On Sunday, a U.S. F/A-18E “Super Hornet” fighter aircraft shot down a Syrian SU-22, a Russian-made fighter-bomber. On Monday, Russia issued an unprecedented warning to the United States: “Any aircraft, including planes and drones belonging to the international coalition, operating west of the River Euphrates, will be tracked by Russian anti-aircraft forces in the sky and on the ground and treated as targets.”
The Russian warning threatened to turn the skies over Syria into a shooting gallery, with American planes the targets. It seems inconceivable that Russia and the United States might go to war over one Syrian aircraft, but the world thought the same thing after the assassination of one middle-aged Austrian named Franz, yet World War One still killed 15 million people.
Much of the responsibility for this escalating conflict lies with President Donald Trump. This may seem odd as Trump’s pre-election attitude toward Russian President Vladimir Putin was almost a bromance — “I think I’d get along very well with Vladimir Putin;” “Putin said good things about me. He said, ‘He’s a leader and there’s no question about it, he’s a genius;'” “We’re going to have a great relationship with Putin and Russia” – but the realities of the Syrian conflict, and Trump’s own personal quirks, have created a very dangerous situation.
To begin with, there is Trump’s impulsiveness. He may have intended to go easy on Syria, but when, on April 4th, President Assad of Syria launched a poison gas attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun, contrary to international law, the widespread outcry put pressure on Trump to make some kind of response or else look weak. Trump ordered 59 cruise missiles to hit a Syrian airbase as a very expensive “Stop that!” message. Russia, Syria’s ally, accepted the attack, but was not pleased.
After the April strike and counter-strike, Trump seemed to lose interest in the Syrian conflict. Unlike President Barack Obama, President Trump has had a very hands-off approach to the use of military force and is bored by long briefings. Obama, in contrast, had a reputation for micromanaging the military, including green-lighting individual drone strikes on specific terrorist targets. Trump prefers to give a general directive to his commanders and leave them to make the decisions on the ground.
This free hand has now led to an American plane shooting down a Syrian bomber. This second attack on a Russian ally, and targeting a Russian-made plane at that, seems to have been more than Putin was willing to take.
In Moscow, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov called the American attack an act of aggression. “What is it then, if not an act of aggression, an act directly in breach of international law? … [It] should be first of all regarded as the continuation of the U.S. agenda of neglecting the norms of international law. Regardless of who has power in Washington, people there are used to the fact that there are circumstances allowing them to arrogantly look down on – and in some situations, to openly ignore – the basics of international relations.”
Ryabkov’s words reflect a long history of Russian-American friction – and, before that, Soviet-American friction – but they also reflect the ways both sides have become entangled in the Syrian mess.
During the Cold War, Syria was one of the Soviet Union’s most valuable Middle Eastern allies. The Soviet Union provided Syrian President Hafez al-Assad with Soviet-made jets and tanks and, in return, Assad allowed the Soviets to build a naval base at Tartus, the Soviet Union’s only Mediterranean port. That Assad was a brutal dictator who targeted his own people made no difference to Moscow. He was a useful and loyal ally. When the Soviet Union fell, the new Russian Federation maintained the Syrian alliance.
The Arab Spring and the ensuing Syrian Civil War made Bashar al-Assad (who took power in 2000) even more dependent on Russia than his father had been. Widespread dissatisfaction fed the rebellion and Assad lost control of much of Syria. Many Syrians joined the rebels because they resented Assad’s dictatorial rule. Others were alienated by his religion; Assad was an Alawite, a Shia off-shot from mainstream Sunni Islam, and favored his own sect over Sunnis, who make up a majority of Syria’s population. This is why Assad also receives a great deal of help from Shiite Iran. The leaders in Tehran see Assad as a useful ally in their own ongoing conflict with Saudi Arabia.
Under President Obama, the United States took the opposite side in the Syrian conflict. Obama supported Assad’s ouster but he also did not want to commit U.S. troops to one more Middle Eastern war. Instead, America funneled weapons to rebel groups with the hope that they could achieve the task on their own. They couldn’t.
Instead, the Syrian civil war spiraled steadily out of control. The United States slowly increased their support for the Sunni rebels (as did Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states); Russia and Iran added to their support for Assad; and the Syrian people, bombed and brutalized, died in ever larger numbers. (According to Human Rights Watch, there have been 470,000 killed and 11 million refugees created, six million of them internal refugees.)
