The U.S. and its allies must immediately engage at the strategic, diplomatic and tactical military levels in Syria and Iraq. The focus for that action should be uncomplicated; defeat ISIL while supporting the Kurds in reshaping our position in Iraq; put the Iran nuclear agreement in the rear view mirror.
There is a clear and present danger of miscalculation, which needs to guide US and our allies to work directly with the Russians in the deconfliction of air space. We need as well to come to terms with the end of the latest age of unmanned aerial vehicles. Not only are the Russians putting our UAVs in risk, but the information war is being lost to Russia as new documents have been leaked which put the United States into a moral abyss.
With the publication of what The Intercept has called the Drone Wars, “US drone operations in Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan, including the mechanism of targeting suspects slated for assassination” have been highlighted as virtual crimes against humanity, which provides the Russian leader with more than enough apparent justification to operate in the Syrian airspace to deal with US drones operating in Syrian airspace.
Russia has had a significant stake in Syria for a long time, and Syria is part of Putin’s Mediterranean resurgence. For Secretary of State John Kerry when looking at Russia’s actions in the Ukraine, Putin was declared to be so 19th century. In reality, Putin is using military power in a 21st century way – to support a strategy of influence and strategic positioning.
In the face of Russian strategy in Syria, the lack of clarity in U.S. strategy and the use of the U.S. military to support strategic incoherence is leaving it exposed. Disregarding the warnings of recently retired head of Air Combat Command, Gen. Mike Hostage, that the US should not fly UAVs in contested airspace, these vulnerable assets now face Russian aviation in a potential face off. Either these assets have to be removed for their own protection, or pilots must fly to protect them and engage the Russians in a World War I-style of warfare equivalent to shooting down observation balloons. There are clear limits to relying on UAV technologies except in unique circumstances, namely air dominance and clear strategic purpose.
President George W. Bush claimed he had looked into Putin’s eyes in 2001 and “was able to get a sense of his soul.” Clearly, Putin has done this with Obama, and his Syrian actions are playing off of what Putin sees as the Obama strategy which includes a pro-Iranian stance, an alienation of Israel, a pro-Baghdad Iraq policy, and a very weak “air campaign” burdened with more lawyers than airstrikes.
Putin is backing a sitting government, that of Assad. One should remember that the bias in the UN Charter is to support sitting governments and that Russian claims that Western strikes in Syria are illegal under the UN charter is not just hyperbole. Russian actions in support of Assad also expose the incoherence of the “other side” supporting the mishmash of opponents of Assad, ranging from ISIL, to the legitimate opponents of Assad.
With a well-defined military force on the ground, namely those of Assad, and in support of the legitimate government of Syria, Russian airpower can rely on those Syrian forces to help find and mark targets, and can prosecute Assad’s enemies as well as ISIL. With no lawyers in their OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop, Russian pilots are not constrained by the OOLDA (Observe, Orient, Legally Review, Decide, and Act) loop which limits the effectiveness of Western airpower.
To be clear, this is not about “ground forces” versus “airpower” since all operations are now air-enabled. This is about crafting a clear strategy within which military assets can be used. Putin is clearing the decks to expand his influence in the region in the face of Western strategic incoherence and their lack of strategic operational clarity.
Putin went to Paris recently and cut a deal with Ukraine to take Ukraine off the table for the moment. Putin is trying to put the lid on Syria, which would be supported by many Europeans since this could provide relief from Europe’s refugee crisis.
Putin has met with the Israel leader and the Israeli military as well and they have discussed the way ahead in the region. While President Obama is giving the cold shoulder to Netanyahu, Putin welcomed the Israeli leader to discuss the region and the way ahead on security arrangements.
The Russians have deployed missile defense systems around their main operating base, deterring Western air forces. To be clear, there is little doubt that these defenses could be destroyed if needed, but what is the point?
The Iranians are getting the point, that strategy-led military operations in support of a legitimate government in Syria – however brutal – makes the Russians a key player that must be dealt with, especially one which can deal with Europe and Israel at the same time.
Putin has put in play calibrated military force supporting a strategy since the Crimean takeover. In contrast, the Obama Administration has put in play an incoherent military operation against ISIL without clear allies on the ground.
Putin’s clearly defined actions only enhances the opportunities for the Russians to influence events and shape outcomes. Simply opposing Putin will get the U.S. nowhere. The Obama administration must recognize how the game has already changed and the approach to counter-insurgency which the U.S. has followed for a decade, along with attachment to UAV-enabled ground operations, has been overtaken by events.
There is a clear need to get on with the strategic task of deconflicting the Western and Russian air forces operating in the murky border regions of Iraq and Syria, notably with the ISIL operating with fluidity within the “borderless” region from their point of view. It should not be forgotten that European air forces have been engaged in vigorous operations as the Russians test them over the Baltic and North Sea regions. They already have some sense of what the current Russian air operations are all about. Air forces such as the RAF have already made it clear that they will not tolerate any direct threat to their forces as well in Iraq.
Putin has clearly put his marker down to be a player and kingmaker in the region. For Putin, Russian airpower is a key instrument in his strategy, one not constrained by the OOLDA loop.
Robbin Laird, a defense consultant, is a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors and owner of the Second Line of Defense website. Ed Timberlake, a graduate of the US Naval Academy and former Marine squadron commander, works with Laird.