The Israeli Air Force has an impressive reputation. As a son of an IAF veteran, I grew up hearing their stories and watching runways. I was told tales of daring dogfights against the Egyptian Spitfires in the early days, or the overwhelming casualties the IAF caused to the Egyptian Air Force during the Six-Day War (’67)—a total of 452 Arab aircraft were destroyed, 49 of which were aerial victories.
Over the years, the IAF has become more technologically advanced and is now an important part of our national security. But above all, it has become an important element of our special operations, providing our forces with the ability to reach far, silently and in deadly fashion. Operations such as OP Babylon (bombing an Iraqi nuclear plant) or Operation Orchard were important milestones in the IAF progression and development; their reputation has since helped the Jewish country to rule the sky in a manner that offers us freedom of action, even in such a complex conflict as the Syrian Civil War.
But with the recent developments in Syria, the Russians working to establish a stronger presence in the region, it is likely that the era of the IAF crossing borders as if merely walking over a sidewalk is nearly over. The Russian Navy’s Black Sea flagship, the guided missile cruiser Moscow (or Moskva ‘glory’), left from Sevastopol in Crimea on Thursday, 24 September, 2015, according to Russian state-controlled media. It is currently located to the west of Latakia, in western Syria.
According to the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD), “In the course of the training activity, the Russian ships will practice organization of anti-submarine, anti-ship, and air defense, as well as search-and-rescue activities and rendering assistance to distressed vessels. During the exercise, the military seamen are to perform over 40 different combat tasks including missile and artillery firings at surface and aerial targets.”
By positioning the Moskva, a cruiser armed with S300 missiles, west of Latakia, the Russians have endangered the IAF’s favorite corridor of flight into Syria. The IAF has no stealth capabilities to circumvent this anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) bubble, nor any other Air Force in the area. Putin managed to do in several days what Obama failed to do in the last three years: He’s created a true no-fly zone. In fact, Putin’s actions suggest (my opinion) that he’s willing to force the coalition and the Israel Air Force, specifically, into reporting and coordinating their flights in the region—an act that I’m sure no one is really in favor of or willing to comply with.
The Moskva carries an estimated 64 S-300 missiles (according to foreign sources) and could intercept multiple targets up to 150 miles away, making it a serious threat in addition to other Russian assets in the region. The presence of the Moskva essentially locks down British air assets in Cyprus, American F-16s in the southern part of Turkey, and the Israeli Air Force, which likes to use that particular flight corridor for penetration into Syria, or alternatively when flying over the western part of Lebanon. Any flights in or around the country will now be quite tricky for the IAF to accomplish.
Currently, there’s a great deal of disinformation and propaganda on the web pertaining to Russian activities in the region, and their ostensibly benevolent operations to rid the region of the likes of ISIS. A lot of false information is circulating and PSYOPs are in full effect. But one may not ignore reality: Russian activities on the diplomatic field suggest that the Russians have intentionally established their own no-fly zones, creating anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) bubbles in Syria through which no aircraft, unless stealth capable, can travel.
The Russian Navy has reestablished its old Cold War base, Tartus, located on the western coast of Syria. That, along with a Russian airbase in northwestern Syria, ensures Russia can maintain steady supply routes into Syria to support its military actions. Considering this and the sophisticated air-defense capabilities the Russians have already deployed in Syria, perhaps the entire operation is about more than merely buoying Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the short term. As the saying goes, ”Russia is not just a country, it’s a mentality.”
Concerning aspects of Russia’s presence in Syria
- The Israeli policy in Syria was to indirectly support rebels and entities on our eastern border (in the Golan Heights region) in order to counter Iranian attempts to support their proxy war branches. The current Russian campaign has made the region easier for the Iranian ‘advisors’ (read: Quds Force) and the Kuntar militias (Hezbollah proxy) to assume their positions and launch future operations. With the previous IAF airstrikes in the area, Hezbollah and the Iranians were forced to think twice before moving their tools. With that region being protected by a sophisticated air defense like the one Russia has introduced, operated by personnel who can actually read what’s written on the keyboard, the IAF’s influence has essentially been counteracted.
- When the U.S. moved into Iraq, they did it the way they know best: with tons of troops and equipment, in a big and impressive way. The problem is, when the U.S. left, military bases and vast amounts of military equipment were left behind, mostly just to save the expense of bringing it back home. Now the Russians are mirroring this approach—dumping major hardware into the conflict—which may result in a similar situation to that of Iraq. The Israeli government was the first to recognize this horrifying possibility. Netanyahu said, “If anybody wants to use Syrian territory to transfer nuclear weapons to Hezbollah, we’ll take action.”
So what happens to coalition surveillance flights? What about airdrops to parties in the region supported by the coalition? This will become another complicated situation which will require the precision of a surgeon and the creativity of artists. One thing is certain: The Kremlin’s recent move is dangerous and places us all in danger. It may be time to dust off the old Cold War books.
In an attempt to establish a no-fly zone, Russia has created a roadblock for current and future actions by coalition forces in the region. I have no idea what tomorrow will bring. I don’t know how many corners the Syrian table has, but I do know one thing: Too many airplanes belonging to rival factions flying in the same airspace should be a wake-up call to do a home check.
The proposed American no-fly zone idea was meant to protect civilians. The Russian no-fly zone does the opposite and poses complications in lands far beyond Syria. It protects the Assad regime as it continues to kill civilians. The more Obama allows the Russian military to become involved in Syria, the more I suspect that Obama has reconsidered forcing Assad out of the game.
UPDATE: As of October 7, 2015, for the first time, four Russian Navy ships used surface-to-surface, long-range missiles in an ”operational” setting. The bombardment struck 26 targets in Syria. According to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, 11 hits were confirmed. Shoigu also said that the strikes were launched from the Caspian Sea using long-range missiles (Klub series) that flew 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) to their targets.