The chaos caused by the Syrian war also contributed to the birth of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a new group dedicated to bringing about an ultra-conservative Islamic Caliphate (empire) in the Middle East. In addition to trying to conquer both Iraq and Syria, ISIS encouraged supporters to carry out terrorist attacks around the world, including the Paris attacks of November 2015. ISIS, not even a name in 2011, became America’s number one target. Our priorities in Syria shifted from ousting Assad to destroying ISIS. (The priorities of our Syrian rebel allies, however, did not change.)
This is the context for the past weekend’s attack. The United States is supporting Syrian rebels, hoping to help them destroy ISIS. The rebels would be glad to defeat ISIS, but their focus is Assad. Russia and Iran are backing the Syrian government and opposing the rebels. They also want to eliminate ISIS, but the Syrian rebels are their priority. These crisscrossing motivations make for a very confused, and dangerous, battlefield.
The United States claims that the Syrian bomber was attacking American backed rebels near the town of Tabqah, and this is why the U.S. jet shot it down. The Syrian government says that actually the bomber was targeting Islamic State militants, who claim nearby Raqqa as their capital. The Russians – already angry over the April cruise missile attack – decided to draw a line against any further American strikes against their ally.
In addition to saying they would target U.S. warplanes, Russia also stated that they would stop using a “deconfliction” hotline between the U.S. and Russian forces in Syria. The hotline is a special communications channel between the two militaries that is used to prevent U.S. and Russian forces from accidentally shooting or otherwise coming into contact with each other. If the Russians really stop using the hotline, the chance of accidental escalation greatly increases.
The White House seems unwilling to blink in this showdown. White House press secretary Sean Spicer stated, “The Syrian regime and others in the regime need to understand that we will retain the right of self-defense, of coalition forces aligned against ISIS.” Translation: We will shoot down any planes we want to shoot down.
Now the Trump administration has two choices. They can ignore their own bellicose words, back down, keeping their planes away from any confrontation, thereby giving the Syrian air force the freedom to target U.S.-allied rebels; or they can risk a direct confrontation with the Russian troops stationed in Syria. Already Australia, whose planes are part of the U.S.-led coalition, has declared they are (temporarily) ceasing flights over Syria. If Trump allows his military to keep shooting down Syrian planes, it will be Putin’s turn to blink or escalate. Doing nothing would make Putin look weak (something authoritarian rulers are loathe to do); doing something risks a nightmare.
If Moscow does try and shoot down any American planes that engage the Syrian air force, they have the tools to do the job. Russia has extensive anti-air missile systems in place in Syria, including the advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile, which has a range of 200 miles. Russian missiles make all of Syrian air space a potential Russian-American battlefield.
To combat the S-400, the United States would have two choices. They could use stealth aircraft, which would limit the number and kinds of targets they could hit. They would also not be immune to Russian missiles. (Stealth aircraft are harder, not impossible, to see with radar.) Or they could directly target the S-400 missile installations, at the certain cost of Russian casualties.
The Syrian mess isn’t all Trump’s fault. The Obama administration stumbled into Syria without a clear mission plan. Iran and Saudi Arabia are also fueling the crisis by making Syria an extension of their Shia vs. Sunni sectarian rivalry. (They are doing the same, on a smaller scale, in Yemen.) Still, it is President Trump’s choices, especially his decision to pressure his military for results while leaving battlefield decisions to the generals’ discretion, that have led to this rapid escalation.
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The situation is dangerously volatile, but a full-scale war is not the likely outcome between the United States and Russia. We can hope that both Trump and Putin, or at least the people working for them, realize the dangers of nuclear powers going at it toe to toe. There are reports that the deconfliction hotline is still open and being used, despite Russian threats to boycott it. On the other hand, the Pentagon reported that Tuesday morning an American F-15E shot down an Iranian Shahed 129, an unmanned drone, heading towards a village containing Syrian rebels and their American advisors.
Remember, all it takes is one incident. Back in 1964, Vietnamese torpedo boats attacked an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin. This minor skirmish led Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving President Johnson authorization to send ground forces into Vietnam. There are over 58,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall, all because one U.S. destroyer suffered minor damage in an unimportant skirmish 8,000 miles from Washington.