1. The recent events in Syria seem to underline the advent of a new multi-polar world order. Bipolar orders are inherently stable. That is why there was little of hot conflict during the stasis of the Cold War. Subsequently the US pressed home its conventional military edge in the era of unipolarity that set in after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. We saw a series of short, sharp conventional conflicts that achieved decisive military results due to uninhibited use of air power. However, the triumphant US Forces soon got bogged down in long insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan that made military occupation of occupied territories highly costly. Within a decade, the US was showing clear signs of military fatigue and exhaustion. Its ill thought intervention in Iraq led to seeding of chaos in the Middle East and the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) thereafter elicited only feeble and half-hearted US responses.
2. Economic Strangulation: Unintended Consequences: Before the Second World War, the US had forced Japan into War by its economic strangulation policy. The Japanese economy was critically dependent upon the imports of energy and minerals. The US strangulation forced Japan to lash out desperately in Pearl Harbour and strive for the creation of an Economic co-prosperity sphere in South East Asia. The erstwhile USSR’s economy was wholly dependent on the export of energy. The United States torpedoed the Soviet economy by putting the price of oil in freefall for almost a decade in the 1980s. This collapsed the Soviet economy and unraveled the once mighty Soviet Empire. Today, the USA is once again engaged in an economic war to sink the Russian economy. The price of oil has been brought down from US$ 140 a barrel in 2013 to just US$ 40 a barrel. Even this will sink to US$ 30 a barrel, once the Iranian oil begins to flow into the global markets. Russia has now decided to fight back. It had revamped its armed forces in the years of elevated oil prices and has therefore pushed back hard in Georgia, Ukraine and now in Syria. To understand the current events in Syria therefore, it is vital to understand this backdrop and context of this struggle. A sudden outbreak of conflict in the Middle East would disrupt the oil supplies and send the price of oil soaring up once again. Given these plausible outcomes, the motivation to conflict could be fairly high and that is what makes Syria a dangerous place today.
3. Shia-Sunni Faultline and Oil Politics: Some other major aggravating factors in the Middle East are the sharp Shia-Sunni faultlines that have clearly emerged between the Wahabist coalition led by Saudi Arabia and an increasingly assertive Iran. This Shia-Sunni faultline by itself could lead to large scale conflict in this region. Thoughtless US intervention via the Arab Spring and then militarily in Libya, Iraq and Syria have dangerously destabilized this region. The simple fact is that the US has entirely eliminated its energy dependence on the Middle East in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular. As such it has no compunctions in destabilizing this critical region. India, China, Japan and other Asian countries that are the prime consumers of Middle Eastern oil have little ability to influence the outcomes in this volatile region. Russia is suffering greatly due to the US and Saudi manipulation of the oil price mechanism and hence, its military assertion in Syria. It is trying thereby to re-inject itself as a key player in the crucial oil cockpit of the Middle East.
4. Turkish Ambitions: Turkey, under Sultan Erdogan, has grown inordinately ambitious in recent years. It first befriended Assad’s Syria. Then it went out of its way to destabilize Assad’s regime by employing Sunni opposition groups to topple his Shia based leadership. Turkey has devised a colonial project to solve its Kurdish problem by driving all its Kurds into a colony crafted in Northern Syria. It plans to push out its entire population of some 10 million Kurds into this Syrian enclave. To keep the Kurds in check, it has also been supporting the ISIS and sustaining this vicious caliphate regime by buying in bulk its smuggled oil. When the recent Russian air offensive hit these supply lines, Turkey responded most foolishly by shooting down a Russian SU-24 fighter aircraft. In their desire to get rid of Bashar-al-Assad, the US, the West, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have all tacitly supported the ISIS in the hope that it will help topple Assad. This explains America’s rather anemic response to the rise of ISIS.
5. US and ISIS: During the Second Gulf War, the USA had suckered the Sunni Generals and Republican Guard formations into surrender and then refused to take them back in the new Iraqi Army. The USA had thereby created the conditions for the Sunni insurgency metamorphosing into the ISIS. The US military forces and treasury were exhausted by the long quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. As such, the US is now refusing to be drawn back into the same quagmire in the Middle East. It has decided to fight smart by just employing airpower and avoid putting any boots on the ground. Even here, its effort has been rather anemic and half-hearted. Till October 15th this year, the USA has launched some 7,323 strikes against the ISIS in Iraq, and another 2,622 in Syria. Over the space of a year, this amounts to just some 13 strikes per day in Iraq and 7 strikes a day in Syria. In sharp contrast, the US had launched 48,244 sorties over 42 days in the First Gulf War. This amounted to 1,100 sorties per day. The sortie generation rate was 800 per day in Gulf War-II. It was 138 per day in Kosovo and 86 per day in Afghanistan (2001). A strike rate of 20 sorties per day against the ISIS shows a basic lack of resolve to do meaningful damage to this organisation. An Army General (Lt Gen James Terry) is in charge of these operations (not a USAF General). This itself indicates a lack of intent to use airpower in a significant role. US Gen Herbert J “Hawk” Carlisle said that the reason for this weak response was the highly ambiguous and complex situation in Syria. There were many players involved, which included the Iranian Quds Force, Shia Militia, Moderate Sunnis, ISIS, Kurds and the Syrian Forces themselves. Hence the obvious US restraint in the use of airpower.
