Near-War: US Planes almost tangle with Syrian MiGs, which bombed area of US troop Embeds

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The fighting that has broken out between Kurdish YPG fighters and the Syrian Arab Army in Hasaka, northeast Syria, is hardly a new thing. There were clashes in April.

Syria says that the Kurds brought it on themselves by trying to expand into government-held territory.

As the US has deepened its involvement in Syria, this round of fighting could drag the US into war.

The People’s Protection Units or YPG is a Syrian Kurdish militia that now holds large swathes of northern Syria. These leftist Kurds are in conflict with Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) and with the fundamentalist rightwing Arab guerrillas such as the al-Qaeda-linked Army of Syrian Conquest and the Saudi-backed Army of Islam.

Since the YPG is the only really reliable ground force willing and able to take on Daesh, the US has allied with it (over the objections of Turkey). Washington has embedded some 200 US troops with YPG units (some were even caught wearing YPG insignia).

In Hasaka and Qamishli, the YPG holds territory adjacent to that held by the army of the Syrian government, led by Bashar al-Assad. Al-Assad doesn’t like the leftist Kurds, whom he considers separatists, but he has bigger problems, and so often the YPG is left alone by the Syrian army, for now.

But the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) maintains that the YPG has been expanding its territory in Hasaka at the expense of Damascus. So, with all the subtlety of a mobster, al-Assad scrambled fighter jets and bombed YPG-held Hasaka.

But if you bomb the YPG, you might well hit an American special operations soldier.

Washington minded, and flew its own jets over Hasaka on Friday, apparently scaring off the Syrian pilots (the Pentagon tried to play this confrontation down).

But this US and coalition intervention could have a long tail. Is the US committing itself to a no-fly-zone over Rojava, the area of Syria on which the YPG wants to erect a mini-state? Arguably, the US no-fly-zone over Iraq helped get us into the Iraq War.

So not only are US troops in danger of being killed by al-Assad’s mad bombers (as tens of thousands of innocent civilians have been) but US pilots are in danger at any moment of going to war in the skies against the Syrian air force.

Me, I think this is a dangerous flashpoint.

I mean, it may blow over. But if al-Assad killed a US soldier operating among the Kurds, can you imagine the storm of feces in Washington? And if it happens once either of the presidential candidates get into office, it could be the Gulf of Tonkin all over again.


Related video:

AFP: “Syria regime pounds Kurdish positions for second day”

32 Responses

  1. Dear Professor Cole

    As The Russians Turkey, Iran and the Syrians are playing Kiss and Makeup this story is going to get lively.

    You do have to wonder what the US forces are doing in Rojava and how long this Israeli proxy will last. Turkey will not want a heavily armed Kurdish militia running guns to their insurgents in the East

    US Forces attacking Syrian Government forces and Christian Militia is insanity.

    Life will get exciting if the Syrian SAM light up US aircraft. Even more exciting if they fire on them.

    • If the Syrian SAM system lights up US aircraft? Make that if it’s the Russian system. Way too much room not only for error but serendipity. One junior officer on either side pushes a button and a number or other buttons will be pushed within seconds.

      Tonkin Gulf was contrived and in a literal fog as I recall, and no US servicemen where killed. In this case the whole 10 seconds will be captured.

    • “Life will get exciting if the Syrian SAM light up US aircraft. Even more exciting if they fire on them.”

      A U.S. drone aircraft has previously been shot down over Latakia:

      link to

  2. The real question id why now chose a confrontation with the Kurds and what happens when the 20k troops with their full gear in Hasakah provice decided to invade towards Qamishli?

    The Syrian government might have stopped attacking military YPG targets but hundreds of civilians have been killed or wounded in 3 straight days of bombing and there is no sign of it stopping.

    Is this yet another green light from Obama saying its OK to kill civilians so long that they do not use chemical weapons or US troops?

    The Kurds were warned by the Syrian opposition and Kurdish parties that are not part of the PYG (Mishal Tammou etc. who were assassinated by PKK operatives) never to trust the regime. Now they risk losing everything and the Syrian opposition rightly won’t extend its hand to them.

  3. Al Masdar reports US troops withdrawn

    Al-Hasakah Governorate (10:50 A.M.) – The U.S. Army reportedly withdrew their military advisors from the provincial capital of the Al-Hasakah Governorate last night amid growing security concerns, local sources told Al-Masdar News this morning.

    The security concerns are due to the Syrian Air Force’s ongoing bombardment of the Kurdish police’s (Asayish) headquarters in Hasakah City.

