the Russians intend to use their planes in Syria. Would the Russians abide by a NFZ they had not signed up to? Would Putin be able to resist testing the resolve of the coalition? He may not want to start WW3, but he’s often seen as a gambler.
Yesterday a handful of politicians at the UK Parliament hosted the Planet Syria organization to try and learn more about the situation ahead of the possible vote on extending Britain’s military role and the possibility of a NFZ. The meeting was chaired by Gisela Stuart MP who put into context the difficulty of a UN authorized NFZ saying ‘No Fly Zone? Open brackets, how to deal with a Russian veto, close brackets”.
Syrian economist and activist Assaad al-Achi countered that existing UN Resolutions already gave authorization to take action as they have been flouted by the regime. But the British, and others, have been down that long path before. If the UK is to bomb in Syria, and help police a NFZ, the way ahead seems to be through Parliament. If and when the vote comes – Russia’s intentions need to be clarified and factored in.