Russia has positioned a considerable naval armada in the Mediterranean near Syria after accusing the US of plotting a false-flag chemical-weapons attack in rebel-held areas — and it looks as if it’s preparing for war with the US.
A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, recently said the US had built up its naval forces in the Mediterranean and accused it of “once again preparing major provocations in Syria using poisonous substances to severely destabilize the situation and disrupt the steady dynamics of the ongoing peace process.”
But the Pentagon on Aug. 28, 2018, denied any such buildup, calling Russia’s claims “nothing more than propaganda” and warning that the US military was not “unprepared to respond should the president direct such an action,” CNN’s Ryan Browne reported. Business Insider reviewed monitors of Mediterranean maritime traffic and found only one US Navy destroyer reported in the area.
The same naval monitors suggest Russia may have up to 13 ships in the region, with submarines on the way.
International investigators have linked Syria’s government to more than 100 chemical attacks since the beginning of Syria’s civil war, and Russia has frequently made debunked claims about the existence or perpetrators of chemical attacks in Syria.
Anna Borshchevskaya, an expert on Russian foreign policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Business Insider that Moscow was alleging a US false flag possibly to help support a weak Syrian government in cracking down on one of the last rebel strongholds, crackdowns for which chemical attacks have become a weapon of choice.
“Using chemical weapons terrorizes civilians, so raising fear serves one purpose: It is especially demoralizing those who oppose” Syrian President Bashar Assad, Borshchevskaya told Business Insider, adding that Assad may look to chemical weapons because his conventional military has weakened over seven years of conflict.
Since President Donald Trump took office, the US has twice struck Syria in response to what it called incontrovertible evidence of chemical attacks on civilians. Trump’s White House has warned that any further chemical attacks attributed to the Syrian government would be met with more strikes.
Russian Akula-class submarine Vepr (K-157).
Looks like war
This time, Russia looks as if it’s up to more than simply conducting a public-relations battle with the US. Russia’s navy buildup around Syria represents the biggest since Moscow kicked off its intervention in Syria with its sole aircraft carrier in 2015.
But even with its massive naval presence, Moscow doesn’t stand a chance of stopping any US attack in Syria, Omar Lamrani, a military analyst at the geopolitical-consulting firm Stratfor, told Business Insider.
“Physically, the Russians really can’t do anything to stop that strike,” Lamrani said. “If the US comes in and launches cruise missiles” — as it has in past strikes — “the Russians have to be ideally positioned to defend against them, still won’t shoot down all of them, and will risk being seen as engaging the US,” which might cause US ships to attack them.
Lamrani said that in all previous US strikes in Syria, the US has taken pains to avoid killing Russian forces and escalating a conflict with Syria to a conflict between the world’s two greatest nuclear powers — “not because the US cannot wipe out the flotilla of vessels if they want to,” he said, but because the US wouldn’t risk sparking World War III with Russia over the Syrian government’s gassing of its civilians.
“To be frank,” Lamrani said, “the US has absolute dominance” in the Mediterranean, and Russia’s ships wouldn’t matter.
If Russian ships were to engage the US, “the US would use its overwhelming airpower in the region, and every single Russian vessel on the surface will turn into a hulk in a very short time,” Lamrani said.
So instead of an epic naval and aerial clash, expect Russia to stick to its real weapon for modern war: propaganda.
The US would most likely avoid striking Syria’s most important targets, as Russian forces integrated there raise the risk of escalation, and Russia would most likely then describe the limited US strike as a failure, as it has before.
Russia has made dubious and false claims about its air defenses in Syria, and it could continue down that path as a way of saving face should the US once again strike in Syria as if Russia’s forces inspired no fear.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.