A U.S. warship launches Tomahawk missiles against targets in Syria on April 7. The strikes have been seen in the Caucasus as a sign of the Trump administration's resolve to stand up to Russia. (photo: U.S. Department of Defense)
The United States missile strikes on Syria have gladdened pro-Western hearts among in the Caucasus, where they have been seen as a sign that the new Trump administration is willing to act tough against Russia.
“I think what happened April 7 in Syria, the launching of the Tomahawk missiles, changed the situation very dramatically," said David Shahnazaryan, a senior analyst at the Yerevan-based Regional Studies Center and a former senior Armenian security official. "The Kremlin now must be much more careful. Maybe this will slow down, a little bit, the possibility of another war" in the Caucasus, he said.
Shahnazaryan was speaking at the South Caucasus Security Forum, held April 20-21 in Tbilisi, a gathering of Atlanticist foreign policy wonks from around the region. The uncertain foreign policy of the Trump administration was, naturally, a running theme throughout the event. And if there had been any worries that Trump might be soft on Russia, the Syrian missile strikes appear to have dispelled them.
“We saw how lost and how frightened Russians were" after the strikes, said Nodar Kharshiladze, the founder of the Georgian Strategic Analysis Centre and a former deputy minister of both defense and internal affairs. "Yes, they [the Russians] will come up with something nasty, but the initial reaction, they were very confused, they simply didn't know what to do. That shows that, when it's done properly, deterrence works very well. They recognize force when they see it, and they recognize weakness when they see it.”
Another speaker, former Georgian ambassador to Washington Batu Kutelia, even saw traces of legendary cold warrior Ronald Reagan in Trump's emerging foreign policy. (This is high praise in Tbilisi, which features the only statue to Reagan in the former Soviet Union.)
Soldiers from CSTO member states practice carrying out a UN peacekeeping mission in Belarus in August 2016. (photo: MoD Kazakhstan)
Russia's post-Soviet security bloc, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, has held discussions with the United Nations about taking part in UN peacekeeping missions, an effort analysts said was likely made with Syria in mind.
"We have agreed to prepare a roadmap on the involvement of CSTO peacekeepers in UN peacekeeping operations," said CSTO Secretary General Nikolay Bordyuzha last month in New York after meeting with UN officials there. The UN "has already proposed the steps that we need to take and there is quite an active dialogue going on," he said.
The CSTO has been developing a peacekeeping structure for years, and held its first peacekeeping exercise in Kazakhstan in 2012. (The CSTO includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, in addition to Russia.)
The Russian corvette Makhachkala, taking part in ongoing exercises -- and more? -- in the Caspian Sea. (photo: Russian MoD)
Russia asked Iran and Iraq for permission to to use their airspace for ballistic missiles against Syrian targets, apparently from the Caspian Sea, part of a new offensive against ISIS from the East.
"The Russian Defense Ministry last week sent a request to Iraq and Iran for the use of the airspace of these countries for the flight of ballistic missiles," a military source told the Russian news agency Interfax on Monday.
The request coincides with naval exercises, which also started Monday, of the Caspian Flotilla in the "southwest part of the sea," i.e. the part closest to Syria. "The plan of the exercises envisages testing the readiness of the forces of the Caspian Flotilla in resolving crisis situations presenting a threat to the military security of the country, including of a terrorist nature," the MoD said in a release.
Russia last year senttwo salvos of Kalibr cruise missiles against ISIS targets in Syria from ships in the Caspian Sea, the first ever combat use of those missiles and an unprecedented step in the militarization of the Caspian. The events caused some consternation among Russia's Caspian neighbors, most notably Kazakhstan, which rerouted flights across the sea and apparently complained behind the scenes.
Following in the footsteps of her spouse, a former paramilitary commander, Humairo Mirova has reportedly fled Tajikistan with four of her children and gone to Syria, possibly to join the ranks of the Islamic State group.
If confirmed, Radio Ozodi’s report on Mirova’s apparent decision to travel to territory controlled by the radical Islamist organization would embarrassingly expose the inability of the Tajik security services to monitor even the closest relatives of their militant opponents.
Mirova’s husband, Gulmorod Halimov, served as a high-ranking officer in the OMON until his defection to the Islamic State grouip in early 2015 — decision that he explained as having been motivated by the increasing restrictions on religious freedom by Tajikistan’s government.
As was the case with her husband, Mirova’s career is remarkable for having put her in intimate proximity with the highest echelons of power.
She began working in the Interior Ministry press center in 2008, which is when she got to know Halimov. She later married him, becoming his second wife. Technically, Mirova is only Halimov’s common-law wife, as the former OMON remains married to his first wife).
Some additional details about Mirova are available from social media. Her mail.ru account indicates that she was born on December 11, 1975, and that she has five children. She divorced her first husband, with whom she had one child and later had four children with Halimov. The last one was born in March, meaning that the child was only two months old when Halimov left for Syria.
While Halimov was planning his defection in 2015, Mirova was working in the press service of the customs service, which was headed at the time by President Emomali Rahmon’s son, Rustam Emomali.
Azerbaijan is walking a narrow line on Syria, trying not to offend either of its powerful neighbors, offering apparently contradictory statements this week about where its sympathies lie.
In an interview with an Austrian newspaper, Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov expressed qualified support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. "Currently, President Assad is the only guarantor of the integrity and security of Syria," Azimov said. "His army is a legal institution. We welcome a political process, in which Assad would remain in power until the election of his replacement."
Azimov also criticized Russian airstrikes in support of Assad: "I believe that the Russian airstrikes are inefficient and costly." But Azimov's comments were overall seen as surprisingly favorable to Russia. "This may req some explaining before #Azerbaijan Pres Aliyev comes to Washington," former U.S. ambassador to Baku Richard Kauzlarich wrote on his twitter account.
"Support for Assad means that the country is together with Russia and Iran, defending the dictatorship. It is also important that Azerbaijan and Turkey expressed the opposite position on the Syrian issue. In the whole ... interview Azimov confirms that Azerbaijan is close to the dictatorial regimes, such as Russia and Iran, and it is against the position of the free world," said Azerbaijani oppositionist Isa Gambar.
As Moscow tests for Turkey’s weaknesses in the fight over the downed SU-24 fighter plane, Russia’s communists have gone on a mission to revoke a treaty that their Soviet forefathers signed with Ankara. Heads are turning in the South Caucasus, which was essentially sliced and diced into its modern-day shape by the treaty and another 1921 Soviet-Turkish accord.
The document under debate, the 1921 Treaty of Moscow, drew a line between the Turkish Republic and the Soviet Union, and also set the borders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia without the consent of the three newly Bolshevik-occupied nations. The partitioning was further cinched by the Treaty of Kars, signed by the then Soviet republics’ Bolshevik-installed authorities.
The idea of revoking the treaty, pitched to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, comes amidst an unscheduled military exercise in Russia’s Southern Military District, which borders on the South Caucasus. Russian military analyst Viktor Murakhovsky commented to gazeta.ru that the exercises are meant as “a little signal” to Turkey. “[B]ecause we’re headed toward war with them, very quickly and certainly,” he predicted.
In remarks to the Azerbaijani news service APA, however, the Russian Communist Party’s deputy chairperson, Valery Rashkin, pooh-pooh’d the notion that Moscow withdrawing its signature from the 1921 Treaty of Moscow could lead to war with Turkey. “[O]n the contrary, we will begin the negotiation process.”
Screenshot of Russian MoD-produced video of launch of Kalibr rocket from the Caspian Sea against targets in Syria on November 20.
Russia has launched another salvo of missiles at Syrian targets from the Caspian Sea, the Russian Ministry of Defense has announced.
"On November 20, the Caspian Flotilla warships launched 18 cruise missiles at seven targets in the Raqqa, Idlib and Aleppo provinces of Syria. All the targets were hit," said Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu in an update given Friday on Russian military operations in Syria. In addition, 29 long-range bomber aircraft from the Caspian Sea (it wasn't specified where precisely) have carried out strikes in Syria.
This was the second cruise missile attack from the Caspian, after the pioneering strike of October 7 in which Russia brought the Caspian region into the Syria conflict, at the same time demonstrating its military dominance over the sea.
The hardware was the same this time around, Kalibr rockets fired from the Dagestan missile carrier ship and the Uglich, Grad Sviyazhsk and Veliky Ustyug missile boats.
"The task of delivering Kalibr long-distance cruise missile strikes at Islamic State targets in Syria has been accomplished," said Sergey Yekimov, a deputy commander of the Caspian Fleet. "All 18 Kalibr missiles have been successfully fired. Results will be reported after objective control data are received."
A series of airspace violations related to Russian airstrikes in Syria has raised tensions between Russia and Turkey, adding a military dimension to what has long been a political disagreement over how to deal with the violence in the Middle East.
The controversies began shortly after Russia began its air campaign in support of the Syrian government. Turkish authorities said that Russian jets had entered its airspace from Syria on two occasions, on October 3 and 4. Russia claimed the incursion was an accident caused by the weather but Turkish, NATO, and American officials argued that it was intentional.
The point, said Turkish military expert Aaron Stein, was a warning to Turkey to not challenge Russia in Syria. "Turkey's historical adversary [Russia] is intentionally breaching Turkish air space, obviously to send a message to Turkey," he told RFE/RL.
Days later, Turkish military transport helicopters crossed into Armenian air space on two occasions, October 6 and 7. As in the earlier Russian case, Ankara explained the situation by bad weather, but it was widely interpreted as being a retaliatory measure, albeit an understated one, by Ankara. "Armenia was the least challenging place to respond in a deescalated way," said Emil Sanamyan, a regional security analyst, in an email interview with the Bug Pit. "The Russians and Armenians got the point and just ignored it."
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.