A Russian military officer on Thursday told the domestic media that President Vladimir Putin’s effort to support the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad had expanded to include not just thousands of personnel to man fighter planes and helicopters, but also sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles, including the Pantsir and Buk systems.
The announcement that Russia found it necessary to bring in missiles capable of destroying advanced military aircraft raised eyebrows among Western nations currently operating in the region because the two forces Russia is helping Assad fight – the terror group ISIS and a loose coalition of rebel groups battling to oust Assad – don’t have any planes to use against Russian or Syrian forces.
More troubling is that the only combat aircraft flying over Syria right now that don’t belong to Russia or Syria are those of the U.S. and its allies who are striking ISIS targets there and in Iraq.
Just days after two different planes went down under mysterious circumstances in the region, including a Russian airliner that crashed with more than 200 people aboard, the introduction of the systems is sure to raise tensions. The Buk missile system, which Russia provided to rebels in Ukraine, is widely believed to have been used to shoot down a Malaysian airliner over that troubled country last year.
Russian air force head Viktor Bondarev, speaking to the Russian publication Komsomolskaya Pravda, spun out a scenario in which Russian forces might need heavy duty anti-aircraft batteries.
“Let's imagine a military plane is hijacked and taken to a neighboring country and air strikes are aimed at us,” he said. “And we have to be ready for this.”
Let’s pause a moment and unpack that a bit. In Bondarev’s hypothetical, a number of things have to happen. First, a person with the training to fly a high-tech military airplane would have to find a way to steal or hijack one. Second, they would have to find a neighboring country willing to allow them to use it as a base for attacking the Russian military. Third, that person would have to find a way to pilot that plane through the skies of Syria, which are now constantly being patrolled by the Russian air force, and find a suitable Russian ground target.
The odds of any one of those things happening are vanishingly small. All three would require divine intervention.
However, there is an alternative explanation.
Bondarev’s comments come just a couple of days after the U.S. announced that it was dispatching as many as a dozen F-15C fighter planes to the region. The F-15C is a model suited exclusively to air-to-air combat. Again, ISIS has no air force or other means of challenging allied air superiority.
The U.S. move, in turn, came after it was revealed that Russia had dispatched a number of its own Su-30 air-to-air fighters to Syria.
In that context, the addition of the two new anti-aircraft missile systems looks like the next step in a gradual military build-up in the region that has nothing to do with fighting either ISIS or the rebels pressuring Assad, and everything to do with the U.S. and Russia building the capacity to defend themselves against each other.