U.S. and NATO officials have confirmed reports that the Russian navy is massing warships off Syria’s coast in anticipation of a final assault by Syrian government forces on the country’s last rebel stronghold near Idlib, which borders Turkey.
Most of the warships, believed to number at least 25, are equipped with long-range Kalibr cruise missiles, which would be used against ground targets that have already been scouted and identified.
“The Russian Navy has dispatched substantial naval forces to the Mediterranean, including several ships equipped with modern cruise missiles,” NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu confirmed to Israeli media. The U.S. has called for restraint. [source]
Analyst comment: There is more danger in this evolving situation than meets the eye.
The Trump administration has openly warned, via national security adviser John Bolton, that there will be severe consequences for the Assad regime should it use chemical weapons against the rebel forces (there are estimated to be 2.5 million people in Idlib). Russia, meanwhile, is warning that rebel elements are planning to stage chemical attacks to draw in a Western response.
The Syrian regime, of course, is backed by Moscow; should chemical weapons be used, and the U.S. makes good on its threat to respond, the concern is that could draw a response from the Russian naval flotilla (which reportedly includes at least two submarines).
We have to assume that before the Trump administration launched any retaliatory strike against Assad over chemical weapons use that U.S. intelligence will have confirmed it was done by Syrian government forces and not rebel elements.
We also have to assume that President Putin would know we would confirm such use before launching any retaliatory strike and that Putin would be notified ahead of any such strike.
So all that said, the question becomes: Would Putin nevertheless order his forces to strike American naval and ground-based military installations in support of Assad and risk World War III, especially with a sizable portion of his forces preparing for a massive military exercise thousands of miles away in the eastern regions of Russia, and with a NATO pledge of mutual response?
Our estimate is no, he wouldn’t. But the proximity of U.S. and Russian forces is always a cause for concern, especially in an active war zone.
Adapted from the 31 August 2018 issue of Flashpoint Intelligence Review. Click here to subscribe for FREE.