Russo-US dog fights over Syria?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Yara Bayoumi at Reuters reports on the complicated minuet being danced by Russia, the Syrian Air Force, and the United States.

The Syrian Air Force was bombing positions of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a US euphemism for the leftist Kurds of the YPG. The US Air Force shot down the plane (apparently the pilot was able to eject and survive). The US is depending on the Syrian Kurds to take Raqqa city, where they already hold a few neighborhoods. It is the so-called capital of ISIL (ISIS, Daesh). Of all the military forces in the region, only the Kurds have been willing to provide ground forces to roll up ISIL in eastern Syria, with the help of US and coalition air support. If the US proved unable to protect the YPG Kurdish fighters from the regime and from ISIL, they would peel off.

The Kurds are generally considered neutral as between the Bashar al-Assad regime and the mostly Sunni fundamentalist rebels challenging him. The Syrian Kurds want at the least more ‘states’ rights,’ from the regime, but for the moment they enjoy semi-autonomy given that the regime is weak and bogged down in the fight against the rebels. The YPG Kurds have some Arab allies, but most of the fundamentalist Arab militias hate them, partly for being Kurds and partly for being secular leftists.

It is not clear why the Syrian regime chose to bomb the Kurds. It likely fears that the latter are taking over Raqqa province permanently, despite its large Arab population. After ISIL is defeated, Damascus is not going to be sanguine about an expanding Kurdistan that permanently detaches large swathes of Syria from its government. The US military may be sanguine about a Kurdish semi-autonomous zone stretching south from Hasaka all the way down to the borders with Jordan and Iraq. But this development is not acceptable to the Syrian regime.

The development is also not acceptable to Turkey, which has also bombed the Kurds allied with the US, despite Turkey being a member of NATO and a US ally. It is possible that Ankara and Damascus are coordinating in hopes of rolling back up the Kurdish fighters as the war winds down and the US becomes restless and leaves.

The problem with the US shooting down that Syrian plane is that the Syrian air Force is allied with the Russian Federation, and the Russian Aerospace forces often fly alongside the Syrian pilots.

The Russians complain that the US did not warn them before bombing in east Syria, and they should have under the agreement between Washington and Moscow.

And, Russia announced that it would possibly shoot down any US air craft operating in western Syria.

Those are about the most dangerous words I’ve heard in decades, since the era of the Cuban missile crisis or the dark Cold War film Fail Safe (1965) .

BBC Monitoring translated a statement of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov:

“Regarding what is happening ‘on the ground’ in Syria, it is necessary to completely respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. So any actions ‘on the ground’ – and there are many participants, including those who conduct military operations – must get Damascus’ approval.” Source: TASS news agency, Moscow, in Russian 0555 gmt 19 Jun 17.

For its part the US military issued a statement saying it has no ambitions in Western Syria, doesn’t intend to fight there, and is not intent on ousting Bashar al-Assad:

The US said late Monday that it would try to reestablish “deconfliction” with the Russians. A lot is riding on whether they do.

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Related video:

CNN: “Russia: US planes in Syria are ‘targets'”

27 Responses

  1. Well, at least the military seems to be keeping with its primary responsibilities. (We’ve only got “forever,” or a few decades until the collapse of our so-called civilization, to discuss how good or bad missions of the American military may be, this alliance with the YPG against ISIS, considering all the other actors in the region, may be one of the better ones).

    Hopefully they will have the wisdom to find someway to delay/divert any Presidential orders that seem to be likely to bring about Russo-American war, whether conventional or nuclear.

    I hope others besides me appreciate the irony of all well-meaning people all over the world — and even any poorly-intended ultra-leftists in Western lands who don’t want to their personal lives disrupted by the chaos that a real Russo-American conflict would entail — having to depend on the relatively good parts of the institutional memory of the American military for their continued well-being.

