Monday, 1 February 2016

Too Soon To Tell?

Air Power Over Syria Faced With Proxy War Risk

The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier “Charles de Gaulle” (R 91) began airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria on 23 November 2015, 10 days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, with her air component consisting of 31-34 aircraft of different types. The carrier is shown here sailing in formation with the German Navy’s Type F122 frigate “Augsburg” (F 213).
(Photo: German Navy)
Proxy War
An often forgotten issue that is relevant to the Syrian Civil War is the fact that the conflict has transformed into a nearly full-scale proxy war. The term ‘proxy war’ is most typical of the ongoing conflict in Syria. The conflict not only involves Syria’s neighbours and the regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also major Western powers – France, the UK and the US – and numerous fighters from more than 25 countries. Moscow has warned Washington of the risk of a ‘proxy war’ in the Middle East after the US said it would send Special Forces to Syria. After US warplanes have started intercepting Russian aircraft over Syria at the beginning of the campaign, there are now signs that the US is now turning the Russian effort to save Syria from greater suffering to a ‘proxy war’ of the super powers. Zbigniew Brzeziński, a former Carter Administration national security adviser, said: “Russia launched air attacks at Syrian elements that are sponsored, trained, and equipped by the Americans, inflicting damage and causing casualties”, and asked Washington to convey to Moscow “the demand that it ceases and desists from military actions that directly affect American assets.”
Where key players stand on Assad or not, is the premier question when assessing recent month’s airstrikes in Syria. Russia, which has returned to the Middle East through a direct military intervention in Syria, was literally invited by the Assad regime to put down rebellions with the help of air power. However, as shown in recent months, Russia has also ‘tripped’ into other regional players’ spheres of influence in the region, including those of Turkey, the Gulf countries, the Kurds, Jordan, and Israel.
Moscow’s military intervention in the Syrian Civil War began on 30 September 2015, following a formal request by the Syrian government. The activities consisted of airstrikes against militant groups opposed to the Assad regime primarily in the northwestern part of the country. Russia, which is the only foreign power that has its military assets openly deployed in the country, always claims the attacks were against Islamic State (IS) positions. However, according to reports, the Russian Air Force’s airstrikes may have targeted positions held by the Army of Conquest coalition, including the Saudi/Turkish-backed al-Nusra Front and the Salafi-Jihadi coalition.
Meanwhile, Moscow has stepped up its military presence in Syria, deploying 12 Su-25 ground-attack aircraft; 12 Su-24 interdiction aircraft; six Su-34 fighter-bombers; four Su-30 multirole combat aircraft; and 15 helicopters (including Mi-24 attack helicopters), plus a yet unspecified number of  Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for reconnaissance purposes. On 1 October, the Russian Defence Ministry stated it had deployed over 50 planes.

Schematic representation showing the major players backing each side in the Syrian Civil War.
(Map: Courtesy of Business Insider)

Franch, UK Intensify Airstrikes
Since about late September 2014, a large coalition – including the US, UK, France, Belgium, Denmark, Australia, Canada, as well as the Sunni countries Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – has carried out about 3,000 attacks on IS-held strongholds and territories in Syria. Germany, following the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, joined the anti-IS coalition last January, providing up to six TORNADO reconnaissance aircraft, refueling capacities, and up to 1,200 military personnel in addition to a single frigate. France’s President François Hollande, met the leaders of the US, Russia, Germany, and Britain separately over four days last November and December to build a global military coalition to defeat IS following the Paris attacks. However, Germany will not join countries like France, the UK, the US, and Russia in conducting air strikes. There has traditionally been reluctance to engage in military missions abroad in the German society, so the decision by the German Parliament to take direct action in Syria has been largely met with support.
Since mid-November 2015, French military aircraft are conducting air strikes in Syria. During Opération CHAMMAL, aircraft hit key IS facilities, dropping between 16 and 20 GBU-12 PAVEWAY II laser-guided bombs during each raid on the city of Raqqa. Six RAFALE fighter aircraft, one to two Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), and a Boeing C-135FR STRATOTANKER have been stationed at Al Dhafra Air Base in the UAE. Additionally, three Dassault MIRAGE 2000D and three MIRAGE 2000N fighters, as well as a Boeing E-3F SENTRY Airborne Electronic Warfare & Control (AEW&C) aircraft have been stationed at al-Azraq Air Base in Jordan.
A major contribution is underway from the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier “Charles de Gaulle” (R 91), which encompasses the French Task Force 50 with 18 RAFALE fighters, eight SUPER ÉTENDARD strike aircraft, and two Northrop Grumman E-2C HAWKEYE AEW&C aircraft. The Task Force, which was deployed to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea during the second half of November 2015, launched its first air strikes on 23 November.
After the UK Parliament overwhelmingly backed the UK government’s motion to extend Operation SHADER early December 2015, UK air raids over Syria includes four TORNADO GR4 aircraft that are being operated from Royal Air Force (RAF) Air Base Akrotiri in Cyprus. Initial air raids were targeted at the IS-held Omar oil fields in eastern Syria as part of the US-led coalition operation, codenamed Operation TIDAL WAVE II. GR4s and TYPHOON FGR4s targeted the oil installation by using laser-guided PAVEWAY IV bombs, of which each aircraft was carrying three weapons. The GR4s flew alongside allied aircraft and were refueled in flight by a VOYAGER airborne tanker. In total, the UK deployed 10 GR4 strike aircraft, six Eurofighter TYPHOONs, 10 REAPER drones, and two large spy aircraft in the region. According to the RAF, daily air raids include five missions with two aircraft each; many of the airstrikes are being carried out at night to try to limit the risk of civilian casualties.

