- - Thursday, October 8, 2015


The Russians are rapidly reinforcing their bridgehead in Syria, adding ground troops to their air, marine and naval forces. It is a classic air, land and sea intervention by a military establishment that understands how combined arms build synergies and broaden capabilities. As Jed Babbin pointed out in these pages on Wednesday, the broad-shouldered Russian intervention is the direct counterpoint to the “inaction, indecision and dithering” that have long characterized President Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has called Mr. Obama’s bluff. He has also deployed a Russian expeditionary force bristling with robust anti-aircraft and ground-attack weapons, even firing cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea. Such a deployment is precisely what Mr. Putin believes necessary to insure that Russian jets and helicopters dominate the skies over Syria. Fox News reports that Russian jets have already shadowed U.S. Predator drones on three occasions, a quiet but unsubtle message that the unmanned aircraft are flying only because of Russian forbearance.

Depending solely on Mr. Putin’s strategic objectives, that prevailing restraint can vanish in an instant. Union and Confederate commanders, for example, routinely practiced counter-reconnaissance throughout the Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1864. When planning a surprise attack or defending a vulnerable position, their first objective was to prevent enemy cavalry from having an unobstructed view of one’s own dispositions. What cavalry did back then, air forces and satellites do today.

Updating an ancient principle for the digital age, Norman Schwarzkopf destroyed Saddam Hussein’s radars, reconnaissance systems and intelligence assets before American airpower launched the opening salvos of Operation Desert Storm. Today’s Russian generals grew up practicing the basic principles of Soviet electronic warfare: Intercept the enemy’s communications, jam him or destroy him. Above all: Use the electromagnetic spectrum and state-of-the-art Russian air defenses to offset hi-tech American airpower. In Syria, that campaign has already begun.

Pandering to an American public that is militarily and strategically illiterate, some presidential candidates have reflexively called for “no-fly zones” to be set up in Syria. Predictably, Donald Trump has even expressed enthusiasm for Mr. Putin’s alleged intent to combat ISIS. But seriously, folks, why would Vladimir Putin go to the considerable trouble of staging the largest foreign deployment of Russian forces since the Cold War only to cater to western conceits about no-fly zones? Even if he did, who would set up and enforce them? Having made a power play to control Syria (and therefore a major chunk of the Middle East) why on earth would Mr. Putin content himself solely with attacking ISIS? (If you are having trouble following this logic, then you probably are a member of the White House staff “perplexed” by Russian objectives.

As a highly trained KGB apparatchik, Syria is not Mr. Putin’s first rodeo. While it has become obligatory in Washington policy salons to deplore Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Egypt’s recent history offers a better clue to Russia’s long-range goals.

Home to the Arab world’s largest population and the region’s geopolitical crossroads, Egypt had been a key American strategic ally ever since Anwar Sadat. But Mr. Obama backed the Islamist dictatorship of Mohammed Morsi, even after 30 million Egyptians took to the streets in July, 2013 to force his overthrow. When Mr. Obama cut off military ties with the new Egyptian regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Russians swiftly stepped in to reverse a generation of American statecraft. Unlike the amateurs in the West Wing, Russian strategists and diplomats have no difficulty connecting dots or reading maps.

Neither do our few remaining allies in the Middle East, who can be forgiven for drawing their own conclusions, given the Egyptian reversal, those Syrian red-lines, the recent Iranian arms control deal and the steady expansion of Iranian influence throughout the region. Because it is a tough and unforgiving neighborhood, where would you place your bets if you lived there? Do you ally yourself with the rising regional power or the one seemingly intent only on defeat and retreat? As a friend points out, “Obama only attacks oilmen, Wall Street, the police, pro-lifers, the NRA, Christians, conservative Republicans, and traditional U.S. allies. Remember when they were the good guys?”

In this confusing world, it is important to remember that things can get worse, particularly given the fog of war with lots of heavily armed aircraft moving at high speeds over surprisingly small operating areas. War is justly famed for confounding the best intentions, for proving that the only assumption which holds true is the one you were certain could never happen.

How ironic that the place where three of the world’s great religions were born might yet spark a global confrontation where no holds are barred.

Ken Allard, a retired Army colonel, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.

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