  2. Trump’s Middle Eastern policy is one of staggering stupidity (especially over that Qatar business); it was a smart move when Obama backed the Kurds, but events have continued to move on since he left office and we need someone in the White House who is less obsessed with getting Iran (the major reason the US hates the Syrian regime is that Damascus is allied with Tehran, not because the Russians back it); I was hoping that The Donald would at least not involve us in a war in Syria the way that Hilary Clinton threatened to, but amazingly, even this low expectation has been disappointed.

  3. Everything I read last night said Syria bombed “near” SDF…IIRC (maybe I don’t recall correctly?). I thought: Could it have been they bombed some group nearby that SDF was actually engaged with, and that an appearance of something different (a misinterpretation) was taken as rational for a shoot-down?

    Just tried to find actual statements Assad has made re SDF, and I find myself wondering what his actual words were, at least in one instance. So far, with all the info you’ve provided, Doc, I can see when ISIL is really getting pushed back, yes, Assad would then want to give warning to SDF [If I were him, I’d give them their own region/country].

    But here, for instance, with respect to this 4/6 Newsweek article I’m wondering what Assad actually stated…I mean what when/if he included the name “SDF”? In the quoted words the whole context isn’t there, and SDF isn’t named (not my quoted words here below, but Assad’s in the article).

    “He also criticized Washington’s current military deployment, which supports the Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their battle against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS.” link to newsweek.com

  4. Although it is important to stress the issue of the Kurds and their attempt to take Raqqa City, there seems to be a more ominous subtext to the latest escalation of the conflict. First of all, let us bear in mind the potential enormity of what is happening. The Russian government has called the US attack “an act of aggression, a breach of international law and assistance to the terrorists.” The American military has responded that it “will not hesitate to defend Coalition or partner forces from any threat.” As you say, these are perhaps the most dangerous words we have heard for many decades, being exchanged between the two strongest military powers in the world.

    When President Trump visited Israel, Netanyahu told him that he would not tolerate the presence of Iranian forces in Syria, and apparently Trump responded that he would ensure that Iran would not have any lasting presence in Syria. In addition to numerous Israeli attacks inside Syria on what they have claimed to be weapons destined for Hezbollah, during the past few weeks we have seen a concerted attempt by American forces to establish bases in Eastern parts of Syria in order to cut off any links between Iranian and Iraqi militia and the Syrian forces. There have been a number of serious clashes and Iran has said that it would retaliate if those attacks continued. The latest missile attacks by Iran on ISIS bases in Syria allegedly as a response to the terrorist attacks in Tehran could also be a signal that Iran would not take the attacks on its allies lying down. After all, Iran has been helping Assad’s government to fight the ISIS and other militant groups for the past few years, and she will not be pushed out of Syria completely by American and “Coalition” forces.

    It has to be borne in mind that while the Iranians and the Russians have been operating in Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government, American forces have been uninvited guests, and they seem to be intent on establishing a permanent presence there at the expense of Iranian, Syrian, Iraqi and ultimately Russian forces. The “de-confliction line” that American forces speak about is a self-made line not recognized by any of the chief actors in Syria.

    It seems that in her support for Israel America is prepared to unleash a major confrontation with Russia and Iran. We have to expect more serious developments during the coming weeks.

  5. Did President Caligula issue a statement…”I phoned Putin and told him I ordered a Syrian aircraft to be shot down while I was dining on the most delicious chocolate cake. It really was incredible.”

    I think we can rest easy. Trump knows that if he shoots down a Russia fighter jet he will lose financing for his hotels and golf courses.

  6. What precedent is the U.S. setting when it invades sovereign nations, and shoots down that sovereign nations aircraft? If we are a country who values the rule of law, shouldn’t the U.S. then follow and obey international law? If Israel were Syria would the U.S. be okay with Russia shooting down an Israeli plane? There are so many questions in regard to the U.S. wars around the war, it becomes mind numbing to try and answer them. Call me confused and disappointed at what the U.S. has appeared to become…a vastly hubristic and arrogant hegemonic bully! So sad.