Coming Together
Canada joined the coalition in April 2015. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet sent a total of nine aircraft, six of them C/F-18 HORNET fighters. However, on 20 October 2015, Prime Minister-elect Trudeau announced the impending withdrawal of Canadian air forces from the theatre. 
Australia’s part in the coalition efforts over Syria is Operation OKRA that was initiated in August 2014. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) deployed a number of different aircraft in the fight against IS, including six F/A-18 HORNETs, one E-7A WEDGETAIL AWACS (Airborne Early Warning and Control System) aircraft, and one Airbus KC30A MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport). All of them are being operated from Al Minhad Air Base in the UAE. During September 2015 alone, a total of 18 sorties were flown over Syria.

On 30 September 2015, Russia started military intervention in the Syrian Civil War, consisting of airstrikes primarily in the northwestern part of Syria against militant groups opposed to the Syrian government. Pictured is a multifunctional Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bomber at Hmeimim Air Base in Syria.
(Photo: Courtesy of Astafyev)

Russia’s airstrikes against Syria are its first military operation since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, with more than 550 air raids conducted against ground targets and the first joint bombing mission performed by Russian Sukhoi Su-25 fighters and Syrian Air Force MiG-29 aircraft during the first half of January 2016.
(Photo: Courtesy of CIGeography)

Arab States and…
It was found that Sunni Arab states were concerned that Iranian arms transfers are changing the balance of power in the region. As a consequence, the Arab League gave its members ‘green light’ to arm the Syrian rebels on 6 March 2013. At the Arab league summit in Doha three weeks later, the organization recognised the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. ISIS’ rapid gains in Syria and Iraq have raised alarm in Saudi Arabia, the largest and most influential Gulf state. The Saudi government has already agreed to train moderate rebel fighters on its soil, according to US officials. Strike missions are being flown mainly by F-15S EAGLE and TORNADO fighter-bombers. Riyadh ordered 84 new-build F-15SAs and close to 70 kits to upgrade their existing F-15S fleet to the SA configuration in July 2015, making the F-15SA the most advanced production F-15 EAGLE ever built, according to company representatives. Bahrain, also a key US ally in the region, hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. As a regularly participant in US-led coalitions, its involvement in the airstrikes is not surprising. The countries’ contribution consists of four F-16 fighter-bombers apparently flying out of al-Azraq Air Base in Jordan.
The Jordanian Air Force joined the US-led bombing of IS in Syria with at last four F-16 fighter aircraft on 24 December 2014, during which one airplane was shot down over Syria and its pilot captured and executed. The UAE was previously reported to have offered to support the US attacks against IS, flown by F-16 and MIRAGE 2000 fighter aircraft, and the country is also hosting Australian combat aircraft on its soil. Additionally, F-16 fighter jets from Morocco, also presently stationed in the UAE, are used for the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen. 
And finally, there is Qatar. The Gulf state had already flown a number of humanitarian flights to help anti-IS efforts in Iraq; but, its involvement in the military strikes in Syria significantly raises its commitment. Air strikes are flown by MIRAGE 2000 fighter-bombers.

…Turkey, Egypt Deploy Too
Together with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey has provided rebels in Syria with arms and other military equipment, thus tensions between Syria and Turkey significantly worsened after Syrian forces shot down a Turkish fighter jet in June 2012. Turkey’s Operation MARTYR YALÇEN involved airstrikes against IS headquarters, an IS gathering point in Syria, and an area west of Kobane, with F-16 fighter-bombers operated from the air bases at Diyarbakir and Dyarbakir. Additionally, reconnaissance missions were flown by unmanned aircraft taking off from Batman Air Base in the southeastern Anatolia region. On 22 July 2015, Ankara agreed to let the US use Incirlik Air Base in the southern part of the country to launch air attacks against IS, a deal that was seen as a major shift in policy. On 24 November 2015, Turkish air defence shot down a Russian fighter-bomber aircraft that apparently had violated Turkish airspace despite prior Turkish warnings.

The Pentagon released the imagery of a compound near Ar Raqqah attacked by US Air Force F-22 RAPTOR stealth fighters before and after the raid conducted by the aircraft.
(Photo: Courtesy of Department of Defense)

With all these measures of air power, there remain several questions unanswered: Why is the coalition to be rather limited in its efforts to push back IS forces? Does the coalition really have a valuable overall concept? Are the weapons not effective enough? Is the intelligence provided to the coalition sufficient for achieving the desired effects? After all, everyone knows that airstrikes can be effective, but you need a ground component to go along with them. When is this going to happen and by whom?

By Jürgen Pöppelmann

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