- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 4, 2013

President Obama will not hold a formal meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin during this week’s G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The cancellation of a meeting between the two leaders is the most significant sign that the president’s four years of conciliatory “reset” policies toward Russia are now on hold.

To drive home U.S. displeasure with Moscow’s recent anti-U.S. policies, including the granting of asylum to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, Mr. Obama will meet instead with Russian rights activists, according to a White House official.

The official told Inside the Ring that the president will meet with “civil-society representatives,” but provided no details.

Mr. Obama will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and French President Francois Hollande in St. Petersburg.

“While there is currently no plan for a formal bilateral [meeting] with President Putin of Russia, we would expect the two presidents to have an opportunity to speak on the margins of the various meetings of the G-20,” the official said. “The president also looks forward to meeting with civil-society representatives in St. Petersburg.”

The Russian online business news outlet Kommersant, which first reported the plan for Mr. Obama to meet the activists, quoted a Russian official as calling the president’s meeting “strange.”

Groups that have been invited to send representatives to meet with Mr. Obama include two gay activist groups, Vykhod (“Coming Out”) and the Russian LGBT Network. Other activists were invited from Agora, For Human Rights, the Moscow Helsinki Group and Golos, according to Kommersant. The news outlet said almost all confirmed the invitations and said they would meet with the president.

Russian presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov was quoted as saying the Kremlin was unaware of the planned meeting with activists. “As U.S. president in this instance, Barack Obama is free to do whatever he wants,” he said.

However, a Russian government official criticized the planned meetings. “Either you meet with the authorities and those who criticize them, or you meet with nobody,” the official told Kommersant.

Russia’s government has cracked down hard on dissent in recent years, imprisoning political opponents and accusing nongovernmental organizations of engaging in espionage.

At a news conference Wednesday in Sweden, Mr. Obama defended the reset policy as a success for arms control and Russian support for supplying troops in Afghanistan.

“Now, there’s no doubt that, as I indicated a while back, we’ve kind of hit a wall in terms of additional progress,” he said. “But I have not written off the idea that the United States and Russia are going to continue to have common interests even as we have some very profound differences on some other issues,” including Syria.

Syrian air defenses weak

U.S. airstrikes on Syria could quickly knock out Syria’s Russian and Chinese air defense systems as part of larger military operations against President Bashar Assad’s regime, according to a new report.

“U.S. and allied airpower could readily destroy its fixed elements in a major campaign and is relatively well prepared to deal with the residual threat that surviving mobile systems would pose to other air operations over the longer term,” the report by the Rand Corp. states.

“However, experience in conflicts such as Kosovo and against less well-armed enemies has demonstrated how difficult completely suppressing even sparse, moderately capable, mobile air defenses can be and how serious the restrictions on U.S. air operations can be as a result.”

The report, “Air Power Options in Syria,” was released Friday and can be seen here: rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR446.

Taking out Syrian air defenses “would not be an end in itself, but a means of facilitating other missions over Syria,” the report says.

Syria’s most potent air defenses are Russian-made mobile SA-6 and follow-on SA-11 and SA-17 systems.

Destroying Syrian fixed air defense sites would be relatively easy, while the mobile defenses would be more difficult as they can be moved or hidden.

If U.S. aircraft are used in the anticipated attack, the jets most likely would fly out of the U.S. air base at Incirlik, Turkey, or Britain’s Akrotiri air base on Cyprus, the report said.

A YouTube video posted online recently shows a Syrian SA-11 air defense missile battery moving at the Al Mazzah military airfield in Damascus. Syrian rebels have said the base was used for the Aug. 21 chemical attack on Ghouta and therefore it is considered a major target of U.S. missile strikes that would mainly originate from five guided-missile destroyers deployed in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Obama administration has said its plans for attacks are limited to degrading Syria’s chemical weapons delivery capabilities.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Wednesday that targets of a U.S. strike will include efforts to “degrade” the capability to use chemical arms “without exposing those chemical weapons to a lost of secruity.”

That includes “air defense, long-range missiles and rockets” used to protect chemical arms, he said.

Some Republicans in Congress are pressing the administration to conduct more extensive strikes that would assist Syrian rebels in ousting the Assad regime.

The Rand report concludes: “Airpower could be used to reduce the Assad regime’s ability to launch large-scale chemical attacks and potentially to make such attacks appear excessively costly or dangerous. However, eliminating Syria’s extensive chemical weapon arsenal would require a large ground operation.”

Airstrikes also could help in “tipping the military balance in favor of the Syrian opposition, enabling it to succeed on the battlefield where it previously could not, either to bring about the fall of the Assad regime or to create a stalemate that might lead toward a negotiated resolution of the conflict,” the report said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin told The Associated Press late Tuesday that some components of advanced S-300 air and missile defenses were sent to Syria.

Missile test and Syria

Despite public denials, the U.S.-Israeli joint missile defense test this week in the Mediterranean appears to be part of what military observers say is “preparation of the battlefield” for future military strikes on Syria, specifically, spying on possible counter strikes.

Early Tuesday, U.S. and Israeli military forces fired a Sparrow target missile from the Mediterranean toward Israel. The Israelis used their Arrow missile defenses to track the missile.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement Tuesday that the Pentagon provided “technical assistance” for the launch that was “long planned.”

“This test had nothing to do with United States consideration of military action to respond to Syria’s chemical weapons attack,” Mr. Little said.

However, Russia’s military forces, on the lookout for a U.S. attack on Syria, went to a higher alert status after the missile was launched.

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoli Antonov told government-run RIA Novosti that “combat readiness” was increased after the launch.

Other reports said the United States did not notify Russia of the planned launch, an indication the test was part of intelligence operations related to Syria.

Military observers say one covert objective of the Sparrow missile launch was most likely aimed at testing Russian military reaction in the region to the anticipated Syria strikes.

Israel’s military, for its part, is closely watching Iran, which has threatened to retaliate for any strikes on Syria.

Russia has dispatched a warship to the region and has a military intelligence-gathering ship there as well.

U.S. officials said there is a low probability Russia would take military action to defend Syria, despite its support for the Assad regime.

Asked last month how Moscow would respond to an attack that was not sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Aug. 26: “You may draw conclusions based on our position in recent years, when international law was rudely flouted in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya. That is bad. But we do not intend to go to war with anyone.”

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