The introduction of “de-escalation” zones in Syria and specifying remarks by Russia’s chief diplomat to the Astana talks Aleksander Lavrentiev have led to the conclusion that Russia has imposed a “no-fly” zone against the US in Syria, but the reality of the matter is much more nuanced than that. There’s no debating that the game-changing plan actually does call for this measure within the very text of the document itself, but there are questions about its implementation, enforcement, and outcome, all of which lead to a much more complex reality than the simplified one that Russia has flexed its muscles and scared off the US in Syria.
Symbolism vs Substance
For starters, the “de-escalation” zones north of Homs and in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta are small isolated patches of territory which are geographically insignificant from the airpower point of view. It’s very likely that terrorism will indeed be eliminated from these tiny pockets sooner or later, beginning with the successful separation of terrorists from the “moderate opposition” and then following up with joint operations between the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the said “rebels”.
This model might also work in parts of southern Syria as well such as the area surrounding Daraa.
As for Idlib and Quneitra, events might not unfold in the same way. The key difference between these latter two “de-escalation” zones and the aforementioned is that they’re geographically contiguous to Syria’s top two enemies, Turkey and “Israel”, respectively. This means that both Ankara and Tel Aviv have a stake in preserving their influence in these regions through the institutionalization of their proxies’ control, most likely envisioned as having the terrorists “switch hats” to become “moderate rebel opposition” members and then subsequently pressing for a “decentralized” political settlement in these areas as per a manipulation of the clauses suggested in the Russian-written “draft constitution” for Syria unveiled in late January.
What this means in practice is that shrewd “diplomacy” and not airpower will be the defining factor in determining the post-Daesh political future of these two much more geostrategically significant regions, and that the implementation of a “no-fly” zone over their territories is essentially a moot point as much of the air action in Syria anyhow is being conducted as part of the “Race for Raqqa”, the results of which will also serve as much more powerful of a catalyst for Syria’s potential “Balkanization” than any other development in the country.
Referring back to the analysis’ focus on “de-escalation” zones, this brings the discussion around to exploring exactly how Russia plans to enact its decree that no air forces be allowed to conduct strikes in the designated areas. Given the precedents established over the past year and a half of the US conducting bombing operations in Syria despite the Russian military presence in the Arab Republic, it’s dubious to infer that Moscow would all of a sudden expand its military mandate from strictly fighting terrorism to shooting down US jets which violate parts of Syria’s airspace.
Furthermore, contemporary air units and their precision-guided munitions are so technologically developed that warplanes don’t even have to be physically above their area of intended operations in order to carry out strikes there, as they could launch their missiles from miles away without ever technically entering the restricted zones. Along the same note, cruise missiles could also be used as substitutes for conventional air power, thereby still allowing for force projection in the “de-escalation/no-fly” zones without having to rely on warplanes to do so.
This exposes a serious loophole in Russia’s plans, one is amplified by First Deputy Chairman of the Federation Council’s Committee on International Affairs Vladimir Jabarov’s statement immediately following Trump’s cruise missile strike on the SAA that “Russia has no intentions to use its Aerospace Forces against US missiles if Washington decides to carry out new strikes in Syria as it could lead to a large-scale war.” Therefore, considering that Russia won’t shoot down any incoming cruise missiles and is also highly unlikely to expand its military mandate to the point of targeting US and “coalition” aircraft violating the “de-escalation” zones, the only feasible solution for “enforcing” them rests on the US’ own “goodwill” towards this initiative.
President Trump reportedly had a positive reaction to his Russian counterpart’s proposal when they spoke about it by phone on Tuesday, so it can be cautiously inferred that he won’t seek to violate the “de-escalation” zones in the abovementioned manner, or at least not right away. There’s the threat, however, that the Pentagon could “go rogue” and sabotage this implicit understanding just like they did in Deir ez Zor under his predecessor’s in September of last year, but there’s no surefire way to tell whether that will happen this time again or not.
The “Israel” Factor
Finally, last but not least, the one point which hasn’t been commented on in regards to the “de-escalation” zones and their “no-fly” zone conditional is whether or not these terms will apply to “Israel”. Lavrentiev’s statement on the matter addressed the role of “coalition” aircraft over these regions, yet Tel Aviv isn’t a formal member of that group and publicly operates independently of it.
Given that Russia has never attempted to stop any of “Israel’s” bombing operations in Syria and actually agreed to a military coordination mechanism with Tel Aviv right around the start of Moscow’s anti-terrorist operation in the country, there is almost no likelihood that Russia would stop “Israel” if it decides to violate the “no-fly” restrictions in the Quneitra “de-escalation” zone abutting the occupied Golan Heights.
As with the US, the only factor influencing “Israel’s” adherence to Russia’s terms in these areas is “goodwill” on the part of its leadership. Bearing in mind that President Putin and Netanyahu are close friends with one another, there’s a possibility that Tel Aviv might abide by Moscow’s conditions at least in the beginning, though again just like with Washington, there’s no telling whether this implicit agreement will last.
In the grand scope of things, Russia and its Iranian and Turkish Tripartite members’ “de-escalation” zone agreement is commendable in the sense that it intends to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but upon further examination, its “no-fly zone” conditions are flimsy and will probably not be enforced for a number of practical reasons.
Russia won’t suddenly expand its military mandate from anti-terrorism to protecting Syria’s borders (even only part of them as designated in the “de-escalation” zone document), let alone without a serious public debate in the Duma, as this could lead to it shooting down American aircraft and starting a larger war, which Moscow has officially said that it is taking its utmost care to avoid. Similarly, nor would Russia shoot down any cruise missiles targeting the territories within these “no-fly zones”, despite that obviously being a ‘workable loophole’ in getting around the technical anti-aircraft provisions.
“Israel” isn’t a party to this agreement, and it’s also not a member of the US-led “coalition”, so it too might present a “loophole” to this entire framework if the high level of “goodwill” between Tel Aviv and Moscow doesn’t hold, or if “Israel” senses or pretends to detect any Iranian or Hezbollah presence near the Quneitra “de-escalation” zone which prompts it to unilaterally carry out another one of its many illegal strikes on Syrian territory (all of which have hitherto been unopposed by Russia because of their irrelevancy to Moscow’s military mandate).
Additionally, the point needs to be emphasized that even if Russia enacted a “hardline” implementation of its “no-fly zone” decree and made it clear that it will indeed shoot down any warplanes or cruise missiles violating the “de-escalation” zones, this will still do little to alter the dynamics of the War on Syria in the sense that it wouldn’t be applicable whatsoever to the large swath of northeastern Syria where the “Race for Raqqa” endgame and potential “Balkanization” of the Arab Republic are taking place.
Therefore, for all intents and purposes, the “no-fly” restrictions nominally associated with the “de-escalation” zones are essentially unenforceable and can only be upheld by the “goodwill” of all potential violating parties. Considering how Russia is actively engaged in complex and multivectoral diplomacy with each of them, however, there are grounds for cautious optimism that the “no-fly zones” will be respected, at least at the very beginning of their “implementation”.
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