Assessing the Deterrence Value of the F-35 in Syria

Humayun Hassan is an undergraduate student at National University of Sciences and Technology, Pakistan. His areas of research interests include 5th and 6th generation warfare and geopolitics of the Levant. He can be found on Twitter @Humayun_17. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Assessing the Deterrence Value of the F-35 in Syria

Date Originally Written:  October 30, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  December 16, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the U.S perspective, with regards to the significance of the F-35 aircraft, in terms of protecting U.S assets in Syria and the Levant amidst various local and foreign hostile forces.

Summary:  In 2019 the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was used for the first time in the Middle East. As major world players further their national interests in Syria, the United States is forced to be more active in the region. The Turkish offensive against the Kurds, the Islamic State, and Russian influence are the major concerns for the U.S. The F-35 could be used effectively to not only protect the U.S ground forces but also to deter its enemies from attacking the American assets.

Text:  Amidst the fickle and intricate geopolitics of Syria, perhaps the only constant in this melting pot, is the United States’ lack of strategic clarity. After over eight years of the ongoing Syrian civil war, the average American might not pay much heed to this seemingly incessant conflict, other than when this issue involves their fellow countrymen and tax money. Regardless, the geo-strategic significance of Syria, coupled with the kind of major players involved in this conflict, calls for proactivity and sometimes, grudging, yet necessary entailment on the part of the United States.

The emergence and the consequential establishment of the Islamic State’s (IS) caliphate, amongst the ashes of burning Levant, is perhaps the most pertinent issue of concern, not only for United States but for most of the Western powers. Since the civil war broke out in 2011, the scale of the conflict has only exacerbated[1], to the point where almost all global powers are somehow involved in the Syrian crisis. Whether this involvement is due to a lack of U.S. long-term vision for Syria and the greater Levant, or the reluctance to be proactive and protect its national interests in the region, the fact remains that rival powers, Iran and Russia, have more strategic depth and the leverage to protect their interests in the region than any time in recent years[2].

Since 2011, there have been many turns and changes with regards to the U.S objectives in Syria. However, containment and impairment of the IS caliphate, opposition of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and halting increasing Iranian influence in the region have continued to be the among the main priorities of the United States in Syria. With a limited number of boots on ground the U.S also relies on its allies to such as Syrian Democratic Force (SDF), to protect its interests in the region. The SDF, which are commonly regarded as “rebel forces,” are primarily comprised of Kurdish fighters, who have actively fighting against the Syrian army and IS simultaneously[3]. With three main local factions fighting each other for the control of territory and resources of the country, each foreign power is supporting their side. For the United States, the prevailing objective is to not only undermine the threat of IS, but also to deny the unholy trinity of Assad, Iran, and Russia sole dominion over the geopolitical landscape.

With limited amount of manpower, unfamiliar terrain, presence of multiple hostile fronts, and a threat of inadvertent clash with the Iranian or Russian forces, how does the United States protect its assets, while keeping the hostile forces at bay? Regardless of where the U.S ground forces might be, their competitive advantage, in many instances, is the fact that they are supported by arguably the best, in terms of operational capacity and technological prowess. To this end, the recently developed F-35 fighter jet[4] is likely to play a vital role in maintaining a buffer between the American/coalition forces and the local hostile factions.

As the only other credible air force present in the region, the Russian air force, has maintained a safe distance with the American forces. Disregarding an unlikely scenario, at least in the near future, of a direct confrontation between the American and the Russian forces, the only remaining airpower against the F-35 is the Syrian Arab Air force[5]. With its fighter fleet mainly comprised of MiG-23s, Su-17 and the Fencer (Su-24), theoretically there is no threat to the F-35’s air superiority in the region.

