Tag Archives: USA

NATO’s Southern Flank: Russian A2/AD emerges in the Mediterranean Sea

By BEF Vice President and NATO-chair Ionut Sutea

The Syrian quagmire is finally nearing a certain status quo. ISIS has been stripped-off its quasi-state form and forced back to operate as a traditional insurgency. The defeat can mostly be credited to the efforts of the U.S.-led International Coalition and its embedded local indigenous multi-ethnic group, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).  On the other hand, the Assad regime is has regained more than half of the national territory and now controls over 75% of the Syrian population. The opposition forces are utterly degraded and boxed into a few isolated patches of land in the western parts of Syria. Largely abandoned by their wealthy backers, inter-Rebel skirmishes further polarized the opposition between Islamists and hardcore militant Salafist (Jihadists). Turkey has made good use of their situation to further its own anti-Kurdish agenda on the borderlands with Operation “Euphrates Shield” (2016-2017) in northern Aleppo countryside, and Operation “Olive Branch” (2018) in Afrin canton.  But resulting from the Loyalist success in the civil war, geopolitical objectives are being translated into practice by the two main external backers of the Regime. The Russian Armed Forces as well as the Iranian-backed Shi’a paramilitary groups have played a key role in emboldening the Assad regime and degrading the Opposition – which enabled the two backers to satisfy their initial objectives.

Russia’s military intervention launched in mid-2015 was mostly motivated by long-term strategic goals that sought to undermine NATO’s southern flank and forward the agenda of resurgence. Inherently, the Russian Federation will now maintain a permanent military presence in the Mediterranean Sea and the Levant amid the end of the Syrian Civil War. The Latakia Air field, initially established a center of operations against ISIS, will now continue to host dozens of fighter jets and bombers; while the Naval Facility of Tartus, leased since the early 70s to Moscow, will be enhanced to form a Mediterranean Fleet consisting of a nuclear submarine and 11 warships. Guarded by the advanced S-400 anti-air system, the Russian military-assets on the Syrian coastline form a new Anti-Access Area Denial Zone (A2/AD). Russia has invested considerable energy into developing A2/AD capabilities and carefully positioning them to maximize their strategic effect. That process accelerated after the seizure of Crimea. A2/AD bubbles are purposed to deny an adversary’s forces access to a particular region or otherwise hinder freedom of maneuver – it includes, but it is not limited to: anti-air defense systems, counter-maritime assets and theater offensive strike weapons. The strategic ramifications of the action underpinned on the Syrian coastline are to vanguard the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus, challenge NATO’s freedom of maneuver on its southern flank and enhance Russia’s geopolitical posture and security needs throughout the region and the world.

In addition, the Russian expeditionary forces, mechanized units and fighter jets have been operated and moved as far as Syria’s central and eastern provinces. The Tiyas (T4), Shayrat (hit by U.S. tomahawk cruise missile in mid-2017) and Deir ez-Zor Air Bases are jointly operated by Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces. The Kremlin made good use of those assets to establish a forward operational presence stretching to the mid-Euphrates river valley, that is only contained by the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) present on the river’s eastern shores. The Russians are not only attempting to close the airspace in western Syria and contest the eastern Mediterranean, but also to establish a pro-active military expeditionary presence seeking to profit from U.S. disengagement in the Middle East. Such undertakings are projected to expand into Iraq, Libya and possibly Egypt.

The strategic diagnosis will, however, encounter several “black swans”. Given the current geopolitical environment, Russia’s plans are caught between a rock and a hard place. The Kremlin is playing Russian roulette in the Israeli-Iranian divergence. It is simultaneously attempting to maintain its military cooperation with the Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian militias, Iraqi PMUs and al-Quds forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), whilst pivoting with Jerusalem. This gamble has proven reckless and inefficient in recent deteriorating conditions. Operations security (OPSEC) and asset-protection has also been dangerously poor. Recent Rebel attacks on the Latakia Air Base show that Russia and the Syrian Regime are unable of fully securing vital and strategic bases from unsophisticated acts of aggression. This is only a taste of the long-term insurgency facing the Russian presence there, as the Kremlin continues to support a genocidal government formed by an Alawite minority in a predominantly Sunni, but hyper-complex, societal landscape. This is without mentioning the Turkish-Kurdish showdown developing in Afrin that further complicates a permanent settlement.

