As the propaganda “war” between East and West intensifies ahead of what might ultimately transform into an actual war in the skies above Syria, the world is transfixed with the scope of Russia’s week-old military campaign in support of the Assad regime.
Thanks to the fact that the West selected Islamic militants as its anti-Assad weapon of choice, Putin gets to pitch the entire effort as a “war on terror” which means The Kremlin effectively has a license to brag and sure enough, slickly-produced ISIS videos of beheadings have now been definitively replaced by slickly-produced videos of Russian warships launching cruise missiles at terrorist targets.
In short, Moscow is on a roll both militarily (of course that’s not difficult when you’re a superpower playing against a couple of JV militias) and perceptually, which makes it possible to continually ratchet up the pressure on anti-regime forces as the global applause only seems to grow with each incremental escalation much to chagrin of both the Pentagon and Washington’s Mid-East allies and as we said earlier this week, "a very likely course of events is that despite Russia's denials, the Pentagon will use the gambit of a Russian ground campaign, credible or not, to get permission from Congress to send a 'small', at first, then bigger ground force of US troops in Syria to, you guessed it, 'fight ISIS', but really to do everything to prevent Russian troops from taking over key strategic positions."
On Thursday we get the latest set of headlines from Syria, starting with NATO asserting that Russia has a ground battalion at the ready supported by tanks. Here’s Reuters:
Russia's military build-up in Syria includes a "considerable and growing" naval presence, long-range rockets and a battalion of ground troops backed by Moscow's most modern tanks, the U.S. ambassador to NATO said on Wednesday.
Speaking on the eve of a NATO defense ministers meeting to be dominated by Russia's intervention in Syria's civil war, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute said Moscow had managed a "quite impressive" military deployment over the past week to its Syria naval base in Tartous and its army base in Latakia.
"There is a considerable and growing Russia naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, more than 10 ships now, which is a bit out of the ordinary," he told a news briefing.
"The recent Russian reinforcements over the last week or so feature a battalion-size ground force ... There is artillery, there are long-range rocket capabilities, there are air defense capabilities," Lute said.
A battalion is typically around 1,000 soldiers.
Western officials say that in strategic terms, Russia's new air strike campaign in Syria appears designed to help reverse rebel gains increasingly endangering Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, protect Russian military assets in the country including its sole Mediterranean port, and reassert Moscow’s place as a big international power competing with the United States.
"The force that they have deployed down there is actually quite impressive for a rapid deployment of a week or so," Lute said. "(It is) all arms, combined arms, attack aircraft, it is the attack helicopters and artillery, rocket artillery."
And that means NATO needs to indicate that it too is willing to deploy troops via Turkey, where Ankara will simply acquiesce to anything the West wants to do as long as Washington turns a blind eye to Erdogan’s “war” with the PKK which is far more important domestically than any conflict with ISIS or Russia because Erdogan is effectively fighting to secure the “right” to change the country’s constitution and thereby consolidate his power. Here’s Reuters again:
NATO said it was prepared to send troops to Turkey to defend its ally after violations of Turkish airspace by Russian jets bombing Syria and Britain scolded Moscow for escalating a civil war that has already killed 250,000 people.
Officials at the U.S.-led alliance are still smarting from Russia's weekend incursions into Turkey's airspace near northern Syria and NATO defense ministers are meeting in Brussels with the agenda likely to be dominated by the Syria crisis.
"NATO is ready and able to defend all allies, including Turkey against any threats," NATO's Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters as he arrived for the meeting.
"NATO has already responded by increasing our capacity, our ability, our preparedness to deploy forces including to the south, including in Turkey," he said, noting that Russia's air and cruise missile strikes were "reasons for concern".
As Russian and U.S. planes fly combat missions over the same country for the first time since World War Two, NATO is eager to avoid any international escalation of the Syrian conflict that has unexpectedly turned the alliance's attention away from Ukraine following Russia's annexation of Crimea last year.
The incursions of two Russian fighters in Turkish airspace on Saturday and Sunday has brought the Syria conflict right up to NATO's borders, testing the alliance's ability to deter a newly assertive Russia without seeking direct confrontation.
This, of course, is nothing more than an attempt to create an excuse to counter the Russians. The Russian warplanes that allegedly crossed into Turkey’s airspace obviously were not intending to bomb Ankara, so the only reason the West continues to focus on the story is to build a narrative that justifies sending ground troops in via Turkey.
Meanwhile, the Iran-sponsored ground cleanup crew is apparently on the move and advancing quickly:
Syrian troops and allied militia backed by Russian air strikes and cruise missiles fired from warships attacked rebels forces on Thursday as the government extended a major offensive to recapture territory in the west of the country.
Rebel advances in western Syria earlier this year had threatened the coastal region vital to President Bashar al-Assad's control of the area and prompted Russia's intervention on his side last week.
In a further show of force, the Russian defense ministry said missiles fired from its ships in the Caspian Sea hit weapons factories, arms dumps, command centers and training camps supporting Islamic State forces.
Ground forces loyal to the government targeted insurgents in the Ghab Plain area of western Syria, with heavy barrages of surface-to-surface missiles as Russian warplanes bombed from above, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a rebel fighting there.
It said rebels had shot down a helicopter in Hama province in western Syria. It was unclear if it was Syrian or Russian.
Syria said a major military operation was under way.
Yes, "ground forces loyal to the government" or, stripping away the facade, "Shiite ground forces loyal to Tehran" who, once the campaign in Syria is over, will cross right back into Iraq and continue the fight against Sunni extremists only now they'll be backed not only by the IRGC, but by the Russian army, and on that note, we close with the following from AFP:
Russian President Vladimir Putin's bullish entry into the Syrian conflict has worked wonders for his popularity in neighbouring Iraq, where some await "Hajji Putin" like a saviour.
Sitting at his easel in his central Baghdad workshop, painter Mohammed Karim Nihaya touches up a portrait of Putin he copied from the Internet.
"I have been waiting for Russia to get involved in the fight against Daesh," he says, referring to the Islamic State group that last year declared a "caliphate" straddling Iraq and Syria.
"They get results. The United States and its allies on the other hand have been bombing for a year and achieved nothing," the bespectacled artist says.