In view of the total failure of the US policy to regime-change Syria and overthrow Assad, the time has now come for the United States to make a fundamental choice: to negotiate or double down. Apparently, Kerry and others initially tried to negotiate, but the Pentagon decided otherwise, treacherously broke the terms of the agreement and (illegally) bombed the Syrian forces. At which point, Kerry, Power and the rest of them felt like they had no choice but to “join” the Pentagon and double down. Now the US “warns” Russia that if the Aleppo offensive continues, the US will not resume negotiations. This is a rather bizarre threat considering that the US is clearly unable to stick to any agreement and that the Russians have already concluded that the US is “not-agreement-capable”. The Russia reaction was predictable: Lavrov’s admitted that he could not even take his American colleagues seriously.
Okay, so both sides are fed-up with each other. What comes next?
The US will send more weapons to Daesh, including MANPAD s, TOW s and Javelins. The effect of that will be marginal. Russian fixed-wing aircraft fly at over 5,000m where they are out of reach from MANPADs. They are currently the main provider of firepower support for the Syrians. Russian combat helicopters, while probably not immune to MANPADs, are still very resistant to such attacks due to three factors—survivability, weapons range and tactics: Mi-28s and Ka-52 have missiles with a maximum range of 10km and the way they are typically engaged is in a kind of ‘rotation’ where one helicopters flies to acquire the target, fires, immediately turns back and is replaced by the next one. In this matter they all protect each other while presenting a very difficult target to hit. Russian transport helicopters would, however, be at a much higher risk of being shot down by a US MANPAD. So, yes, if the US floods the Syrian theater with MANPADS, Syrian aircraft and Russian transport helicopters will be put at risk, but that will not be enough to significantly affect Russian or Syrian operations.
Russian escalatory options are far more diverse: Russia can send more T-90 tanks (which TOWs, apparently, cannot defeat), more artillery (especially modern multiple rocket launchers and heavy flamethrower systems like the TOS-1). The Russian Aerospace forces could also decide to engage in much heavier airstrikes including the use of cluster and thermobaric munitions. Finally, Russia could send in actual ground forces ranging in size from a few battalions to, in theory, a full-size brigade. The problem with that option is that this would mark a major increase in the commitment of Russian forces to this war, something which a lot of Russians would oppose. Still, since the Iranians and, especially, Hezbollah have been used like a “fire brigade” to “plug” the holes in the front created by various defeats of Syrian army units, it is not impossible that the Russians might commit a combined-arms battalion tactical group to a crucial segment of the front and then withdraw it as soon as possible. The purpose of this strategy would be double: to support the struggling Syrians with as much firepower as possible while, at the same time, slowly but surely bleeding the Daesh forces until they reach a breaking point. Basically, the same strategy as before the ceasefire.
So why did the Russians agree to that ceasefire in the first place?
Because of the long held belief that a bad ceasefire is better than a good war, because Russia is trying hard not to escalate the confrontation with the US and because Russia believes that time is on her side. I am pretty sure that the Russian military would have preferred to do without that ceasefire, but I am equally sure that they were also okay with trying it out and seeing. This is the old contradiction: westerners also want results *now*, while the Russians always take their time and move very slowly. That is why to a western audience the Kremlin under Putin is always “late” or “hesitant” or otherwise frustrating in what appears to be almost a lack of purpose and determination. Where this typically Russian attitude becomes a problem is when it signals to the leaders of the US deep state that Russia is not only hesitant, but possibly frightened. In a perverse way, the lack of “show of force” by Russia risks giving the Americans the impression that “the Russkies have blinked”. I am always quite amazed when I see western reactions to the soft, diplomatic language used by Russian diplomats. Where the Americans openly compare Putin to Hitler and demand the imposition of a (completely illegal) no-fly zone over Syria, the Russians respond with “my friend John” and “our partners” and “negotiations must proceed”. More often than not, when Americans hear the diplomatic language of the Russians, they mistake it for weakness and they feel further emboldened and they make even more threats. It is in partly for this reason that Russia and the United States are, yet again, on a collision course.
Once the US comes to realize that its policy sending MANPADs to Syria did not work, it will have only one last card to play: attempting to impose a no-fly zone over Syria.
The good news is that judging by this exchange, US generals understand that any such US move would mean war with Russia. The bad news is that the Neocons seem to be dead-set on exactly that. Since such an event has now become possible, we need to look at what exactly this would entail.
The way the US doctrine mandates imposing a no-fly zone is pretty straightforward: it begins with an intensive series of USAF and USN cruise missile strikes and bombing raids whose aim is to disable the enemy air defenses and command and control capabilities. At this stage heavy jamming and anti-radiation missile strikes play a key role. This is also when the Americans, if they have any hope of achieving a tactical surprise, will also typically strikes at enemy airbases, with a special emphasis on destroying landed aircraft, runways and fuel storage facilities. This first phase can last anything between 48 hours to 10 days, depending on the complexity/survivability of the enemy air defense network. The second phase typically includes the deployment of air-to-air fighters into combat air patrols which are typically controlled by airborne AWACS aircraft. Finally, once the air defense network has been destroyed and air supremacy has been established, strike fighters and bombers are sent in to bomb whatever can be bombed until the enemy surrenders or is crushed.
In Syria, this ideal scenario would run into several problems.
First, while there are only a few S-400/S-300 systems in Syria, the US has never had to operate against them, especially not against the Russian version of these formidable systems. Worse, Russia also has very long range radars which will make it impossible for the USA to achieve a tactical surprise. Last but not least, Russia also has deployed powerful electronic warfare systems which are likely to create total chaos in key US command, control, communications and intelligence systems.