6. The Russian Intervention: By Sep-Oct 15, Assad’s position in Syria was becoming militarily untenable. The Iranians now asked Russia to intervene. The Russian Forces now in Syria are the most legitimate of all forces operating there, as they have come at the behest of the Syrian Government itself. Russia has long been a military ally of Syria and has a naval and air base in Tartus and Latakia. Russia sent a naval armada to launch concerted cruise missile attack on the ISIS. From the Caspian Sea, the Russian ships Dagestan, Grad Sviyazhsk, Veliky Ustyug, and Uglich launched a barrage of some 26 Kalibr-NK cruise missiles on to ISIS targets in Syria. Russia sent in some 50 plus combat aircrafts to launch concerted air attacks in Syria. These initially included:-
SU-24 M Tactical Bombers
– 30 aircrafts
SU-25 Strike aircrafts
– 12 aircrafts
SU-34 Tactical Bombers
– 04 aircrafts
– Numbers unknown
These combat aircrafts mounted some 60-80 sorties per day – an effort three times as vigorous as the US air effort against the ISIS. Russian Tupolev Bombers from the mainland also pounded Syrian rebels (including the so-called moderate Sunni forces armed by the Americans and the Turkomen tribes in North Syria, armed and supported by Turkey). This helped the Syrian Army to make significant gains in the Latakia and Zahia heights and also take control of Jisr al-Shughour. The Russians also used their Tor Thermobaric MBRL weapons with devastating effect. The obvious Russian aim was to showcase their new weapons and conventional military prowess to the world.
7. The Turkish Ambush: Russia was sharing its air attack sorties information with the Americans and NATO. The Turks now laid a deliberate ambush. They shot down a Russian SU-24 fighter bomber, which it claimed had penetrated Turkish airspace for 17 seconds and had apparently been warned 10 times (in which language is not clear). The Russian jet’s wreckage had fallen in Syria. The Turkish F-16 used a BVR air to air missile to shoot this Russian fighter from behind. The Russian fighter was not carrying any air to air missiles and was configured entirely for ground attack. The Turkomen militia opened fire on its pilots, who bailed out. They killed one and shot up a Russian helicopter sent to rescue the downed pilots. A daring Syrian-Iranian rescue mission helped free the surviving pilot.
8. Russian Response: The former Vice Chief of the US Air Staff, Lt Gen Tom McInerney characterized this shooting down as a “very bad mistake that showed poor judgment”. Turkey rushed in panic to invoke Article 5 of NATO and tried thereby to trigger a wider conflict that would take the heat off its ISIS and Turkmen protégés. The plan backfired. NATOs European nations were in no mood to fight Russia on Turkey’s prodding. There were strong voices of dissent in the European Union (EU). Russia was incensed. However, it reacted in a very measured way. It imposed economic sanctions on Turkey and moved its Muscova Class Destroyer to provide S-400 SAM cover to its aircrafts operating in Syria. The Triumf missile system has a range of 400 kms and theoretically can down Turkish planes in their own territory. It has also moved in S-400 missiles to secure its Naval Air Base in Syria. It is now flying SU-30 top gun cover for its jet bombers and fighter bombers. There are obvious chances of mishaps and errors of judgment that could lead to a sudden escalation in Syria. The Russians have obviously drastically changed their rules of engagement.
