Screenshot of Russian MoD-produced video of strikes against Syrian targets fired from ships on the Caspian Sea.
Russian cruise missiles launched from ships on the Caspian Sea have struck targets inside Syria, adding a dramatic exclamation to what had been a slow, quiet militarization of the sea.
The strikes took place Monday and Tuesday and were announced with great fanfare on Wednesday, including comments from Russian President Vladimir Putin and a slickly produced video detailing the strike.
In total, 26 missiles were fired against 11 targets inside Syria from four ships from Russia's Caspian Flotilla. The 3M14 Kalibr missiles were used in combat for the first time, Russian defense industry sources told news site Lenta.ru. They flew over Iranian and Iraqi airspace en route to Syria, and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu emphasized that Russia had gotten permission beforehand from those "partners."
Putin's comments praised the soldiers and military staff involved the strikes, but also Russia's defense industry. "The fact that these strikes were carried out using high-precision weapons launched from the Caspian Sea’s waters, around 1,500 kilometres away, and all of the planned targets were destroyed is evidence of our defence industry’s good preparation," Putin said. The strikes, and the large amount of publicity they were given, likely served two interests: demonstrating the Russian military's ability to strike from a long distance, and demonstrating the ability of Russian weaponry -- a key element in Russia's strategy for economic recovery -- to carry out such strikes.
Russia's allies need to get ready for peacekeeping missions because there are so many "hot spots" around the world, the head of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization said Saturday. But he added that he didn't see a need for the other CSTO members to get involved militarily in Syria -- yet.
"The situation is getting worse in every direction," said Nikolay Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the CSTO. "And in many existing 'hot spots' in the world it's today already clear that peacekeeping forces are needed. So working out practical military tasks of the Collective Peacekeeping Forces of the CSTO in military exercises is preparation for possible operations. I don't think they will be in the near future but in any case the CSTO needs to be ready to use its peacekeeping forces." Bordyuzha was speaking in Armenia at the conclusion of exercises of the organization's joint peacekeeping force.
Russian and CSTO officials have consistently said that the alliance will only deploy forces outside the CSTO area with a mandate from the UN Security Council. And it's difficult to fathom a circumstance when such a mandate might be granted, including in the current Syria crisis.
But Bordyuzha curiously seemed to want to leave the door open for the possibility that the other CSTO states -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- might somehow get involved in Syria.
The reported route of Russian military flights to Syria. (photo: twitter, @cencio4)
New flight-tracking data suggests that Russia is sending military equipment to Syria over the Caspian Sea, taking a lengthy detour to bypass the entire Caucasus isthmus. The circuitous route suggests that Moscow has failed to gain overflight permission from either Georgia or Azerbaijan in its new top foreign policy priority, the intervention in Syria.
The new data was reported by the blog The Aviationist citing the open-source flight-tracking website FlightRadar24. It suggests that Russia sent six Su-34 bomber aircraft to Syria via a route southward to the North Caucasus, veering to the east just north of Grozny and crossing into the airspace over the Caspian Sea north of Makhachkala. It then crosses the Caspian taking a route roughly parallel to the coastline of Azerbaijan, about 50 miles away. It then enters Iranian airspace roughly 50 miles south of the Azerbaijani border, the continues through Iraq before reaching Syria.
The United States had been trying to get countries in between Russia and Syria to block their airspace to Russian military flights, and succeeded in the case of Bulgaria, while Greece confirmed that they had gotten a similar request. If the U.S. has made any such requests to the Caucasus countries it hasn't been announced. Turkey, a firm opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad -- whom the Russian intervention seeks to prop up -- doesn't allow the flights of its own accord.
As the Shanghai Cooperation Organization wraps up anti-terror exercises in Kyrgyzstan, a senior Russian official has said the group should play a role in fighting ISIS.
The SCO held command-staff exercises in Kyrgyzstan from September 15-17, attended by officials from the anti-terror organizations of member states China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. (In most cases that meant the post-KGB structures like Russia's Federal Security Service and Kyrgyzstan's State Committee for National Security.) "The purpose of these exercises is organizing and carrying out search operations to avoid terrorist attacks in SCO territory,” Kyrgyzstan's SCNS reported.
On Friday, senior SCO officials reviewed the results of the exercise in Tashkent (home to the SCO's Regional Anti-Terror Structure headquarters), and Sergei Smirnov, the deputy head of Russia's Federal Security Service, highlighted the role the organization could play in fighting ISIS.
"Representatives of all the relevant organs of the SCO member states understand the danger to the international community represented by the activities of this state and the damage which it could cause to us," Smirnov said.
If there was a “little Armenia” in Syria, to borrow Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian’s words, there is also a little Syria in Armenia. The South Caucasus country has taken in 2,500 refugees from Syria just over the summer and continues to hand out visas and Armenian passports to Armenian-Syrians.
Before flooding into the European Union, Syrians, at least those of Armenian heritage, were streaming into Armenia. At 15,500 refugees since the start of the conflict, according to UNHCR and government figures, Armenia ranks as one of the most frequent destinations outside of the European Union for migrant Syrians relative to population, an Economist chart shows.
The mass arrival has been emphatically described as a “homecoming” in Armenia, where national identity is seen as something shared between the country’s residents and its far-flung Diasporas. “There are a 100 small and big Armenias around the world,” Foreign Minister Nalbandian told the BBC’s Russian service in a September 14 interview.
In a setup indicative of the changing economic and, possibly, geopolitical dynamics in the South Caucasus, Armenia hopes China soon will agree to pay for a planned railway to Iran. At the same time, it also is lobbying for a free-trade agreement between Iran and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.
