Close Calls or Worse Between U.S. and Russia in Syria

Photo: AP/Alexei Druzhinin

Last Sunday, a U.S. Navy F/A-18E fighter jet shot down a Syrian government SU-22 bomber in the U.S. military’s first air-to-air kill involving manned aircraft since the 1999 Kosovo campaign. In response, the Russian Ministry of Defense has condemned the incident as “a cynical violation of the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic” and shut down a hotline for military communication between Russian and U.S. forces in Syria. In a further escalation, the Kremlin has also announced that any U.S. planes flying west of the Euphrates river will now be considered “air targets” by Russian forces.

To some extent, Russia’s response to this incident can be read as typical diplomatic posturing. The U.S. cruise missile strike against a Syrian airbase in response to Syrian chemical weapons attacks on the town of Khan Sheikhoun this April was a far more significant attack, and though it drew condemnation from Moscow, the heated rhetoric soon cooled. However, the destruction of the Syrian jet – which was bombing U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) units in western Raqqa – does emphasize how dangerous the situation in eastern Syria has become.

As U.S.-led coalition and SDF forces press the attack on Raqqa and Syrian government and Iranian-backed militias simultaneously advance on both Raqqa and Deir al Zour, how have American and Russian strategies in Syria evolved? Is this incident, as Cipher Brief Network Member and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Sandy Winnefeld suggests, “a canary in the coalmine?”

Recent developments on the ground have forced these questions to the fore. Beginning early this month, Syrian government forces and allied Iran-backed militias have advanced on the Raqqa and Deir al Zour regions in eastern Syria. These advances have taken place on four main axes: into western Raqqa from eastern Aleppo province; towards the city of Deir al Zour from Palmyra in central Syria; near the city of al Dumayr in eastern rural Damascus; and towards the southeastern al Tanf border crossing between Syria and Iraq.

This race towards Raqqa, and especially the oil-rich region of Deir al Zour – where news reports suggest top ISIS leadership may be taking refuge – comes just as U.S.-led coalition forces support the allied SDF push deeper into Raqqa and continue to train a coalition of anti-ISIS Arab Sunni militias near the al Tanf border crossing. It also follows a series of new military commitments from the Trump Administration to its SDF and Syrian Kurdish allies, including new heavy weaponry, more special operations advisors, and an American artillery unit composed of some 400 Marines.

This injection of U.S. troops and materiel into the Syrian conflict has also been accompanied by a murky U.S. Syria policy that is both less defined and far less cautious than the one pursued by former President Barack Obama. As Winnefeld sees it, this week’s downing of a Syrian warplane “was not premeditated” but it “was part of the greater willingness on the part of the Trump Administration to take a greater risk in terms of intersecting directly with Syrian or Russian forces in this conflict.”

On the other side of the equation, Russia’s decision to shut down the hotline between its own and U.S. forces is an immediate signal of its disapproval of U.S. actions, but some experts believe Russia’s true retaliation may come at a later time and place of its choosing. Cipher Brief expert and former head of global security for Goldman Sachs Rob Dannenberg believes “Putin will not put in jeopardy the effort he has undertaken to bolster the Assad regime by direct military confrontation with the U.S.-led coalition.” Instead, “a more probable response from Putin will be to put pressure on Western interests elsewhere,” likely in Crimea or the Balkans.

The Kremlin could use its wide array of asymmetrical operations to stifle U.S. interests around the globe. In 2016, Russia was accused of sponsoring a coup in Montenegro in an attempt to derail that country’s membership to NATO. Additionally, Russian cyber and intelligence operations have increased throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe in former Soviet countries, which have gravitated towards the West in recent years.

From the U.S. perspective, shooting the Syrian bomber sent a clear message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers that areas of U.S. operation in Raqqa and al Tanf – where U.S. forces shot down an Iranian drone just this week – are off limits. Despite Russia’s statements this Monday, experts believe the Kremlin will likely respect this delineation and urge its Syrian and Iranian partners to follow suit for the moment.

However, as former senior CIA officials Dannenberg and Sulick observe, Russia’s ability to act and retaliate beyond the Syrian conflict adds an unpredictable element to this situation. Meanwhile, the Syrian government is intent on regaining control over its own territory, and Assad will likely keep pushing the Kremlin to support new advances in eastern Syria. All these risks of further escalation are compounded by a Trump Administration, which has yet to delineate a clear post-ISIS strategy in Syria. As Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council Aaron Stein puts it, “the U.S. has no policy on this at the moment, they haven’t figured out what to do yet.” Until that changes, expect more close calls—or worse—between Russia and the U.S. in Syria.

Fritz Lodge (@FritzLodge) is a Middle East and international economics analyst at The Cipher Brief, and Will Edwards (@_wedwards) is an Asia-Pacific and defense analyst.