More evidence of Russia’s deepening and seemingly erratic involvement in Syria’s civil war has now appeared via movements of parts of its Black Sea Fleet into the Mediterranean and blatant incursions into Turkey’s airspace by their Syrian-based tactical aircraft.
Russia’s mission creep in Syria seems more like a mission sprint over the last month, with a fully established air base supporting daily air strikes humming away and an Iranian-Iraqi-Hezbollah backed ground offensive, which Russia will support, looming.
According to NATO, two aerial incidents occurred near the Turkish-Syrian border this weekend involving tactical aircraft emanating out of Syria. The first saw a Russian Su-30SM cross into Turkey’s airspace and after repeated warnings Turkish Air Force F-16s were vectored in to intercept the jet. As the F-16s approached, the Su-30 crossed back over the border into Syrian airspace. A similar incident is said to have occurred with a Russian Su-24 Fencer.
Moscow has fully admitted to the incursions, stating that it was a “navigational error,” which is laughable considering how modern the Su-30SM’s avionics suite is and how even a mobile GPS, which Russian Su-24s are known to use, could keep the pilots aware of what territory they are over.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu played down the violation, unlike his NATO collegues, stating that it was a mistake and that contacts between the two countries (Russia and Turkey) remain strong:
“Our foreign minister called the Russian foreign minister and said clearly that this should not be repeated. The information from Russia this morning was that this happened by mistake and that they respect Turkish borders and that it will not be repeated… Whoever violates our airspace, our rules of engagement are clear. We will warn whoever violates our borders and our airspace in a friendly manner. This country can be whichever and Russia is our neighbor, our friend. In this way, there is no tension between Turkey and Russia. The Syria issue is not a Turkish-Russian crisis.”
This softer, kinder approach to aircraft busting through the Syrian-Turkey border from the south is a far cry from Turkey’s previous hard-line stance, which resulted in a Turkish F-16 downing a MiG-23 over a year and a half ago. Obviously the implications of downing a Syrian MiG are far less than a Russian fighter operating on behalf of the Assad regime.
The intercept of Russian aircraft in Turkish airspace was not the only aerial incident between Turkey and Assad-aligned forces in Syria over the weekend. On Sunday, reportedly a MiG-29 Fulcrum flying near the Turkish-Syrian border locked its fire control radar on Turkish F-16s patrolling on their side for almost six minutes straight, which was an unnerving event for the Turkish F-16 crews.
Although the MiG-29 is flown by Russia as well as Syria, Russia does not have any of the aircraft deployed to its base near Latakia. As such, the MiG-29 belonged to Syria unless they were misidentified Russian Su-30SMs, which is doubtful.
All this is just a reminder of how volatile and complex the situation, both on the ground and in the air, has become in and around Syria since Russia dived into the conflict.
Meanwhile, reports that a portion of Russia’s primarily Crimea-based Black Sea fleet have entered the Eastern Mediterranean under the guise of executing various anti-surface, anti-submarine and anti-air drills. This flotilla includes the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, the Slava Class cruiser Moskva.
The Slava class cruiser Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet:
This multi-role picket ship is capable of area air defense and packs the S-300P surface-to-air missile system, which has a range of around 50 miles. By parking this ship off the coast of northwest Syria, it could provide an anti-air early warning and engagement umbrella for Russia’s interests around the Syrian port cities of Latakia and Tartus, and everything in between, including Russia’s airfield south of Latakia. Currently Russia’s air defenses in Syria only consist of a handful of fighter aircraft and SA-22 short-range point air defense systems.
The Slava class cruiser’s S-300 missile vertical launch silos:
Russia’s current eastern Mediterranean flotilla is supposedly made up mainly of the Moskva, two Krivak Class frigates, one Kashin class destroyer and a couple amphibious landing ships, among smaller patrol vessels (you can see pictures of some of these vessels passing through the Bosporus recently here). According to Russian military officials, these ships may also be used to form a blockade of the Syrian coastline, which is about 100 miles long, and to deliver naval gunfire support against coastal and inland targets.
The inclusion of Russian naval forces in Moscow’s growing strategy in Syria is not an illogical one. By using the Black Sea Fleet as a “bookend” to their forces already deployed to Syria, it sends a powerful message to Washington and NATO that they intend to stay there no matter what and it creates layer of air and sea defenses they don’t currently enjoy in the region. These ships also provide a flexible set of capabilities that Russia can use at will without really any risk or need for additional force protection like land-based forces require. Above all else it is a display of Russia’s might on a global stage, something President Putin has grown quite fond of over the last two years.
As for how effective these ships actually are at high-end tasks like area air defense against modern military capabilities, it remains a very debatable issue. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet was neglected over the years and is largely made up of weapons designed in the 1970s and early 1980s. But just because they are dated does not mean they are are not a threat to be factored in, especially in a low-intensity conflict like the one in Syria where mistakes can easily be made and no real surface-to-air missile threat has previously materialized.
If Russia uses its fleet to blockade the Syrian coast, it could curtail resupply of rebel fighters, especially to those in northwest tip of the country. If Russia uses their naval assets to shell targets within a few miles of the coastline it will be lower-risk and more efficient than flying individual air sorties. Considering that Russia has been seen primarily using dumb bombs with its aerial attack fleet since strikes began just days ago, naval shelling really is no different and it is a more persistent and psychologically damning way of delivering similar affects on targeted positions.
Russia’s potential use of naval power in Syria is also a reminder that they don’t aim at fighting ISIS by using such tactics, they are primarily fighting more moderate anti-Assad forces as ISIS holds no coastal territory and is not known to be deeply embedded in western Syria at all.
A Krivak and Kashin class frigate at anchor in Sevastopol, Crimea: