The Russian Hawk, The American Dove? A Crazy Week In The Rhetorical And Physical Airspace Above Syria

October 7, 2016
Picture via the LCC: #Damascus_Suburbs: Assad's forces launch flare bombs and bullets by the surrounding checkpoints of #Madaya town.

Live Updates: The previous post in our Putin in Syria column can be found here.

Russian Rhetoric Would Have The World Believe That Nuclear War Is Imminent

If experts graded the rhetorical nuclear threat level, this week Russia may have pushed the world to Defcon 2

Last week, the agreement between the United States and Russia to work together to fight terrorism in Syria fell apart. The three most obvious reasons for ending cooperation:

1. The U.S. airstrike that accidentally killed more than 60 members of the Syrian regime. U.S. officials apologized for the strike, though they were also unsure of how it happened, leading some to think that they were fooled into bombing the target: 

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U.S. May Have Killed Prisoners, Not Troops, in Syria Strike

The U.S. military currently is investigating whether the Syrian troops it supposedly bombed on Saturday were, in fact, former prisoners turned into makeshift conscript soldiers for Syrian President Bashar al Assad. That's according to two U.S. defense officials who spoke with The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity.

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Oct 07, 2016 22:48 (GMT)

2. The Russian airstrike against a UN convoy that killed 19 civilians and 12 aid workers near Aleppo: 

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This Is How Russia Bombed the U.N. Convoy

GUILTY AS CHARGED The international reaction to Monday night's devastating attack on an aid convoy in the Syrian town of Urem al-Kubra has been swift and furious. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in an unusually forthright speech at the General Assembly, described the attack as "savage and apparently deliberate."

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Oct 07, 2016 22:49 (GMT)

3. The vicious Russian and Syrian airstrikes that have targeted civilians, aid workers, and hospitals, particularly in the besieged city of Aleppo: 

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Russian, Syrian missiles pound Aleppo, destroy hospital: rebels and aid workers

AMMAN Russian warplanes and their Syrian government allies battered rebel-held areas in and around Aleppo on Saturday, and rebels and aid workers accused them of destroying one of the city's main hospitals and killing at least two patients.

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Oct 07, 2016 22:52 (GMT)

But it is Kremlin that has attempted to paint the United States as the aggressor, the hawk, and Russia as the dove that is striving for peace. Tweets like this from the Russian embassy to the United States have typified more than a week of statements from the Kremlin: 
Then Russia responded by dropping out of several treaties with the U.S. that were designed to facilitate nuclear cooperation on both a civilian and a military level: 

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Russia suspends nuclear cooperation with US, says Washington violated agreement

Moscow has announced the suspension of cooperation with the US in the nuclear and energy sectors. In a written statement the Kremlin said Washington violated the agreement by imposing sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. The decree on halting the cooperation agreement was signed by the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and published on the Cabinet's website.

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Oct 07, 2016 22:58 (GMT)

If that was bad, it was about to get worse. The Russian embassy to the U.S. threatened to shoot down coalition airplanes if they crossed Russia in Syria: 
Then Russia bragged about having deployed its most dangerous anti-aircraft weapons in Syria and openly stated that it could shoot down U.S. coalition aircraft:

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'S-300, S-400 air defenses in place': Russian MoD warns US-led coalition not to strike Syrian army

Russia's Defense Ministry has cautioned the US-led coalition of carrying out airstrikes on Syrian army positions, adding in Syria there are numerous S-300 and S-400 air defense systems up and running. Russia currently has S-400 and S-300 air-defense systems deployed to protect its troops stationed at the Tartus naval supply base and the Khmeimim airbase.

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Oct 07, 2016 23:01 (GMT)

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Russia Placed S-300 Missiles in Syria After Learning of US Plan to Bomb Airbases

Middle East Get short URL "The S-300 appeared there [in Syria] after experts close to the American establishment had started leaking information…that the US could hit Syrian airfields with cruise missiles," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said in an interview with Russia's Dozhd TV chennel.

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Oct 07, 2016 23:48 (GMT)

But Russia was just getting warmed up. Estonia is now warning that Russia is deploying the powerful Iskander-M nuclear-capable ballistic missile to Kaliningrad, a Russian military outpost in the center of the Baltic states. 

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Russia moving nuclear-capable missiles into Kaliningrad, says Estonia

Estonian officials have said that Russia appears to be moving powerful, nuclear capable missiles into Kaliningrad, a Russian outpost province sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania along the Baltic coast. The Iskander-M missiles, which have a range of over 500km, are reportedly being transported by ship from the St Petersburg area.

