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Russia switches back on Syrian deconfliction hotline with US

A report in the Russian newspaper Izvestia sourced from the Russian Foreign Ministry says that in response to US pleas Russia has quietly switched back on the hotline between the Russian and US militaries in Syria.

Russia switched the hotline off in response to the US missile attack on Syria’s Al-Shayrat air base on 6th April 2017.  The immediate result was a dramatic cut in US air operations in Syria, as the US military dared not risk an accidental clash with the Russian air force in Syria, where Russia – because of the presence of its S-400 and S-300VM Antey-2500 surface to air missiles – dominates the skies.

The Russians made no concession to the US by switching the hotline back on.  Had they not done so the US would at some point have increased its flights in Syria regardless, and the danger of a clash between the US and Russian militaries in Syria – which is wanted by neither side – would have sharply increased.

What the Russians have done by switching the hotline back on after leaving it off for several weeks, is give the US the strongest possible signal that unimpeded US air operations in Syria depend on Russia’s agreement, and that Russia will not give this agreement if the US carries out further strikes on the Syrian military.

In response the US has been giving Russia for weeks both public and private that no further US military strikes like the one carried out against Al-Shayrat air base are contemplated.

I discussed all this at length in an article dated 13th April 2007

This affair of the hotline has been barely reported by the establishment media, which has also barely reported the dramatic effect its suspension is having on US air operations in Syria.  However in combination with the presence of Russian air defence missiles in Syria it has enabled the Russians to respond to the US missile strike in a way that is both discrete and powerful, avoiding the risk of a dangerous escalation whilst clearly and forcefully making Russia’s point.

The US urgently needs to resume its air offensive against ISIS at full strength, and for that reason it will want the hotline reinstated as soon as possible.  The Russians for their part know that if they continue to keep the hotline suspended for too long the point will come when the US will be forced – if only to save face – to resume its air operations in Syria at full force, even though the hotline remains suspended, and even if this risks an armed clash with the Russians.

Both sides therefore have a strong incentive to de-escalate.

It is therefore a certainty the US is giving the Russians the assurances they are demanding – indeed Trump, Tillerson and McMaster have all done so publicly – and it is a certainty the Russians will before long pretend to accept these assurances, and will switch the hotline back on.

Conceivably, in the hours since Lavrov spoke, this might already have happened.  As I have said previously, switching off the hotline is intended as much as a warning to the US by the Russians as anything else, and the Russians will not press their luck too far once they are sure the US has heeded it.

However it is highly unlikely the Russians will accept whatever assurances the US is giving them at face value.

Last week the US showed that it could change its entire Syrian policy at the drop of a hat, and there is no assurance it will not do so again regardless of whatever assurances the Trump administration is now giving the Russians.

Over the next few weeks the Russians will therefore quietly take further steps to strengthen Syria’s air defences to increase the risks for the US of any further US strikes on Syria.  They have already said they will do this, and there is no doubt that they will.

In relation to the points made in the last paragraphs, unconfirmed reports have been circulating for several days that the Russians are planning to supply BUK, Tor and Pantsir anti-aircraft missile systems to Syria to beef up the air defences of the Syrian military, as of course they said would they do directly after the US missile strike on Syria’s Al-Shayrat air base.

The article in Izvestia which reports the turning back on of the hotline makes essentially the same point.

Washington has asked Moscow to resume cooperation on the previous flight safety mechanism to prevent incidents in the sky over Syria which Russia had suspended following the surprise US missile strike on Syria’s Shayrat airfield, three sources in Russia’s Foreign Ministry told Izvestia. Moscow had resumed the de-confliction channel on flight safety back on April 13, the day after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Russia. Politicians and experts believe that Washington was forced to take this step since any lack of coordination with Russia could result in negative consequences.

“Washington’s policy is pragmatic,” Igor Morozov, member of the Russian Federation Council’s (upper house of parliament) International Affairs Committee, told the paper. “The State Department understands well that the strategic initiative in Syria’s skies is in the hands of Russia’s Aerospace Forces. So, to avoid any unforeseen situations in the air, the US made such a request,” he explained. ‘

‘Yuri Zinin, a leading researcher at the Center for Partnership of Civilizations of Moscow-based MGIMO University, said: “Washington instigated our reaction. Given that Syria’s sovereignty was violated, our steps may be called rather moderate. In particular, this could have resulted in the death of US advisers and troops in Syria.” By suspending the flight safety mechanism, Russia indicated that it won’t let the US take uncoordinated and unilateral decisions in Syria. Apparently, Washington has taken the hint.

The article in Izvestia is wrong in one respect.  It was not on 13th April 2017 that Russia turned the hotline back on since on 15th April 2017 Russian officials confirmed the hotline was still turned off.

Reports say that the hotline was turned back on following a personal request by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov.  That almost certainly happened during a telephone conversation between Lavrov and Tillerson on 21st April 2017.   The hotline was apparently turned back on the following day, which was 22nd April 2017.

Since the telephone conversation between Lavrov and Tillerson has not received wide publicity, the writer of the Izvestia article has made the mistake of thinking the Russians agreed to Tillerson’s request during his very highly publicised meeting with Lavrov and Putin in Moscow on 12th April 2017.  That would explain why Izvestia is reporting that the hotline was turned on the day after that meeting, which would have been 13th April 2017.

That is certainly wrong, and the Russian authorities have repeatedly confirmed as much.

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