    On Friday, the U.S. military advisors had a close call when a bomb from the Syrian Air Force landed near their positions outside of Hasakah City.

    link to

  4. “… the YPG is the only really reliable ground force willing and able to take on Daesh,”

    Huh? What about the SAA?

    • They have a 500 km from with ISIS and that front has not been active in months except the occasional rogue ISIS commander attacking and losing his head for it.

      ISIS did not even bother fight for Palmyra (all sources agree less than 200 die-hard elements refused to withdraw and died fighting) or sending reinforcements or bomb the concert while they had enough suicide bombers and artillery to attack Kurdish forces in Tal Abyad that same day.

  5. ” Arguably, the US no-fly-zone over Iraq helped get us into the Iraq War.”
    A crime was comitted, no excuses are needed!

  6. “…with all the subtlety of a mobster” Just want to point out that Assad and the Syrian Arab Army have every right to defend their territory. The US was not invited to operate in Syria and is doing so in contravention of international law.

  7. I am curious. What would be the US legal cover for engaging Syrian planes over Syrian airspace to protect US soldiers who are fighting in the country without the permission of the Syrian government or a UNSC resolution.

      • I don’t know whether its your point, but the AUMF would have to be stretched with some talent to cover the scenario cited by lester. When you do seek legal cover, lawyers can be found to deliver: think John Yoo. My thought is that “legality” often amounts to contrived rationalizations to gain moral high ground.

        • “…….’legality’ often amounts to contrived rationalizations to gain moral high ground.”

          Yes. Under the “political question doctrine”, the U.S. Supreme Court will not generally review issues of whether the president is acting lawfully under a Congressionally-sanctioned AUMF – although a member of Congress could conceivably try by suing the president as Sen. Barry Goldwater once did in a separate context to oppose President Carter’s renunciation of U.S. sovereignty over the Panama Canal.

          To the extent that Khorasan and other al-Qaeda-affiliated terror organizations – including the al-Nusra Front – exist within Syria , the 2001 AUMF authorizing military activity against the perpetrators of 9/11 shall give some arguable basis for the commander-in-chief to commit troops and air power to the region.

        • Travis, the problem here is obvious: when someone asks about the legality of an uninvited US military presence inside Syria then Mark Koroi’s horizon is limited entirely to US domestic law.

          As far as Mark is concerned the US Congress has voted the US President an AUMF and, therefore, it is all legal.

          But a US military presence inside Syria is, by definition, and international incident. Therefore the correct legal regime is INTERNATIONAL law, not the USA’s own domestic legislative requirements to allow a President to order his troops to go BANG! on someone.

          As far as international law is concerned it doesn’t matter in the slightest if the Congress has voted to lay a heavy-hand upon the Presidential shoulders, or voted to take a hands-off approach to his military adventurism.

          It. Matters. Not.

          What matters is what those US military forces are doing.

          And international law is clear about this: the USA is not at war with the Syrian government of Bashir Assad, and therefore the USA has no “right” whatsoever to insert its own military forces inside Syria without the consent of Assad’s government.

          And, furthermore, the US Congress has no standing under international law to vote the President that “right”.

          International law is exactly that – laws *between* nations.

          One branch of the US government (the legislative branch) can’t unilaterally gift a new international law to another branch of the US government (the executive branch).

          A Congressional AUMF does not “legalize” those US Special Forces advisors under international law, any more than the Congress can vote a law to make it A-OK for US soldiers to summarily shoot prisoners.

          Such a law would make no difference to int’l law i.e. the execution of prisoners would still be a grave violation of international humanitarian law irrespective of whether or not that law survived a challenge in the US Supreme Court.

          So would a USAF shootdown of Syrian jet fighters bombing enemy positions inside Syrian cities: the USA is simply *not* at war with the government of Syria, and so any such action would be an act of aggression by the US military.

      • But for a country to sent troops to be based or fight in a given different country, the legal requirement is either that it be invited by the host country or that the UN Security Council authorize their presence. The US has neither authorization. Russia also does not have UN authorization but it was invited by the existing Syrian government.

        • An excellent point.

          The same logic obtains for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan – did the Taliban ask for America to come in and fight al-Qaeda? No.

