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Feb. 4, 2016
Notes from the Pentagon

New Russian beachhead in Syria
U.S. intelligence agencies are closely watching what appears to be a buildup of Russian military forces in northeastern Syria, very close to the Turkish border.

The buildup has been underway for the past several weeks, and defense officials say there are concerns Moscow is creating a new military air base and outpost similar to the current base near Latakia, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast.

Defense officials said there are indications the Russians are planning to deploy their most advanced air defense weapons, the S-400, at Qamishli, located very close to the Turkish border. Russian-Turkish relations soured in November after Turkish forces shot down a Russian Su-24 jet that strayed into Turkish airspace.

The London Times reported last month that some 200 Russians were fortifying a runway at the Qamishli air base.

The report prompted the Russian Defense Ministry to deny Moscow planned to deploy air forces at the base.

“There are no ‘new’ air bases or additional pre-strike staging ports for Russian warplanes in the territory of [the] Syrian Arab Republic, and there are no plans to create them,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov told the Interfax news agency.

The Russian activity at Qamishli has set off alarms in Turkey, a NATO ally, with fears the Russians are preparing to conduct threatening operations against Turkey in retaliation for the downing of the Su-24, which led to the death of one of the two crew members and a member of the Russian team sent to rescue the downed crew.

Russia denied the jet violated Turkish airspace and said it would retaliate against the Turks for the incident.

Turkey then announced Jan. 30 that another Russian jet violated Turkish airspace, prompting another denial from Moscow.

An Israeli think tank, The Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, this week published photos of the Russian military buildup at Latakia. The photos reveal deployments of over 30 warplanes, including 11 of the supersonic Su-24 bombers. Additionally, the photos show 10 Su-25s and seven advanced Su-35s.

Defense officials say the Russian airstrikes in Syria are aimed primarily at anti-regime rebels with only limited strikes against the Islamic State terrorist group.

The S-400 batteries also are visible in the photos along with Pantsir SA-22 missiles.

China criticizes commander’s Japanese roots
China’s communist government reacted harshly to last weekend’s U.S. warship passage near a disputed South China Sea island that Beijing is claiming as its territory.

China’s propaganda department, however, appears to have topped itself in criticizing the U.S. commander of the Pacific Command.

The jingoistic, Communist Party-affiliated Global Times newspaper on Saturday quoted a People’s Liberation Army official as saying the warship passage was due to the hard-line policies of Adm. Harry Harris, the new Pacific Command chief.

According to Li Jie, a senior colonel in the PLA Navy and military expert quoted by the newspaper, Adm. Harris is a hawk who harbors a deep misunderstanding and prejudice toward China.

Col. Li then argued that Adm. Harris’ “Japanese origin” makes him even more of a hard-liner who has been leading efforts by the U.S. military to do more to contain China. Adm. Harris also was given the green light to do so by the Obama administration.

The colonel urged China to “raise its voice” and “adopt a tough counterattack” to the U.S. challenge.

Adm. Harris was born in Yokosuka, Japan, to a Navy chief petty officer father and a Japanese mother. Since taking over the command, he has adopted a much tougher position on China and its maritime claims than his predecessor, Adm. Samuel Locklear.

Adm. Harris began conducting what were considered routine naval freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea. Adm. Locklear had halted the passages by warships for several years based on internal bureaucratic opposition within the Obama administration from officials who did not want to upset China.

China’s government has cranked up anti-Japan propaganda operations since Tokyo purchased privately owned Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea several years ago.

Anti-Japan propaganda in China has reached new heights in state-run media in recent months as Beijing has sought to portray Japan, a vibrant democracy, as reverting to World War II militarism, and Adm. Harris prompted criticism from China after a speech in Washington last week.

The four-star admiral told a meeting at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that he is concerned about Chinese efforts to build military facilities on newly created South China Sea islands on territory also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines. Adm. Harris called the Chinese territorial claims “provocative,” adding that the U.S. rejects China’s claims to owning some 90 percent of the South China Sea.

On the warship transits, he told the audience, days before the guided missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur transited the Paracels: “You will see more of these.”

Chinese proliferation to N. Korea, Iran hit
Both Iran and North Korea have been obtaining weapons and technology from China, and Beijing has failed to join an international initiative designed to halt arms proliferation, U.S. officials say.

Thomas Countryman, assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said China was asked to join the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) as recently as last month, but, so far, there has been silence from the Chinese.

“The Chinese are essential partners in preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction technology,” Mr. Countryman told reporters during a teleconference Jan. 21. “And it’s an unfortunate fact that both Iran and North Korea seek to obtain high technology from China, from Chinese companies for their missile and nuclear programs.”

The State Department official declined to discuss specific cases of Chinese proliferation but said: “I’ll simply say again that when North Korea and Iran seek to purchase high technology, materials or equipment for their nuclear and missile programs, the place that they like to shop is China.

“It is a very high-technology economy and produces a number of advanced goods, and it is important that China exercise the same degree of vigilance and control on strategic trade with Iran and North Korea as other countries do,” he said.

The arms transfers are a matter of “constant dialogue” between the United States and China, he said.

According to Mr. Countryman, China has objected to the international arms interdiction efforts under the PSI that have included stopping ships at sea and aircraft believed to be carrying illicit weapons shipments.

China is a major arms proliferator and is largely responsible for helping Pakistan develop both nuclear weapons and missile-delivery systems beginning in the 1980s.

China recently concluded a new strategic cooperation agreement with Iran, following the conclusion of the nuclear agreement that is expected to accelerate major arms and technology transfers from China to Iran.

To North Korea, China illegally sold Pyongyang mobile transporter-erector launchers that are now carrying the KN-08 road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile.

The Obama administration has ignored the violation. China told U.N. investigators the launchers were sold as lumber transporters — despite the fact that most experts say the missile launchers are too wide to be used on logging roads.

Mr. Countryman said arms proliferation from North Korea continues to be a problem, a charge China called “irresponsible.”

The Obama administration has been pressing China to rein in its ally in Pyongyang, which announced this week that it would conduct a new missile test in the coming days. The announcement came as a senior Chinese official was arriving in the North Korean capital for talks.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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