  7. Hi Professor Cole, even the SOHR mentioned in their statement (link to syriahr.com) that the government jet did NOT target the SDF. Foreign powers committing acts of aggression against SYRIAN govt forces in SYRIA cannot be “self defense”. As your post mentions, there is no clear motive for WHY the pilot would conduct such an action. US statement should be taken with a large amount of salt.

    “…the sources confirmed that the warplane did not target the Syria Democratic Forces in their controlled areas located at the contact line with regime forces’ controlled areas in the western countryside of Al-Tabaqa to the road of Al-Raqqah – Resafa.”

  8. Reporting on the Syria jet shoot-down leaves out a lot. Makes it seem as though the Kurds were “our” guys and never got help from Russia.

    Newsweek 4/6 “Last year, he [Assad] also said President Donald Trump could be a ‘natural ally’ in the fight against terrorism after Trump indicated that Assad’s government was preferable to other factions vying for control of Syria. While the White House said in January it was open to such cooperation, it ultimately backed an SDF offensive on Raqqa—the de facto capital of ISIS in northern Syria—without permission from Damascus or Moscow.” link to newsweek.com

    Yet…

    Kurds/Russia/in-conjunction Google Search link to google.com;

  9. If you believe what the US military is saying. It must be pointed out, Turkish forces have bombed Kurdish forces on numerous occasions and not had their planes shot down.
    The US military doesn’t even claim that the Syrian forces were bombing Kurdish forces. Their statement read “dropped bombs near SDF fighters south of Tabqah” How near? According to their official statement it was two kilometers.
    Which SDF forces? Were they Kurdish, or one of the more militant groups that have come to be under this nebulous umbrella? No Kurdish group has claimed they were being bombed. Only the US has claimed it was Kurdish groups.
    The US has officially stated they “contacted its Russian counterparts by telephone via an established “de-confliction line” to de-escalate the situation and stop the firing.” However Russians have released recordings of a call, and in it the US only informs that they will have a plane in the area.
    I think more likely, just as the US has bombed Syrian allied units in recent weeks to slow their advances, this plane was shot down as a measured step to hopefully forestall Syrian military advances.

  10. Trump’s direct actions have often proven to be incompetent. So, it has become the way he is indirectly shaping the environment for spontaneous disaster that needs to be recognized.

    This is a massive case in point. Trump is “delegating” military decisions in Syria, which could leave local commanders with the authority to escalate a confrontation with the Russians, to heaven knows where.

    Maybe Trump will choose to get this all sorted with Putin in Hamburg, but in terms of a relatively safe and reliable accommodation I’d look instead to his track record.

    How this all ends, nobody can even guess. But to get through his 4 years without a disaster is beyond imagination. Its like letting an entitled 7 year fly a 747.

    • Your comments reminded me of a major incident before WWII between Japan and the Soviet Union. They engaged in major military actions near Mongolia. A recent book, Nomonhan, 1939, gives the details. What is salient is that an out of control major in the Japanese army in that area basically almost precipitated a war between the two countries because of the failure of the Japanese government to exercise any restraint on the local army forces in the area. I found it astounding how one mid level officer was allowed to act unchecked. Now, do we have a situation in the Middle East where a local commander, even if a general, is in the position to cause a war for the US? A truly frightening thought.

      • The Japanese Army in Manchuria was a special creature. After Japan conquered it in 1895, the forces there were heavily involved in its economic development. As a result, that particular segment of the army became self-financing.

        And it is very, very dangerous for an army to be self-financing. If it can supply its own needs, how can any parliament stop it? These officers from Manchuria became the leading edge of Army arrogance and conspiracy against the elected government. And finally, they invaded the rest of China in 1937 without orders from Tokyo.

  11. I think the Syrian and Russian worry, and rightly so, is that the US plan for Syria is effective partition of the country and a long-term US military presence in the Kurdish areas as part of a Iran containment plan.

