Russia is building advanced, long-range air defenses in its new air base on the Syrian coast, which could disrupt the military activities of the US and its allies in the sector, NATO’s top commander, Gen. Philip Breedlove, warned on Monday, according to a report that appeared on the Breaking Defense website.
Breedlove, head of US European Command and the 17th Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) of NATO Allied Command Operations, spoke of a new Russian “bubble of anti-access/area denial” (or A2/AD, as it is known in the Pentagon) in the eastern Mediterranean. This can be used to keep Western militaries out of the airspace over and near Syria.
“From where NATO’s top commander, Gen. Philip Breedlove sits, the Russian forces flowing into Syria don’t look like counter-terrorists out to stop the Islamic State, which Vladimir Putin has said is his highest priority. They look like the first pieces of a layered A2/ AD system that could complicate US and allied operations in Syria and well beyond,” the Breaking Defense report said.
Breedlove spoke to the German Marshall Fund on Monday afternoon, warning that anti-access/area denial is “a growing problem.”
In Syria, “We see these very capable air defense [systems] beginning to show up,” the general cautioned.
“We’re a little worried about another A2/AD bubble being created in the eastern Mediterranean. We see some very sophisticated air defenses going into these airfields. We see some very sophisticated air-to-air [fighter] aircraft going into these airfields.”
Two other such Russian “bubbles” already exist: in Kaliningrad, between Poland and Lithuania, where Russian missiles can reach “well into Polish airspace and could shut down NATO reinforcements,” and in the Black Sea, where Russia’s occupation of Crimea has resulted in the creation of a “very strong A2/ AD capability,” Breedlove said.
To preempt such dangers, the IDF and Russian military have recently set up a joint working group to coordinate their activities in the aerial, naval, and electromagnetic arenas in and around Syria, a senior defense source said last week.
Without directly referring to the Breaking Defense report, a second source told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday that the new working group should enable the two militaries to “coordinate on everything” that is Syria-related, thereby avoiding inadvertent clashes.
Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot returned from a one-day visit to Moscow, where they held intensive meetings with their Russian counterparts about Russia’s newly expanded military role in Syria.
According to international media reports, the Israel Air Force has launched multiple air strikes in Syria in recent years to intercept Iranian and Syrian weapons that were on the way to Hezbollah storage facilities in Lebanon.
Israel has shared concerns with Russia that those types of activities could be compromised if military coordination is not put into place soon.
In Russia, Eisenkot met with his Russian counterpart, General Valery Vasilevich Gerasimov. Eisenkot also participated in part of the meeting held between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Afterwards, the two sides agreed to set up a joint working group led by the deputy chiefs of staff from each country.
“It will coordinate air, naval, and the electromagnetic arenas. Everything will be raised there. The meetings in Russia were held in a good atmosphere,” the senior source said.
Defense sources in Israel have not elaborated on how it is possible to coordinate fully with Russia without potentially compromising covert or intelligence-related activities.
On September 10, a senior defense source said that an Iranian Islamic Republican Guards Corp force, comprised of hundreds of soldiers, recently entered Syria to assist the embattled Assad regime. The move is part of a wider, coordinated Iranian- Russian maneuver, which also saw Russian logistics military forces arrive at Syria’s Hamemeim Air Base near Latakiya to set up a base for Russian fighter jets and combat helicopters.
Tehran dispatched its force “in light of Assad’s” ongoing distress, the source stated.
According to Israeli assessments, the Assad regime currently controls 25 to 30 percent of Syria, consisting of Damascus and the Syrian coastline, where the regime’s minority Alawite support base is centered.
Throughout September, Russian military forces have been entering Syria to set up air strike capabilities aimed at protecting the Assad regime.
“I can’t see the Russian presence as changing the balance of power. It will apparently prolong the fighting. ISIS will never negotiate,” the Israeli source said at the time.
Israel has made it clear to Russia that it will continue to act in Syria to protect its interests when necessary, and will not coordinate activities such as retaliating to Syrian cross-border fire with Moscow, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Tuesday.
He spoke a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed “concern” over Israeli strikes in Syria, and two days after IDF artillery units struck two Assad regime artillery positions in response to stray, cross-border Syrian fire that struck the Golan Heights.
During a visit to Gaza-border communities, Ya’alon said, “Prime Minister Netanyahu made it clear to president Putin that we are not involved in who will control Syria.
Assad or not Assad, we are not entering that discussion at all. But we have interests, and when they are threatened we act, and we will continue to act.”
Ya’alon continued, “This has been clarified to the President of Russia, and here is the result. During the [Sukkot holiday] we acted against every violation or harm of our interest... those who try to violate our sovereignty – we will strike them, and those who try to transfer advanced weapons to terror elements, with an emphasis on Hezbollah, we will strike them, and those who try to transfer chemical weapons to terror elements, we will strike them.”
“We have no intention of giving up our ability to defend our interests.And I suggest that no one tests us,” Ya’alon warned.