In April 2019, the first U.S combat use of the F-35 was observed in the Middle East, when an IS munitions cache was targeted, to thwart the group’s possible resurgence[6]. To compensate for its numerical disadvantage and to protect strategically vital oilfields, the F-35’s role against the hostile local groups is likely to increase overtime. With its initiation into combat, it seems as if the Unites States envisions a key role for the F-35 in the region’s future. The only criticism is on the jet’s lack of energy maneuverability, due to its lower thrust to weight ratio compared to its rivals, which makes the jet less nimble in a dogfight[7]. However, the recent footage released by the U.S. Air Force depicts the F-35 making significant strides in this aspect, which has halted many of the objections on its close combat capabilities[8]. Despite its dogfight nimbleness, the competitive advantage of the F-35 is its computational capacity. The F-35, as a 5th-generation fighter, is unmatched at intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, and targeting aircraft from a distance beyond visual range, significantly far away from the range of any of its possible competitors. Furthermore, the F-35’s stealth capability makes it difficult to detect, early and accurately[9].

As the United States sends its largest contingent of troops in Syria thus far, there is new threat looming over which might challenge the U.S interests in the area. As the Turkish forces target the Kurdish fighters, the threat of IS reprisal looms over, and Russia justifies its military presence in the area, as a “balancing act” between the Turkish and Syrian forces, the coming days for the United States will be precarious. As evident by the combat testing against IS earlier this year, the F-35 will play an ever-increasing role in Syria and greater Levant, where its stealth may be used to venture inside hostile territory to preemptively target terror networks. The F-35’s superior recon may be used to provide a bird’s eye to the American forces in Northeast Syria, and perhaps, most importantly, to deter the Russian forces and their proxies as they attempt to use their numerical advantage against the American land forces to control the lucrative energy fields of Northeastern Syria.


Endnotes:

[1] Bernard A and Saad H. (2018, February 8). It’s Hard to Believe but Syria’s Wat is Getting Even Worse. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/08/world/middleeast/syria-war-idlib.html

[2] Neely B, Smith S. (2019, October 15). As the U.S. withdraws, Assad and Putin are emerging as the winners in Syria. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/u-s-withdraws-assad-putin-are-emerging-winners-syria-n1066231

[3] Shapiro A. (2019, October 10). A Look At The History Of The U.S. Alliance With The Kurds. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.npr.org/2019/10/10/769044811/a-look-at-the-history-of-the-u-s-alliance-with-the-kurds

[4] Staff. (2019, October 29). Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.militaryfactory.com/aircraft/detail.asp?aircraft_id=23

[5] Majumdar D. (2017, April 17). The Syrian Air Force: What Is Left? Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-syrian-air-force-what-left-20135

[6] Insinna V. (2019, April 30). US Air Force conducts airstrikes with F-35 for first time ever. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.defensenews.com/air/2019/04/30/us-air-force-conducts-airstrikes-with-f-35-for-first-time-ever/

[7] Robinson T. (2015, July 10). Does the F-35 really suck in air combat? Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.aerosociety.com/news/does-the-f-35-really-suck-in-air-combat/

[8] Lockie A. (2017, April 19). Here’s why the F-35 once lost to F-16s, and how it made a stunning comeback. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.businessinsider.com/f-35-vs-f-16-15-18-lost-beaten-flatley-comeback-2017-4

[9] Thompson L. (2019, May 13). The F-35 Isn’t Just ‘Stealthy’: Here’s How Its Electronic Warfare System Gives It An Edge. Retrieved October 31, 2019, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/lorenthompson/2019/05/13/how-a-super-agile-electronic-warfare-system-makes-f-35-the-most-invincible-combat-aircraft-ever

 

Assessment Papers Deterrence F-35 Lightning II (Joint Strike Fighter) Humayun Hassan Syria United States

Assessment of Increased Chinese Strategic Presence in Afghanistan

Humayun Hassan is an undergraduate student at National University of Sciences and technology, Pakistan.  His areas of research interests include 5th and 6th generation warfare and geopolitics of the Levant.  He can be found on Twitter @Humayun_17. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Assessment of Increased Chinese Strategic Presence in Afghanistan

Date Originally Written:  September 15, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  December 2, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the Chinese standpoint, with regards to U.S and North Atlantic Treaty Organization member country (NATO) presence in Afghanistan and the pursuit of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Summary:  Afghanistan is important to Chinese strategic interests. To ensure stability in its autonomous region of Xinjiang, expansion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and counter a perceived “encirclement of China” strategy, Afghanistan holds the key for China. Therefore, China is consolidating its interests in Afghanistan through “economic diplomacy”, facilitation of peace talks, and working with other regional players.