  12. This is what happens when you outsource foreign policy to the military. Clemenceau was correct when he said that war is too important to be left to the generals. War is politics by violent means and you need politicians to make the strategic decisions. Who you are going to be fighting is one of the most important decisions. The Trump Administration is like the proverbial bull in the china shop. We need to get out of Syria, not get in deeper.

  13. “And, Russia announced that it would possibly shoot down any US air craft operating in western Syria.

    Those are about the most dangerous words I’ve heard in decades, since the era of the Cuban missile crisis or the dark Cold War film Fail Safe (1965) .”

    The longer the strife in Syria continues, the longer we allow for these type of possibilities to occur. With each successive day, we increase the risk of unconstrained conflicts to occur. Syrians and Iraqis have suffered enormously, but beyond them the this strife has been largely contained. The talks in Astana to reach a peaceful resolution need to come into effect. Russia, Iran, and Turkey signed an agreement on May 4th to create four de-escalation zones in Syria. The US needs to ensure that Saudi Arabia follows these talks and abides to the will of the international community. The strife in Syria has gone on for too long. If we don’t make these deals to end the strife in Syria, we risk to lose too much. We’ll have lost the ability to steer a resolution to 6+ years of continual strife in Syria, further consolidating the fact that a great deal of the Levant is no longer in the US sphere of influence.

    • This all gets to my thought that it isn’t just Trump’s bad decisions, mitigated as they are by incompetent execution, but how he seems to willfully inflame volatile situations. Its a pattern, and it seems almost like a strategy to keep us from noticing, while he and the GOP loot the country, directly and through systemic changes.

      Here, combustible materials are being crowded together and he is making sure there is nobody around who can deescalate things. A crisis, effectively created for what purpose?

      • Trump gloated about how he made money during the last housing crisis while families were losing their homes. It seems unthinkable but a financial crisis might be a good thing for Trump Inc. and his Oligarch financiers. They could buy properties for pennies on the dollar.

      • If we noticed the looting, what would we do? Congress is passing the agenda that it always wanted. There’s no place left to turn to in the Constitution to stop that legislation. I don’t see the will to make sacrifices necessary to stop the government by extra-Constitutional means. Meaning, disruptions of society capable of crashing its economy (which has proven more and more possible as Americans have become less and less willing to do it).

        • Since the 2016 election there have been, I believe, 4 congressional elections. In all of these the Democratic candidate lost, the latest just now in Georgia. Whatever hope exists would come from administrative obstruction until the midterms, when a more substantial congressional shift is possible, but democratic mobilization so far has not been encouraging. It is a race against time in any case, with the odds against survival without enormous damage.

        • PS::: In regard to making Democracy actually work, true representation has been foiled in large part due to gerrymandering. If we look past all the crying symptoms we hear everyday to their root underlying causes, this is perhaps the biggest: The GOP has gamed redistricting so as to essentially “choose” their voters, negating the impact of democratic mobilization. (This would be the most important item in a larger “electoral reform” basket of issues).

          Here is an article that gets into the politics of a looming SCOTUS decision that could make all the difference: link to theatlantic.com

          If Justice Kennedy retires too soon, Trump would get to put in one of his stooges and all hope might really be lost. With control over the states consolidated, they might even go for a constitutional conventional, which they would control. Just try to imagine what would come out of that.

          As things now stand, Kennedy alone may be in a position to allow sufficient equity back into our elections for at least nominal democratic representation in the midterms to be possible.

  14. It is always unbelievable what is happening over there…I just hope that there can be a merciful country that will stand up and resolve this

  15. Russia has had their nose tweaked.
    They cannot retaliate with a conventional air war, or even conventional air defenses.

    Look for new types of asymmetric retribution, deniable, creative and effective,
    because the USA was congratulating ourselves on our conventional dominance,
    and neglecting how warfare has changed.

    Russia can strike us worldwide, including at home, with things we would never expect.

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