During the Reagan administration, I was one of the CIA analysts assigned to present to White House officials the President’s Daily Brief, which summed up the CIA’s views on the pressing national security issues of the day. If I were still in that job – and assuming CIA analysts are still able to speak truth to power – I am afraid that I would be delivering alarming news about the potential of a U.S.-Russian military clash.
We analysts were responsible for picking up warnings from Moscow and other key capitals that the U.S. news media often missed or downplayed, much as the major news outlets today are ignoring the escalation of warnings from Russia over Syria.
For instance, Russian defense spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov warned on Oct. 6 that Russia is prepared to shoot down unidentified aircraft – including any stealth aircraft – over Syria. It is a warning that I believe should be taken seriously.
It’s true that experts differ as to whether the advanced air defense systems already in Syria can bring down stealth aircraft, but it would be a mistake to dismiss this warning out of hand. Besides, Konashenkov added, in a telling ex-ante-extenuating-circumstance vein, that Russian air defense “will not have time to identify the origin” of the aircraft.
In other words, U.S. aircraft, which have been operating in Syrian skies without Syrian government approval, could be vulnerable to attack with the Russian government preemptively warning that such an incident won’t be Moscow’s fault.
As for the prospects of reviving the Syrian negotiation track, its demise was never clearer than in the remarks on Sunday by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in a lengthy interview with Russian Channel One. He ended it with a pointed comment: “Diplomacy has several allies in this [Syria] endeavor – Russia’s Aerospace Forces, Army, and Navy.”
Lavrov recognizes that Secretary of State John Kerry has failed in his efforts to get the U.S.-backed “moderate” rebels to separate from Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, which has been renamed from Nusra Front to the Syria Conquest Front. With that key “separation” feature of the partial cease-fire gone, Lavrov is saying that military force is the only way to drive the jihadists from their stronghold in east Aleppo and restore government control.
President Vladimir Putin and his advisers seem willing to bear the risk of escalation in the hope that any armed confrontation can be limited to Syria. There also appears to be an important element of timing in Russia’s current behavior with the Russians considering it best to take that risk now, since they believe they are likely to face a more hawkish president on Jan. 20.
Of equal importance, there seems to be a new feeling of confidence inside the Kremlin, even though the “correlation of forces” globally and in the Middle East remains in favor of the United States. Russia has gained a key ally in China, and Chinese media have shown understanding and even sympathy for Russia’s behavior in Syria.
Often overlooked is the fact that China played down its longstanding insistence on the inviolability of sovereign borders and avoided criticizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, following what was widely viewed as a U.S.-backed coup in Ukraine that removed elected President Viktor Yanukovych. The Chinese do not care for “regime change” – whether in Kiev or Damascus – and look askance at U.S. insistence that President Assad “must go.”
More important, military cooperation between Russia and China has never been closer. If Russia finds itself in a major escalation of hostilities in the Middle East and/or Europe, the troubles may not end there. The U.S. should expect significant saber-rattling by China in the South China Sea.
All of these signs point to very dangerous days ahead, though there has been little intelligent discussion of these risks in the major U.S. news media or, seemingly, in Washington’s halls of power. There is a sense of sleepwalking toward an abyss.