Text:  As a part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is establishing multiple economic passages, across Eurasia, Africa, and Southeast Asia. A total of six economic[1] corridors are designed to connect China with most of the major markets of the world. To consolidate her direct access to these markets, it is pivotal for China to maintain regional and political stability, especially in areas that directly pertain to these economic corridors. Two of these six corridors, namely CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor) and China-Central Asia and West Asia economic corridors pass through the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang. This network of railroads, energy projects, and infrastructure is meant to connect Beijing with Central and Western Asia, along with the Middle East. Xinjiang is not only one of the most impoverished and underdeveloped regions of China, but is also home to almost 10-12 million Uighurs Muslims. In the past few years, Muslims in Xinjiang have caught significant media spotlight[2], due to growing sense of discontent among the local population with the Chinese administration. While the official Chinese narrative depicts a few Uighurs groups to be supportive of terrorist activities, the opposing viewpoint highlights internment camps[3] and over-representation of police force in the region. Nevertheless, the geo-economic importance of Xinjiang is paramount, which is why China is willing to use aggressive measures to restore stability in the area.

The militant factions of the Uighur community are supported by various group operating from Afghanistan. The Turkestan Islamic Movement, which was formerly known as East Turkestan Islamic Movement, is considered to be the primary organization undermining the Chinese sovereignty in Western China. In the past, this group has primarily operated from Afghanistan, with alliances with the Afghan Taliban (Taliban) and Al-Qaeda. However, since 2015, China has another reason to be cautious of protecting its economic[4] interests in the region. The Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) chapter of the violent extremist organization the Islamic State was established that year, with an aim to create its terror network in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Apart from tacitly supporting the Uighurs militant factions, IS-K has openly threatened to attack the ongoing CPEC projects, not only inside Pakistan but also in Western China[5].

The encirclement of China strategy advocates for constant U.S military and political presence in Chinese proximity[6]. With forces in Afghanistan the United States and NATO have opened up a new pressure point for China, a country that is already coping with the U.S forces in South China Sea and Japan, on the eastern front. After almost 18-years of non-conclusive war in Afghanistan, the U.S and Afghan forces have failed subdue the Taliban[7]. As the Kabul administration is facing financial and political turmoil, the U.S is considering reducing military presence in the country, and leaving a friendly government in Afghanistan. China seems to be aware of the political vacuum that awaits Afghanistan, which is why it presents an opportunity for it to find new allies in the country and work with other stakeholders to bring in a friendly government. This government vacuum-filling may not only allow China to neutralize U.S encirclement from Afghanistan, but will also help suppress terrorist organizations operating from Afghanistan. The latest developments in lieu of U.S-Taliban talks in Doha, Qatar indicate that China is enhancing ties with the Taliban. A Taliban government in Afghanistan may be suitable for China, at least in consideration of the available options. Not only have the Taliban declared war against IS-K[8], an entity that has openly threatened to disparage Chinese interests in the region and support militants in Western China, but also remained silent on the alleged persecution of the Uighurs in Xinjiang. This war declaration may be regarded as a major milestone in the China-Taliban relations, since the late 1990s when the Taliban government in the country allowed militant groups, such as Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

For the first few years of the Afghan war, China passively supported it. However, as the United States, under the Obama administration started to hint a military withdrawal from Afghanistan, China assumed a more active role in the country. Since the initiation of BRI, Chinese exports to Afghanistan have increased significantly[9]. For the first time in modern China-Afghanistan relations, China has offered military aid to the Afghanistan. The Chinese foreign minister also expressed a desire to expand the ongoing CPEC into Afghanistan as well[10]. Another aspect that is often discredited is the natural resource potential in the country. Afghanistan incorporates some of the largest Lithium reserves, which are particularly essential for the manufacturing of most electronic products. As per the American Geological Survey, Afghanistan holds approximately $3 trillion worth of natural resources[11]. This alone makes Afghanistan an area of interest for major world powers.