Second, these S-400/S-300 systems are mostly located on what is legally “Russian territory”: the Khmeimim airbase and the Slava-class or Kuznetsov-class cruisers off the Syrian coast. The same goes for the key nodes of the Russian communications network. If the Americans were crazy enough to try to hit a Russian Navy ship that would open up the entire USN to Russian attacks.
Third, while Russia has deployed relatively few aircraft in Syria, and while even fewer of them are air-to-air interceptors, those which Russia has deployed (SU-30SM and SU-35) are substantially superior to any aircraft in the US inventory with the possible exception of the F-22A. While the US will be able to overwhelm the Russians with numbers, it will be at a steep cost.
Fourth, the use of USAF AWACS could be complicated by the possibility that the Russians would decide to deploy their anti-AWACS very-long range missiles (both ground launched and air launched). It is also likely that Russia would deploy her own AWACS in Iranian airspace and protect them with MiG-31BMs making them a very difficult target.
Fifth, even if the USA was somehow able to establish something like an general air superiority over Syria, the Russians would still have three formidable options to continue to strike Daesh deep inside Syria:
1) cruise missiles (launched from naval platforms of Tu-95MS bombers)
2) SU-34/SU-35 strike groups launched from Russia or Iranian
3) supersonic long range bombers (Tu-22M3 and Tu-160)
It would be exceedingly difficult for the US to try to stop such Russian attacks as the USAF and USN have not trained for such missions since the late 1980s.
Sixth, even a successful imposition of a no-fly zone would do little to stop the Russians from using their artillery and attack helicopters (a difficult target for fixed-wing aircraft to begin with). Hunting them down at lower altitudes would further expose the USAF/USN to even more Russia air defenses.
Seven, last but not least, today is not 1995 and Syria is not Bosnia: nowadays the Europeans don’t have the stomach to fight the Syrians, nevermind Russia. So while some European leaders will definitely send at least some aircraft to show their loyalty to Uncle Sam (Poland, Germany, Holland and maybe one 2nd hand F-16 from a Baltic state), the regimes that matter (France, UK, Italy, etc.) are unlikely to be interested in a dangerous and completely illegal military intervention. This is not a military problem for the USA, but would present yet another political difficulty.
To sum all this up I would simply say that if the Americans and their allies have a huge advantage in numbers, in terms of quality they are outgunned by the Russians pretty much at all levels. At the very least, this qualitative edge for the Russians makes the imposition of a (completely illegal!) no-fly zone over Syria an extremely risky proposition. Could they do it? Yes, probably, but only at a very substantial cost and at the very real risk of a full-scale war with Russia. As I have said it many times, Syria is smack in the middle of the CENTCOM/NATO area of “responsibility” end at the outer edge of the Russian power projection capability. Where Russia has tens of aircraft, the Americans can bring in many hundreds. So the real question is not whether the Americans could do it, but rather whether they are willing to pay the price such an operation would entail.
At a political level it is important to repeat the following here:
1) The US presence in Syria – all of it – is completely illegal and has no UNSC mandate
2) Any and all US military operations in Syria are also completely illegal
3) The imposition of a US enforced no-fly zone would also be completely illegal
While this has not stopped the Empire so far, this might offer the Europeans a perfect excuse not to participate in any such operation. Of course, the Americans don’t need any European air force to try to impose a no-fly zone on Syria, but politically this would definitely hurt them.
Finally, there is one more problem for the US to deal with: the imposition of a no-fly zone over Syria is a very large operation which would require hundreds of aircraft. Where would the US operate from? I might be naïve here, but I don’t think that Erdogan would let the US use Incirlik for that purpose. Iraq would most likely at least try close its airspace to any aircraft participating in such operation, especially if Syrian or Russian forces are hit. This leaves Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and US aircraft carriers to launch from. None of them are very suited for that: Jordan does not have the infrastructure and is too close, Israel would not help the US against Russia and neither would Egypt. And while the Saudis have excellent facilities, they are far away. As for aircraft carriers, they are the best option, but they are far from ideal for a sustained air campaign (which the imposition of such a no-fly zone would be).
Again, none of that is a show-stopper, but it very substantially complicates the work of US planners.
The risk of a US attempt to impose a no-fly zone over Syria will remain very real for the foreseeable future unless, of course, Trump beats Hillary to the White House. If Hillary wins – then that risk will sharply escalate. As for Obama, he probably does not want to stick a big stick in such a hornet’s nest right before leaving the White House (at least I hope so). Finally, regardless of who actually sits in the White House, the idea of imposing a no-fly zone over Syria would have to be measured against the so-called “Powell doctrine” of military interventions. So let’s see how this plan would measure up to the series of questions of the Powell doctrine:
Q: Is a vital national security interest threatened?
Q: Do we have a clear attainable objective?
Q: Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
A: Yes, and they are potentially extremely high
Q: Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
Q: Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
Q: Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
A: Yes, and the biggest risk is WWIII against Russia
Q: Is the action supported by the American people?
Q: Do we have genuine broad international support?
As we can easily see, this plan fails to meet the minimal criteria of the Powell Doctrine on most points. So as long as somebody mentally sane is in the White House all this talk should remain what it has been so far – empty threats. Of course, if Hillary makes it into the White House and then nominates a maniac like Michèle Flournoy as Secretary of Defense along with a national security team composed of rabid warmongers then all bets are off.
Please consider that before you go to vote.