It may seem hard to believe, but the situation in Syria between Syria, Russia, Israel, and the US continues to heat up. Two incidents that created more tension was a shooting down of a Russian military aircraft after it was used by Israeli F-16 fighter aircraft as a blind to close in on Syrian airspace. The second incident was the deployment of an American Marine Company in northeast Syria and the deployment of Carrier Truman and its battle group to the Mediterranean
What happened and how will these incidents impact the ongoing fighting in Syria?
Speaking alongside Polish President Andrzej Duda, Trump said the Monday night downing of a Russian maritime surveillance plane by accidental Syrian friendly fire was “a very sad thing,” Trump's remarks seemed to signal regret over Monday night's dramatic escalation over Syria after a massive Israeli attack.
On Tuesday, Russia had pointed the finger at Israel for purposefully provoking the mishap, something Israel has since denied in a military statement that ultimately put blame on president Assad, Iran, and Hezbollah.
While addressing the Syrian situation with his Polish counterpart, President Trump indicated that a decision on the future of US policy in Syria is coming soon. Trump also said that the US fight against ISIS in Syria could end soon: “We’re very close to being finished with that job,” he said of the Pentagon mission against ISIS.
He then followed with: “And then we’re going to make a determination as to what we’re going to do.”
Although some in Washington have indicated that Trump has been persuaded to remain in Syria indefinitely, Trump’s comments seemed to indicate otherwise.
Of course, it is possible that Monday's attack involving Israeli missiles and the downing of a Russian plane might have reinforced Trump’s original decision to withdraw from the Syrian quagmire. Both Russia and the US are afraid that the current situation could lead to an accidental engagement between Russian and American aircraft.
Monday's events also came just after Russian President Putin and his Turkish counterpart President Erdogan announced that a demilitarized zone in Idlib will be formed by October 15. As part of the deal Russia and Syria have reportedly called off the major offensive on Idlib, and Turkey has vowed to facilitate the withdrawal of the al-Qaeda groups in control of Idlib to Jisr al-Shughour near the Turkish border.
The Russia-Turkey deal over Idlib has at least temporarily reduced the threat that the US would intervene under the pretext of Syria (or someone else) launch a chemical weapons attack.
The downing of the Russian aircraft was a result of a massive Israeli missile attack earlier this week. The IDF did admit to launching the massive Monday evening attack, which involved strikes on locations across four Syrian provinces, but insisted that its military action was defensive in nature.
The IDF said it targeted sites “from which systems to manufacture accurate and lethal weapons were about to be transferred on behalf of Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon.” The IDF said "these weapons were meant to attack Israel and posed an intolerable threat against it.”
One of the sites attacked early in the hour-plus long assault was a scientific research center, which Israel has alleged is used to develop chemical weapons.
What made this incident much more serious was the fact that a Russian Il-20 surveillance aircraft was shot down with the loss of 15 Russian lives.
While Russia had previously blamed Israel for the downing of the plane, it later said that Israel intended to use the Russian plane as "cover" during the attack.
A spokesman for the Russian Ministry of Defense said Russia believes the attack was a set-up, with Israeli aircraft hoping to use the Russian plane as cover from Syrian air defenses. Since the Russian aircraft had much larger radar profile than the Israeli aircraft, the Syrian defense systems would naturally latch on to the Il-20, according to the prior Russian Ministry of Defense statement.
"The Israeli pilots used the Russian plane as cover and set it up to be targeted by the Syrian air defense forces. Consequently, the Il-20, which has radar cross-section much larger than the F-16, was shot down by an S-200 system missile," the statement said.
Russia further confirmed that Israel notified Russia of the impending massive attack on Syrian targets through the military-to-military hotline set up to prevent such "accidents" but only gave a one-minute notice, which didn't allow Russian aircraft to evacuate the area.
The use of larger aircraft to hide behind while penetrating restricted airspace is a common tactic used by Russian and NATO aircraft. Modern fighter aircraft are much smaller than most commercial aircraft, especially modern cargo or passenger aircraft. Therefore, a military aircraft can easily merge its radar signature into that of the larger aircraft and enter “hostile” airspace without being noticed – especially since commercial radar doesn’t have the resolution of modern military radar.
In this case, the Syrian military radar was not of a modern design. The Syrian air defense system (the S200 or the NATO designation, SA-5 Gammon) that allegedly shot down the Russian aircraft is an old system designed in the 1950s and fielded in the 1960s to defeat large bomber attacks into the USSR. According to reports, it still uses vacuum tubes instead of solid-state electronics.
Not only is the system obsolete (the Soviet Union started deactivating the missile batteries in the 1980s and 1990s), it appears as if the Syrians were unable to maintain them. During the initial years of the Syrian Civil War, parts of the S-200 systems were occasionally spotted when Syrian Air Defense sites were overrun by rebel forces. Most notably radars, missiles and other equipment belonging to S-200 system were pictured while in disrepair when rebels overtook the air defense site in Eastern Ghouta in October 2012.
Although the Russians have repaired the Syrian air defense sites since then, they have remained insufficient response when employed against the Israeli Air Force (IAF) attacks.
