June 20, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: The Serious Risk of Escalation in Syria
As the so-called Islamic State continues to crumble in Syria, the competing military forces battling the group are running out of space to avoid confronting each other. The risk of direct military confrontation—whether as a result of an accident, miscalculation, or intentional provocation—between the conventional forces of the U.S. and coalition partners, Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime has been a very real concern in Syria for years; Russia and the U.S. have maintained a hotline to de-conflict airstrikes and avoid mistakes even as tensions and relations between Moscow and Washington have continued to deteriorate. While there have been some close calls, the U.S. and Russia have avoided direct military confrontation. However, as the battlefield in Syria shrinks—and the number of competing combatants and aircraft grows—the methods used for de-confliction that have worked in the past may no longer be sufficient.
On June 18, a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian SU-22 fighter-bomber, marking the first time the U.S. military has downed a manned aircraft in nearly two decades. In a fitting representation of how complicated the Syrian battlefield has become, the Syrian aircraft was reportedly shot down after bombing a position held by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in a town the SDF had recently retaken from the Islamic State; the U.S. aircraft shot down the Syrian warplane after failed attempts to de-escalate the situation through the use of the U.S.-Russian de-confliction hotline. The incident is no small matter for any party involved—particularly the Assad regime, which is trying to limit the effectiveness of the SDF. The incident is equally serious for Russia, Iran, and the U.S; Moscow and Tehran are committed—at least ostensibly—to the perpetuation of Assad’s rule in Syria. All parties—including Washington—will now have to decide if further actions will match their respective rhetoric, with the very real potential for even further escalation.
On June 19, Russia issued a clear warning in response the U.S. action, stating that Russian forces would now actively track coalition aircraft as possible threats if they cross to the west of the Euphrates River. Moscow also announced it was suspending its participation in the de-confliction hotline—a threat it has made before. Despite the harsh words, the statement does not mean Russian jets or air defenses would automatically shoot down any aircraft west of the Euphrates, but the warning does change the equation significantly. The severity of the change in tone was obvious in a statement by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford Jr., who called the unfolding situation “a delicate couple of hours” in which the U.S. would need to immediately recalculate the risks and gains of air operations near the Euphrates. One miscalculation by either party could be the catalyst for a dangerous spiral into a great-power conflict.
In another significant escalation on June 18, Iran launched several mid-range surface-to-surface missiles from its western border into Syria, targeting the Islamic State near Deir el-Zour, one of the group’s few remaining strongholds. The missile strike was in response to the June 7 coordinated terror attacks in Tehran claimed by the Islamic State, which was the group’s first such attack in Iran. The missile strike was also the first time in 30 years that Iran has launched missiles into another country; the last time was during the Iran-Iraq War. Iran, which has been a strong supporter of the Assad regime in terms of providing military assistance and militia support, has now added its missile capability to the chaotic mix of military operations in Syria.
For years now, the Syrian civil war has been comprised of wars within a war, with the U.S. fighting to defeat the Islamic State in the near-term, while nearly every other party is fighting for control or influence in Syria in the long-term. The U.S. wants above all to kick the Islamic State out of Raqqa, while Syria, Russia, Iran, and Turkey care more about who will rule that area after the fall of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s self-proclaimed caliphate. As tensions continue to rise on all sides, and conventional state military forces continue to come closer into hostile contact, it is yet to be seen how far each party is willing to go in their efforts to achieve their respective self-interested goals. Despite the rhetoric, the U.S. and Russia will likely continue to cooperate just enough to avoid direct confrontation, but the chance for a catastrophic error is higher now than ever before in the six-year-old civil war.
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