Economically and otherwise dependent on the big brother to the north, Russia, and sandwiched between hostile Azerbaijan and Turkey to the east and west, Armenia hopes that things can go south, to Iran. The planned railway could give Iran access to the Black Sea for large-scale shipments of exports and landlocked Armenia a significant role as a transit country.
The state of the railway link is not clear yet. Iranian officials said they are building their portion of it, while Armenia is looking for the means to construct its own. Armenian Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamian hopes to scare up investment for the railroad from China during his upcoming September 23-25 visit. Yerevan and Beijing have already been in touch about the railway, according to Abrahamian.
Georgian defense officials say they would not welcome a potential request from Russia to use Georgian airspace for military and humanitarian overflights to Syria. “If such a request is made, the position of the Georgian Ministry of Defense . . . will be negative,” the ministry emailed EurasiaNet.org on September 14.
Last week, EurasiaNet.org examined the possibility that US pressure to block Russian flights to Syria via Bulgaria and Greece could prompt Moscow to consider the Caucasus as a possible alternative route for these air shipments. Russia regularly airlifts military supplies to Armenia, where it has an army base, and the two countries, longtime strategic allies, plan to share an air defense system.
Air navigation authorities in both Armenia and neighboring Georgia underlined that Russian military planes currently do not use their countries' airspace for transit to Syria and that, in Georgia’s case, such transit would require the foreign ministry’s consent.
The Georgian foreign ministry only responded to questions on the topic after EurasiaNet.org’s report was published on September 11. “Russia has not been in touch with requests to use Georgian airspace for Syria-bound flights, neither now, nor at any stage of the conflict” in Syria, the ministry stated in a September 14 email.
The ministry noted that Georgia is engaged in a “general dialogue and coordination on security issues with the US, Georgia’s strategic partner,” but said that there has not been any discussion with Washington about Russian flights to Syria.
The US embassy in Tbilisi commented that it has "encouraged our allies and partners to ask tough questions" about Russia's deployment to Syria, but declined to go into details.
Amidst mounting concerns in Washington about Russia’s military presence in war-ravaged Syria, one question persists — if existing air routes for Russian flights to Syria are closed, what will be Moscow’s backup plan? Long a corridor between Russia and fellow Syrian ally Iran, the South Caucasus countries of Georgia and Armenia appear an option to some.
It is unclear, however, what exact role US ally Georgia, to Russia's south, and Russian ally Armenia, to Iran's north, play or could play in any such corridor.
So far, government agencies in both Caucasus countries and US diplomats have equivocated on the matter.
On September 11, Georgian aviation officials announced that Russia, its northern neighbor, has not asked to use Georgia’s airspace for Syria-bound flights “in recent days or in the past two months.” Whether it did so before “the past two months” was not specified in the statement to GHN newswire.
In Armenia, with which Russia has just announced plans for a joint air defense union, the foreign ministry deferred questions on Russian military flights to Armenia’s Civil Aviation Authority.
Armenian Civil Aviation Authority Spokesperson Rouben Grdzelian told EurasiaNet.org that “there isn’t any restriction” on Russian military flights “as Russia can freely use Armenian airspace . . .” Russian military flights come into Erebuni, a military airport just outside of the capital, Yerevan, almost every day, he added.
A senior State Department official has downplayed the threat of Central Asian fighters joining ISIS amid heightened concerns after a high-ranking Tajikistan police official announced that he had joined the radical Islamist group.
While some Central Asians are joining the group, the vast majority are recruited outside the region, particularly as labor migrants in Russia, said Daniel Rosenblum, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs.
"For the overwhelming majority of Central Asians, the conflict in Syria and Iraq is a distant phenomenon; it is not something they think about day-to-day. But a small minority of Central Asians have been successfully recruited by violent extremists to join the conflict," Rosenblum said .
Rosenblum was speaking at a June 11 hearing of the U.S. Congress's Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe titled"Wanted: Foreign Fighters -- The Escalating Threat of ISIL in Central Asia." In spite of that somewhat overwrought title, Rosenblum did not discuss the what threat ISIS may pose to Central Asia itself, though he did mention media reports of ISIS appearing in Afghanistan: "We have seen signs that ISIL is attempting to spread into Afghanistan, and that some Taliban groups have rebranded themselves as ISIL to attract funding and recruits. ISIL’s presence in Afghanistan is a relatively new phenomenon and it will take time to evaluate its long-term prospects."
Georgia is busy pondering the legal options to discourage its citizens from joining the jihad in Syria, which allegedly has attracted dozens of recruits from the country’s remote Pankisi Gorge, a predominantly Muslim area.
“It is going to be a preventive mechanism to make sure our citizens know that if they participate in illegal foreign military formations…the state will take measures against them,” said Parliamentary Committee for Defense and Security Chairperson Irakli Sesiashvili. Rustavi2 reported. The nature of the “measures” remains unknown, but they could entail tougher administrative and criminal penalties.
The actual impact of such a law is open to interpretation, however.
Addressing “endemic poverty and radical (usually foreign) influencers” could prove a more effective way of tackling the issue of Pankisi residents heading to Syria, one analyst familiar with Georgia, Michael H. Cecire of the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, commented to RFE/RL.
The number of Islamic-war recruits from Pankisi (and, reportedly, from Muslim communities in the Black-Sea region of Achara) reportedly remains low, but it has resulted in embarrassment for Georgia’s plans to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.