Russia has positioned a considerable naval armada in the Mediterranean near Syria after accusing the U.S. of plotting a false flag chemical weapons attack in rebel-held areas — and it looks like they're preparing for a fight with the U.S.
Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov recently said the U.S. has built up its naval forces in the Mediterranean as it is "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 denied on Tuesday any such buildup, calling Russia's claims "nothing more than propaganda," and warning that the U.S. 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 U.S. Navy destroyer reported in the area.
The same naval monitors suggest Russia may have up to 17 ships in the region with submarines on the way.
International investigators have linked Syria's government to more than 100 chemical weapons attacks since the opening of the Syrian Civil war, and Russia has frequently made debunked claims about the perpetrators of, or existence of chemical attacks in the country.
Anna Borshchevskaya, a Russian foreign policy expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Business Insider that Moscow is possibly alleging a US false flag to help support a weak Syrian government in cracking down on one of the last rebel strongholds, 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. Borshchevskaya said Assad may look to chemical weapons because his conventional military has weakened under seven years of conflict.
Since President Donald Trump took office, the U.S. has twice attacked Syria in response to what it called incontrovertible evidence of chemical attacks on civilians. Trump's White House has warned that any further chemical weapons attacks attributed to the Syrian government will meet with more strikes.
This time, Russia looks like 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 Syrian intervention with its sole aircraft carrier in 2015.
But even with its massive naval presence, Omar Lamrani, a military analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical consulting firm, told Business Insider Moscow doesn't stand a chance of stopping a U.S. attack on Syria.
"Physically the Russians really can't do anything to stop that strike," said Lamrani. "If the U.S. 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 U.S.," which might cause U.S. ships to attack them.
Lamrani pointed out that in all previous U.S. strikes in Syria, the U.S. has taken pains to avoid killing Russian servicemen and escalating conflict between the U.S. and Syrians to conflict between the world's two greatest nuclear powers.
"Not because the U.S. cannot wipe out the flotilla of vessels if they want to," said Lamrani, but because the US wouldn't risk sparking World War III with Russia over Syria's government gassing its civilians. "To be frank, the US has absolute dominance" in the Mediterranean, and Russia's ships won't matter, said Lamrani.
"The U.S. 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," if Russian ships engaged the U.S., said Lamrani.
So instead of an epic naval and aerial clash, expect Russia to stick to its real weapon fo modern war: Propaganda.
The U.S. will likely avoid striking most of Syria's most important targets as Russian forces integrated there raise the risk of escalation, and Russia will likely then call the limited US strike a failure, as they have before.
Russia has made dubious and falsifiable claims about its air defenses in Syria, and could continue down that path as a way of saving face after the US, once again, strikes its Syrian ally as if Russia's forces inspired no fear.
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