Russia has warned the United States not to intervene militarily in Syria against forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, threatening to shoot down any aircraft attempting to launch strikes. A spokesman for the Russian defense ministry said on October 5 that Russia and Syria have enough anti-air defense to stave off potential attacks. The statement followed rumblings in Washington that President Barack Obama may be considering new military strikes against Syrian government forces as a means of advancing U.S. interests following the failure of cease-fire negotiations with Russia.
The impasse the Obama administration has experienced with Russia goes back several years, however. In 2012, Obama warned Russia and Syria about crossing a “red line” as to targeting civilians in the widening war in Syria that had spread to Iraq and Lebanon. By August 2013, Assad’s government admitted to a previously unknown chemical weapons program, while it continued to rain bombs on civilians, killing thousands. The red line was thus crossed, but the response from the U.S. was muted. Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to be taken off guard by Russia’s entry into the war: "You just don't in the 21st century behave in a 19th-centuryy fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.”
Russia is now making 19th-century military threats even while Obama appears to scramble for an adequate response. The failure of a cease-fire that had been negotiated by the United States and Russia was followed by mutual recriminations, and also terrific bombing by Russian air forces on the city of Aleppo. This week, Kerry suspended talks with Russia, while the State Department says there is nothing to discuss. Obama has gone back to the drawing board to figure out a response to Russia’s intensified strikes.
This week, the Defense Department reportedly offered a number of different strike scenarios to the White House. The CIA and the Joint Chief of Staffs are said to be hawkish about intervening in Syria and favor shooting missiles (such as sea-borne Tomahawk missiles) at Assad’s airfields as punishment for failing to abide by the ceasefire. The goal is to diminish the level and frequency of attacks, while also pressuring Russia to return to negotiations. The Washington Post has reported that Obama is not likely to approve the attacks, even though the possibility has been broached at the command level. “I will be shocked,” Robert Ford, the last U.S. ambassador to Syria, said in an interview this week.
Russian Pantsyr ground-to-air defense system (R) and S-400 long-range missiles (L)
Speaking for the Russian Defense Ministry, Major-General Igor Konashenkov was unambiguous in his observations about possible American strikes. “I would recommend our colleagues in Washington to thoroughly consider the possible consequences of the realization of such plans.” Konashenkov also listed the various air defences now deployed in Syria and vowed that they will be used against attacks. Konshenkov said that Russia’s advanced S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft missiles that are deployed at its bases in Syria have a range that “can be a surprise for any unidentified flying objects.”
“It follows to really be conscious that there will hardly be time in the calculations of the Russian air-defense units to clarify on the “direct line” the precise flight-plan of missiles and who they belong to,” Konashenkov said. He was referring to the hotline already established by the U.S. and Russia to prevent clashes between their aircraft in Syria.
Strikes against Syrian government forces could be launched from ships and aircraft belonging to the international coalition assembled by the U.S. to combat the Islamic State organization. Dismissing any attempt by the U.S. and its allies to cast the strikes as covert operations, Konashenkov warned "American strategists" not to presume a covert intervention would fail to get a response from Russia. “The illusions of dilettantes about the existence of 'stealth' aircraft may encounter a disappointing reality,” he added. Russian troops, including fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, as well as armored units, are found widely throughout Syria, said Konashenkov, thus implying that allied strikes could inadvertently hit them.
Konashenkov mentioned the September 17 air attack by the United States that resulted in the death of dozens of Syrian government troops. The U.S. explained that the strike was a mistake. Konashenkov said Russia is prepared to prevent “any similar ‘mistakes’” against Russian troops.
The White House has been examining more so-called “kinetic” options ever since the cease-fire failed.
Accusations by the West that Russia and the Assad government have engaged in war crimes have not prevented Moscow from engaging in some of the most intense bombardment of the conflict. Within the administration, there are discussions not only about cratering Syrian runways to cripple Assad’s air forces but about possibly providing heavier weapons to rebel militia fighting Assad.
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