In conclusion, China’s approach towards Afghanistan may be best deciphered by a paradigm shift. From a strategic limited involvement to active leadership, China has now become one of the key stakeholders in the Afghan peace process. With an apparent failure of the Afghan peace talks between the Taliban and U.S, the situation is deteriorating quickly. The Taliban, since then, have vowed to double down on militancy. From a Chinese standpoint, continuation of U.S presence in Afghanistan and the anticipated increase in violence would be the least desired outcome. China, over the years, has strategically played a balancing act between all the internal stakeholders of Afghanistan, from offering aid to the national government to hosting a Taliban delegation in Beijing. Therefore, any political settlement in the country, whether it is the creation of a new “national government” with the Taliban or a truce between the fighting forces within the country may suit the Chinese in the long-run. As the BRI initiative enters the next stage, and threats of terror activities in the Xinjiang loom, and the race to tap into Afghanistan’s natural resources intensifies, China is now in unchartered waters, where any significant development in Afghanistan will directly effects its regional political and economic interests. It seems that, in coming times, China may assume the central role in organizing new peace initiatives, ensuring that whoever comes to power in Afghanistan may not thwart China’s ambitions in the country.


Endnotes:

[1]1 Hillman, J. (2019, September 4). China’s Belt and Road Is Full Of Holes. Retrieved October 10, 2019, from https://www.csis.org/analysis/chinas-belt-and-road-full-holes

[2] Sudworth, J. (2019, July 4). China Muslims: Xinjiang schools used to separate children from families. Retrieved October 10, 2019, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-48825090

[3] Shams, S. (2015, July 24). Why China’s Uighurs are joining jihadists in Afghanistan. Retrieved October 10, 2019, from https://www.dw.com/en/why-chinas-uighurs-are-joining-jihadists-in-afghanistan/a-18605630

[4] Pandey, S. (2018, September 22). China’s Surreptitious Advance in Afghanistan. Retrieved October 10, 2019, from https://thediplomat.com/2018/09/chinas-surreptitious-advance-in-afghanistan/

[5] Aamir, A. (2018, August 17). ISIS Threatens China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Retrieved October 10, 2019, from https://www.chinausfocus.com/peace-security/isis-threatens-china-pakistan-economic-corridor

[6] Gunner, U. (2018, January 18). Continuity of Agenda: US Encirclement of China Continues Under Trump. Retrieved October 10, 2019, from https://www.globalresearch.ca/continuity-of-agenda-us-encirclement-of-china-continues-under-trump/5626694

[7] Wolfgang, B. Taliban now stronger than when Afghanistan war started in 2001, military experts say. Retrieved October 10, 2019, from, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2019/sep/9/taliban-strongest-afghanistan-war-started-2001/

[8] Burke, J. (2019, August 19). With Kabul wedding attack, Isis aims to erode Taliban supremacy. Retrieved October 10, 2019, from, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/19/with-kabul-wedding-attack-isis-aims-to-erode-taliban-supremacy

[9] Zia, H. (2019, February 14). A surge in China-Afghan trade. Retrieved October 10, 2019, from, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201902/14/WS5c65346ba3106c65c34e9606.html

[10] Gul, A. (2018, November 1). China, Pakistan Seeking CPEC Extension to Afghanistan. Retrieved October 10, 2019, from, https://www.voanews.com/south-central-asia/china-pakistan-seeking-cpec-extension-afghanistan

[11] Farmer, B. (2010, June 17). Afghanistan claims mineral wealth is worth $3trillion. Retrieved October 10, 2019, from, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/7835657/Afghanistan-claims-mineral-wealth-is-worth-3trillion.html

 

Afghanistan Assessment Papers China (People's Republic of China) Great Powers Humayun Hassan