A showdown between Russian and American forces has been talked about during every confrontation between Russian and American interests. And the closest we came to it was in Yugoslavia at Pristina Airport where a demented Wesley Clark did his best to start WW3, before being relived of duty prematurely by Clinton. But despite all the blustering from both sides, Russia was unable to save Yugoslavia. Similarly the United States was unable to save Georgia, which is back in the grip of the Russian bear.
Russia has relied less on force, aside from Georgia, than on subversion through its network of agents and on being the alternative to the United States. That was why Russia could afford to lose Saddam knowing that whoever replaced him would eventually come calling. And that is what happened as Iraq’s Maliki has turned to Russia for weapons and support as a member of the Shiite axis.
Syria is important to Russia, especially since Putin has bet big on the Shiite axis of Iran, Syria and Iraq, because it’s the last remaining Arab Socialist power which has old ties with Moscow dating back to the Soviet era. It also has a large Russian emigre population, particularly of women who married Syrian men. But Russia can afford to lose Syria.
The Cold War is over and China is on the way up, but the global map is still divided in somewhat similar ways. You’re either dealing with the United States or looking for alternatives. And Russia is the big alternative. If the Muslim Brotherhood takes over Syria, they will want American weapons, but sooner or later they’ll also want Russian weapons because they come with fewer restrictions which comes in handy when using them against the United States or American allies.
All that is important to keep in mind when reading stories like these about the gathering storm clouds of war.
Russia has concentrated five landing ships in the eastern Mediterranean in a show of force meant to deter Western nations from intervening militarily in Syria, The Sunday Times quoted a Russian diplomat as saying.
According to the report, the ships are carrying military vehicles and hundreds of Russian marines, and are being accompanied by combat vessels.
While officially Russia has claimed the ships have been deployed to partake in an exercise to “improve the management, maintenance and testing of the interaction of naval forces,” the Times quoted the diplomat as saying the marines were meant to deter the West from deploying ground forces in the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
No doubt Russia does not mind doing a little extra intimidation. But it’s even more likely that any such noises are an empty bluff.
However, a Russian intelligence source was quoted on Sunday as saying that the presence of over 300 marines on the ships was meant as a deterrent to keep countries hostile to the Bashar Assad regime — a key ally of the Kremlin — from landing special forces in the country.
300 Russian Marines aren’t likely to do much to stop even the Turkish and Qatari special forces operating with Sunni terrorists in Syria. It’s even less likely that Russia would try to use them against the British and French special forces, or some of the CIA sneakers on the ground, who are probably already in Syria. Even the USSR would have hesitated at that.
Still in 1967, the Soviet Union apparently contemplated an invasion of the Israeli city of Haifa during the Six Day War using its shipboard marines.
The British newspaper on Sunday quoted an Israeli source who said that it was conceivable that a Russian ground force would step in “to defend the Alawite corridor stretched between the Lebanese border in the south and the Turkish border in the north.”
Again that would take a sizable force for a messy fight and a significant long term investment, which it is doubtful that Russia is interested in making.
If the Alawites lose Syria, then Russia may be willing to send them some military supplies and use them for propaganda purposes, but any kind of Russian military intervention is unrealistic.
The USSR was at least somewhat motivated to protect politically sympathetic states. Russia is no longer interested in a world revolution. It knows that 10 years down the road, it will have a deal with the new Syria.