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Oct 07, 2016 23:06 (GMT)

Now, the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations (MChS), also known as EMERCOM has made the claim that as many as 40 million Russians will be taking part in emergency drills — sometimes referred to as nuclear “firedrills” by observers. Though the claim that 40 million people are involved in these drills is perhaps extreme hyperbole, it does not change the fact that this is the message coming out of the Kremlin: 

Large-scale All-Russian civil defense drill to take place from 4 to 7 October

All-Russian civil defense drill involving federal and regional executive authorities, local governments and organizations 'Organization of civil defense during large natural and man-caused disasters in the Russian Federation' will start tomorrow morning in

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Oct 07, 2016 23:13 (GMT)

Raising tensions further, Finland reports that a Russian SU-27 actually violated its airspace this week: 
This has caused Finland to look to the West for protection, but in some ways this plays into the Kremlin propaganda’s main talking point — that they are surrounded by enemies that are allied with the United States. 
And now, the Russian State Duma has approved a measure which would extend Russia’s military presence in Syria indefinitely: 

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Russia gets permanent Syrian air base, ponders reopening Cuban and Vietnamese bases

The Russian parliament has voted to ratify a treaty allowing Russian troops to stay in Syria indefinitely, and making the air base in Latakia permanent. It also confers diplomatic immunity status on military personnel. The vote passed unopposed, with just one abstention, as lawmakers agreed it would confer legitimacy on the Russian presence in Syria.

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Oct 07, 2016 23:28 (GMT)

All of this has left the U.S. scrambling for a new diplomatic direction. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has oscillated this week between calling for a reset in the agreement with Russia on Syria to accusing the Russian government of war crimes. And while the U.S. government has reconsidered the decision not to bomb the Assad regime, there are few analysts who believe that the Obama administration will start a war with Syria, much less with Russia, in its final few months in office.

The deployment of nuclear weapons of Kaliningrad and the threat to use anti-aircraft missiles in Syria is perhaps not so much a fundamental change in Russian military posturing as it is a threat to the U.S. populace, which is in an election season, that any solution to the crisis in Syria would be far more complicated than simple election-year rhetoric would have them believe.

James Miller

Checking For Patterns In The Daily Casualty Reports From Syria

Every day dozens of Syrians are killed, so one might be forgiven if the numbers become a blur. In reality, however, there are important patterns to the death and violence if one focuses on the geographical distribution and specific causes of death.

Yesterday, October 6, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria reports that 68 people were confirmed to have been killed across the country. The number is not unusual in any way — in fact, in recent weeks it has not been unusual at all to see 80-100 deaths confirmed by the LCC in a single day.

But yesterday’s numbers are in fact somewhat unusual since nearly half of the casualties were killed in a terrorist attack at the Atmeh border crossing, which ISIS has taken credit for.

The LCC reports:

24 martyrs were reported in #Aleppo , most of them passed away in #Atamah crossing blast and during the clashes in #Ikhtrin . 14 in #Idlib , most of them passed away in Atama crossing blast. 12 in #Damascus_and_its_Suburbs , most of them passed away in bombarding #Douma city. 6 in #Daraa . 6 in #Hama . 4 in #Deir_Ezzour . 2 in #Homs . 1 in #Hasaka .

Yesterday, we reported that the ISIS terrorist attack targeted a group Syrian rebels primarily made up of fighters from Failaq al-Sham, a group which is part of Turkey’s offensive against ISIS in the north.

The data also tells us that at least for a brief moment the Russian airstrikes focused less on bombing civilians in Aleppo city. Citizens in Douma, Daraa, and Hama, however, were less lucky — Russian or Syrian airstrikes rocked all of those areas.

One question we might ask — why? It’s already well-established that Russia and Syria are focused on driving the civilian populace from cities it hopes to capture. It also seems clear that Russia benefits from radicalizing the local populace, and hope is clearly the enemy of the Syrian regime. Still, neither Russia nor Assad will ignore military goals in order to bomb civilians, and there is heavy fighting reported in rebel positions south of Aleppo city. 

But as we will show in a later analysis, Russia has also been unusually aggressive in its rhetorical posturing in the last few days, painting the United States as the aggressor while making highly aggressive moves of its own. A heavy civilian death toll might distract from that Kremlin talking point.

See our note about the casualty reports released by the LCC here:

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Who Are The Local Coordination Committees Of Syria?

The LCC's casualty figures are typically a mix of civilians and rebel fighters. They typically do not include deaths from inside territory controlled by the Syrian regime, as the LCC is hunted by the Syrian government and so cannot operate within those areas.

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Oct 07, 2016 21:00 (GMT)

James Miller