On 17 March 17, 2017, the Israeli Air Force attacked a number of Syrian armed forces targets near Palmyria in Syria. The Israeli Air Force sent four aircraft through Lebanon’s airspace and launched missiles toward Syrian territory. The Syrian Air Defense force was able to track two aircraft and fired missiles while they were still over Lebanon. One of the Syrian missiles lost its target was headed towards a populated area when Israeli missile defense fired at least one Arrow missile which intercepted the incoming missile. Two other S-200 missiles landed in other parts of Israel after losing their target.
The fact that Israeli fighter aircraft regularly “spoof” Syrian S200 missile systems, while a Russian surveillance aircraft was unable to defend itself against one of Russia’s own old missile systems, probably says something about Syria’s and Russia’s military level of coordination when it comes to Israeli threat.
Obviously, the S200 and its Syrian operators were unable to keep the S200 missile from “locking on” and hitting a Russian aircraft. That indicates a lack of certain necessary procedures of Syrian operators since in nearly any air defense scenario, both enemy and friendly aircraft will be in the air at the same time, but we cannot rule out the effect of electronic countermeasures employed by the Israelis.
The incident also indicates that Russian pilots are unable to break the radar lock from its own air defense systems. The S200 uses the 5N62 (NATO designation, Square Pair) H band continuous wave radar, with terminal semi-active radar homing, which Russian pilots should know how to “spoof” since they are flying in an air defense system not under their own control.
The fact that the Russian pilot apparently was unaware that his aircraft was being “painted” by the S200 fire control radar and didn’t know how to successfully avoid the missile, indicates that the Russian air forces currently stationed in Syria aren’t as well prepared and well trained as they should be.
The Marines Land in Syria
The Israeli missile attack on Syria wasn’t the only military action in Syria.
In what seems to be a military response to the large Russian naval force operating in the Eastern Mediterranean, the US sent about 100 US Marines into Syria to carry out exercises with America’s Syrian rebel allies. It also came after Russia warned that its force could attack the US occupied garrison in At Tanf.
The US said, “The exercise was conducted to reinforce our capabilities and ensure we are ready to respond to any threat to our forces within our area of operations.”
The forces reinforced a 55 km radius “deconfliction zone around its garrison in At Tanf, which has been declared “off limits” to others.
To show the Syrians, Iranians, and Russians that it is serious, the US shifted the USS Essex (LHD 2) from the Arabian Sea to the Red Sea. It is the flagship of the Marine Expeditionary Group (MEU) and carries the most modern US fighter the F-35.
The MEU and Amphibious Ready Group consist of three amphibious warfare ships and a heavily reinforced and mobile Marine Battalion. They could quickly move into American controlled territory in Syria if necessary.
If that isn’t enough, the Navy announced that the aircraft carrier USS Truman will be heading towards the Mediterranean with the other ships of its carrier strike group. The Navy has been quite secretive about the Truman’s movements, but it could be on station in the Eastern Mediterranean within days. The carrier also has the new F-35 stealth fighter.
It is unknown if the USS Truman will head to the Arabian Sea or remain in the Mediterranean. During its last deployment earlier this year, they stayed out of the Arabian Sea area.
If the USS Truman remains on station off Syria, we can expect to see some of the same type of activity that occurred between NATO and Soviet ships during the Cold War. While the Russian Anti-Submarine units try to detect US submarines, the Russian combatants will follow the US ships, especially the USS Truman. US and Soviet ships did this for decades without any serious incidents.
Of course, there is the question of what will happen if the US decides to carry out operations in Syria? If a strike is planned, the US ships involved will likely move away from the Syrian coast and into open seas. This will leave the Russians on the horns of a dilemma. Should they move with the US fleet or stay near the Syrian coast to provide air defense?
And, could the Russian ships provide better air defense than they did against Israeli aircraft this week?
The fact is that US naval assets in the region are more capable than the Russian ships in terms of strike capability, air defense, and anti-sub warfare. The two dozen Russian ships wouldn’t be able to cover all possible strike scenarios, especially since all of the US ships can launch cruise missiles.
If the Russian ships move west with the US fleet, this would leave US ships in the Red Sea free to carry out the strike, by flying over Jordan and Israel. The Essex task force in the Red Sea could also use cruise missiles.
If the Russian ships are unable to track the US submarines, the submarines could launch cruise missiles.
It’s quite likely that the USS Truman carrier air group would not be used in any attack. Rather, they would be used as a decoy to move Russian ships out of position off the Syrian coast.
These two incidents indicate that all sides are serious about maintaining their positions and policies, while limiting the danger of escalation.
Meanwhile, although the Russians are understandably upset with Israel, they have learned some lessons about flying inside an active air defense zone – even if it is under the control of an ally.
Russia will continue to remain in Syria. However, don’t be surprised if they integrate Syria’s entire air defense under Russian control.
In the meantime, expect the US to keep a low-profile Special Forces footprint in Syria to “deter” president Assad, Russia, Iran, and Turkey. That small SF presence will also be able to be reinforced if necessary with a Marine amphibious force that is always in the Middle East. That will keep Assad and his allies from trying to force the US out of the region.
In the meantime, Syria is very reminiscent of the Balkans before World War One. There is no reason for events there to cause a major war; however, there is every reason to think that the major powers in the region can blunder into one.