The Way Ahead: Russian Option Matrix
From the point of view of optics, the shooting down of the Russian aircraft was a significant setback for its muscular display of military hardware. Weapons export is a primary source of revenue for cash strapped Russia. It was not anticipating such an ambush and was taken by surprise. Its response option matrix was:-
u Immediate Retaliation: Russia could have mounted an immediate retaliation by shooting down Turkish aircrafts. This would perhaps have played into Turkish hands by letting it invoke Article V of NATO to press for the USA and European intervention. Russia held its hand but inducted the S-400 SAMs and additional SU-30 aircrafts to fly air cover for its fighter bombers. The possibility that some Turkish aircraft may still be shot down exists as a clear and present danger.The Russians meanwhile have thoroughly pounded the ISIS and the massing of effects has enabled the Syrian army to make significant gains on the ground./ Saudi- Arabia and turkey threatened recently that they would intervene in Syria. This , if it comes to pass could ignite serious conflict – though I doubt if either of them would have the courage to go ahead with this threat in the face of all that it implies.
u Economic & Trade Sanctions: Russia is Turkey’s second largest trading partner. It supplies more than half of Turkey’s Natural Gas. Russia repatriated 90,000 Turks, stopped Visa-free travel and tourism and imposed biting economic sanctions by stopping gas exports and trade as also work on building the Akkayin Nuclear Plant.
u Asymmetric War Option: Russia can now provide direct military aid to the Syrian and Turkish Kurds and also provide air cover to their operations when needed. This could tie down the Turkish military indefinitely in a significant war of attrition. Russia seems to have already taken steps to actualize this option as the various terror attacks in turkey have highlighted. Russia first response to a ground invasion would be to step up its air activity and fire support to Syrian ground forces in Syria itself.
u Respond in Ukraine: Russia could also ramp up its intervention in the Ukraine by enhancing support to breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk. All in all, the situation has become quite fluid and dangerous. For the time being, the UN Peace Initiative in Syria is a clear attempt to defuse this situation.
India’s Role. The Indian Defence Minister indicated that should the UN ask for ground troops, India could send its forces. In the past, India had sent in Brigade-plus sized forces in Congo, Somalia and Sierra Leone; and could easily do so again under the UN Flag. However, the situation is highly fluid and dangerous and we should clearly examine the mandate of such a mission. It should have the consent of the legitimate Syrian government and should have no truck with the so-called Moderate Sunni Forces/Turkomens trying to overthrow the Assad regime. Such a force would go under chapter7 and should be well equipped to fight and prevail in a dangerously armed neighbourhood. Its charter would not entail peace keeping( the relatively mild affair that we are used to) but peace enforcement. The situation is highly ambiguous and sudden and sharp escalations cannot be ruled out. We are clearly seeing the end of Uni- Polarity and the rapid onset of a new Multi- polar global order. The ISIS predictions of Armageddon could well ring true suddenly in the months ahead , unless a number of countries drastically alter course. The recent cease – fire has given some temporary ground for hope.
Maj Gen (Dr) GD Bakshi, SM, VSM (Retd) is a combat veteran of many skirmishes on the LC and Counter-Terrorist operations in J&K and Punjab. He commanded his battalion in active operations in Kargil and was awarded the Vishisht Seva Medal. Later he commanded a brigade in Counter-Terrorist operations in the very rugged mountains of Kishtwar and was awarded the Sena Medal for his distinguished services. He subsequently commanded the reputed Romeo Force during intensive Counter-Terrorist operations in the Rajouri-Punch Districts of J&K in the wake of Op Sarp Vinash and succeeded in pacifying the area. He has served two tenures at the highly prestigious Directorate General of Military Operations (during Op Pawan and Op Vijay) and was the first BGS (IW) at HQ Northern Command where he dealt with Information Warfare and Psychological Operations. He is a prolific writer on matters military and non-military and has published 30 books and over 200 papers in many prestigious research journals. His articles have also been published in various National Newspapers. He taught at the Indian Military Academy Dehradun and the Prestigious Defence Services Staff College at Wellington for three years each. He taught at the National Defense College at New Delhi for two years and retired from this prestigious assignment in Jun08. He holds a Masters degree in Defence Science and an M Phil in Strategic Studies from the University of Madras. He later completed his Ph.D. from the same University on” Limited Wars in South Asia”. He is an Associate member of the IDSA and a Distinguished Fellow of the Centre for Air Power Studies. Post retirement he was a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies and Simulations at the USI and later served as Deputy Director Research at the Vivekananda International Foundation. His articles on National security appeared in many National Dailies and Hindi Journals including Panchajanya. He subsequently took over as the Chief Editor of the Defence and Security Alert magazine. He is currently Editor of Indian Military Review. He is also Senior Security Advisor (Consultant) to Reliance Industries Limited. His books include, “Afghanistan-the First Fault line War,” “War in the 21st Century”, “The Indian Art Of War” “The Paradox of Pakistan” , “The Rise of Indian Military Power: Evolution of an Indian Strategic Culture “and “Limited Wars in South Asia.” He has also written many books on Indian Philosophy both in Hindi and English. He appears regularly on all major TV News Channels on the Subjects of terrorism and national security. He lectures frequently at the Army War College, the College of Defense Management, the College of Materials Management, The National Defence Academy and the National Police Academy as also various prestigious Academic institutions.