In the long-run, the creation of AD/2D bubbles on NATO’s flanks is counter-productive for the Kremlin. Moving advanced air defense and tactical nuclear weapons on Allied borders will only urge its richer and more capable Western adversaries to further proliferate precision-strike missile systems. This is a tech race that Moscow cannot keep up with, given its worsening economy and obsolete weapons industry. The United States will maintain strategic supremacy for the near future regardless of attempts from foes to compete. This should not downplay that Russian interference in the most contested region of the world has severely complicated the local dynamic and has strongly hampered Western strategic goals in the area. Now, more than ever, the Southern Flank needs to gain traction as a theater of utmost interest for NATO and Euro-Atlantic strategists.

Read an extended version of this assessment on T-Intelligence.

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.

Showdown or Just Hot Air? The South Chinese Sea Conflict

by Marian Fritz, Member of the MEF Board

Proclaimer: In the following essay the author assumes a multipolar world, defining superpowers by the height of their military budget (over USD 60 billion) and the number of active soldiers (over 750,000).

Since the end of the Cold War era, armed conflict between superpowers seems to be a thing of the past. This was partly caused by the struggle to maintain a bipolar world following the decline of the USSR. Although the USA and the USSR fought a number of proxy wars against each other – except for the Cuban missile crisis, the status quo was relatively stable.

Since then, the world has rapidly changed: to analyze the state of security, one must not forget the significance of the BRIC(S) states. These states – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – host 42% of the worlds population and have won significant influence on the world stage, whereas many of the “old” European powers have taken more minor roles.

Whilst the South Chinese Sea conflict is not new, it has the potential to affect the whole world. Despite this conflict not being present in the media or the public does not mean that did not exist: to analyze the conflict, as well as its threat potential, the actors and the objectives need to be clarified.

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Diagram 1 – Source unknown

Other nation states involved in this conflict are Brunei, China, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines and Singapore; more further afield Australia, Japan, Russia and the USA.

On first glance, the problem appears one of which over who will control a collection of small uninhabited islands; however on closer look, deeper and more complex objectives can be seen.

The main objectives are hegemonic concerns between China and the USA, as Beijing tries hard to break the hegemony of the US by expanding its territory to the south and intimidating its neighbors, one of which is Japan. As both Japan and China share a long history of enmity and a further territorial dispute the Senkaku Islands, it clear to see why Japan has willingly joined the dispute over the South Chinese Sea.

Another factor is that the most important Asian Sea route passes waters claimed by China by the “Nine-Dashed-Line” (see Diagram 1). This territorial claim however has not been tolerated by China´s neighbors and the USA. As China is currently operating a highly expansive foreign policy and has started developing military facilities, the regional nations are becoming increasingly nervous and want to stop this expansion.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNLCOS) is important in this context. Naval passages may not be blocked and artificial islands in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) are not to be used for military purposes. As a party to UNCLOS, China claims it not only owns the islands but also the 200 miles EEZ around it – this second point is lawful for a continental shelf, however not for artificial islands.

The relatively small regional nations are looking for a strong ally to balance out the superpower China, which additionally has the same goals in order to protect them – the so-called neo-realism theory. Diagram 2 illustrates this concept in both theory and practice. Over the last few years, the USA has increased its activity in the region by conducting exercises – using naval vessels, either tests of new equipment or vessels stationed locally, or aircraft flyovers – all indented to secure and inspire confidence in its allies.

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Diagram 2 – by author

Geopolitical developments have demonstrated some interesting alliances. Old enemies such as Vietnam and the USA are joining together to limit the Chinese expansion. In turn, China has gained support from Russia.

Simply from looking at the military capabilities, in particular the relative strengths of active forces and military budgets (Diagram 3), it is clear that this conflict has enormous potential. One cannot forget that three actors – China, Russia and the USA – additionally have WMD capabilities.
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Diagram 3 – by author

In conclusion, we need to face the fact that this conflict bears enormous potential for escalation which may be triggered by various sources of provocation from all sides, such as interception of flights, blockade of sea routes, close passages to islands and diplomatic misunderstanding. Although a war would be theoretical possible, it is most unlikely to occur because a conflict of this size would serious affect the global population and economy. One significant hope remains as long as the leaders of the nations involved act in a rational manner, as the cost of war significantly exceeds any possible benefits.

Please note that the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Munich European Forum e.V.