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Syria, Russia: It All Looks Different From Out There

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Robert Mackey at New York Times’ The Lede has a Friday post entitled “Crisis in Syria Looks Very Different on Satellite Channels Owned by Russia and Iran.”

Well, no kidding.  It’s nice to see NYT catching up with the rest of the infosphere.  But it’s not just in Russian and Iranian media that the crisis in Syria looks different.  It’s basically everywhere outside the United States.  In the US, the news centers on what the Obama administration is doing about the crisis.  Outside the US, the news is about what the nations of Europe are doing, what the Russians are doing, what the Turks are doing, what the Arab League and the OIC are doing, what alarms the Russians about Western policies (see here for a more explicit, populist-level view), how the region is reacting to the crisis, and which nations – Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iran, the other Persian Gulf nations, Cyprus, Lebanon, Israel – might be sucked into an armed confrontation between Russia and the West in Syria.

In American news coverage, Russia is seen as the spoiler in the UN, the bad-tempered world power that said no to an Arab-drafted peace plan backed by the US.  In other news coverage, Russia is seen as the principal military patron of Bashar al-Assad, with military advisors all over the country and a serious determination to prevent the West from regime-changing Syria out from under Russian influence.

The situation

According to Le Figaro on Tuesday, Russian military “advisors” are “omnipresent” in Syria. Besides reportedly sending S-300 anti-air missile systems to Damascus and agreeing to deliver a new batch of military aircraft, the Russians this week celebrated the reopening of a Cold War-era intelligence listening post on Mount Qassioun, the summit that dominates Damascus from the northwest.  The Russians appear increasingly dug in.

Russian advisors are also laboring to reorganize the Baath Party and arrange talks with members of the Syrian resistance.  They are making their own contacts with Arab and Islamic organizations, seeking to dilute the solidarity of the West with Arab leaders on the Syrian problem.  In a phone discussion with Nicolas Sarkozy this week, Dmitry Medvedev warned France not to use a coalition of the willing to take unilateral action in Syria.  France – not the United States – was the Perm-5 nation that inaugurated the “friends of the Syrian people” effort immediately after the Russian and Chinese vetoes in the UN on 4 February.  (Tunisia has reportedly agreed to host the first gathering of this coalition.)

 

The region

 

On Thursday, Russia’s vice-minister of defense, Anatoly Antonov, was quoted as saying on Russian television that Russian military personnel are deployed in various sites around Syria.  (See here as well.)  This is the first high-level confirmation of such an extensive Russian presence, and it is obviously not a random comment.  The Russians are anxious to have it understood that if a Western-Arab coalition fires on Syria, it will hit Russians.  In Antonov’s words, Russia “cannot remain indifferent.”

Russian preparations

Is Russia preparing to actually do anything militarily?  She seems to be preparing to defend herself against the West and its allies, and indeed, to hold parts of the West (and perhaps Japan) at risk.  On Thursday, the Russians announced that a new Voronezh long-range missile-defense radar will go operational near St. Petersburg this month.   Along with the Voronezh radar operating near the Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic (since November 2011), the radar in St. Petersburg will provide coverage of much of the western and polar-northern approaches to Russia.  This is one is a series of precautions, which also involve troop movements in the Southern Military District (facing the Black Sea and Caucasus), defensive exercises, and patrols.

 

The Caucasus

 

One such patrol reportedly occurred in the Far East on Wednesday, when a flight of two Tu-95 Bear bombers, two Su-24 Fencer jets (outfitted for reconnaissance), and one A-50 Mainstay AWACS made a close approach to the airspace of northern JapanRussian media reported this foray in detail, along with Japan’s reaction, making sure to point out that the incident marked the first time a Russian AWACS had approached Japanese airspace.  The meaning of the AWACS participation would be twofold: first, that the Russians are ready to coordinate defensive responses to Japanese or US strike-fighters, and second, that they have the capability to coordinate air battles on offense.

Looking toward the near future, the Russians are improving the Severomorsk-1 air base near the Northern Fleet headquarters on the Barents Sea.  The project will allow the base to accommodate the Tu-160 Blackjack, Russia’s long-range supersonic jet bomber, and the Tu-95 turboprop bomber.  The move will put extended support facilities  for the bombers in Russia’s remote northwestern periphery, allowing the aircraft, now based in Engels in the interior, to get to a Western- or Northern- (polar) front fight faster, and with less vulnerability over potentially hostile territory (i.e., in Europe).  The new facilities are to be operational in May 2013; they would not be a factor in a near-term dust-up over Syria, but are another indicator of Moscow’s emerging posture toward the West.

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