          International law scholars have debated the question:

          link to

        • Of course the Taliban did not ask the United States to come in and fight al-Qaeda. Mullah Omar and the Taliban were instrumental in offering Bin Laden and al-Qaeda sanctuary to run the terrorist enterprise, including training camps, out of Afghanistan. This made the Taliban complicit in the Act of War represented by the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

          The initial decision to attack Afghanistan and root out Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban who gave Al-Qaeda a privileged sanctuary and training facilities from which to wage war against the United States and the West, was correct and necessary. We had been attacked in an Act of War, and the perpetrators and their enablers had to be dealt with militarily.

          Article 51 of the United Nations Charter clearly applied in this case. To argue, as some might, that Article 51 did not apply because the Taliban did not “pull the trigger” or request the U.S. to come in is risible in the extreme.

  8. this is just another example of how warfare spirals out of control. the pentagon loves this kind of stuff. they are itching for it. they thrive on it. we are just along for the ride.

  9. This is a quite a distance from Daesh for American troops to be. Why are they “embedding” this far away from the action? Moon of Alabama and Southfront bring up some relevant reports.

  10. Well, given that the Gulf of Tonkin incident never actually happened but was fabricated by the US to justify entry into the Vietnam war, this is not really a parallel situation.

    However if and when Hillary gets to be prez all all that could change. Clinton once compared Russian president Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler and recommended that the United States impose a no-fly zone in Syria despite the risk of shooting down Russian military aircraft operating at the request of the Syrian government.

    When it come to international peace efforts, she’s a loose canon with Ukraine, Syria and Libya under her belt. And a phony Gulf of Tonkin incident would be right up her alley.l

    having been rendered stateless by an Englishman drawing a map of the middle east with a ruler

    And second, the Kurds, having been rendered stateless by an Englishman drawing a map of the middle east with a ruler, really do need a state of their own

    • How are you going to give the Kurds a state? By arbitrarily drawing a line on a map too on lands they have no near or far historic claim too? How are you going to enforce such state?

  11. Ok, now, what is the US working plan if they make an oops, and they actually engage, and they actually engage Russian aircraft rather than Syrians?

    • Yeah, 200 support troops for the YPG is not exactly the Vietnam War. I am not aware that they have killed anyone at all, much less innocent people. They are there to help roll back the genocidal ISIL. In any case, my article was attempting to draw attention to how dangerous it is even for that number to be there.

      • If I recall correctly, the US had only two or three hundred “advisors” in Vietnam prior to the Tonkin incident.

        Off-topic, but do I have to enter my name and E-Mail in the blanks every time I send a post, or is there some way to “save” the information?

        Antoinetta III

        • At the time of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution the U.S. had approximately 21,000 advisors in Vietnam. That number had held consistent since 1963.

  12. The problems with a Kurdish State are, if it ever got off the ground, that it would be completely surrounded by hostile and unfriendly states; Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

    Add to this that it would be completely landlocked, so I don’t see a Kurdish state as being a viable entity.

    Even if the four countries above can’t agree on much else, they ALL have serious problems with Kurdish independence; I don’t see them allowing this to happen.

    Finally, the Kurds themselves are not united behind the idea of an independent state, probably due to the issues I mentioned above.

    The whole idea of “Rojava”, the proposed maps, extending all the way to the Mediterranean that I’ve seen; it all seems like political pipe-dreams and fantasizing.

    Antoinetta III

  13. Personalizing the issue is an anti-intellectual tactic. The spin doctors proclaimed that we had to take-out the monster Saddam Hussein, rescue Libya from the evil Ghadaffi, and now unseat the “mobster” Assad as if just a single person was involved, hoping that no one would notice the reality of war – hundreds of thousands killed, millions displaced. It isn’t mobsterism when the US invades and bombs people, however, it’s “liberating” them. Let’s start a new trend in the run-up to the 2016 election – tell the plain, unvarnished truth.

  14. This whole piece is written as if the Syrian army does not have the right to protect the borders and country of which once was Syria. As if Assad was the invader of Syria.

    I clearly remember the Leveretts writing five years ago that over 50% of the Syrian population supported Assad.

    This piece is written as if the U.S. and coalition have had not part in creating this human disaster

  15. Who are these people claiming the SAA should be fighting IsIs in Hasakah? They can’t even leave their own base? What forces that are used are artillery on civilians and/or barrel bombs again on civilians. The SAA is about as inept of an army as one could have. Having a “right” in war is a sensless stupid question. The Assad regime had pissed off much of its population prior and now we see the effects as they can’t even engage forces within its territory. If you can’t hold territory in war then its not yours.
    And if it he someone then might as well be secular YPG backed by USA.

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