October 3, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Russia Warns the U.S. in Syria

• The now year-old Russian air campaign in Syria has not only changed the dynamics of the Syrian war, it has exacerbated already tenuous U.S.-Russian relations.

• On October 1, a Russian news outlet quoted a Defense Ministry spokeswoman as saying any U.S. strikes against the Assad regime would result in ‘tectonic shifts’ in the greater Middle East.

• The joint Russian-Assad regime airstrikes in Aleppo have continued to target medical facilities, with the U.S. unlikely to directly intervene.

• Unlike previous proxy wars between the two countries, U.S. and Russian air forces are both active in Syria, and are operating in dangerously close proximity.


As the prospects for reviving ceasefire negotiations in the Syrian civil war become increasingly slim, focus has fallen on how to alleviate some suffering in the strategic city of Aleppo. Since the collapse of the painfully negotiated cessation of hostilities agreement signed by Russia and the U.S. in late September, the Assad regime and Russian air forces have unleashed a sustained bombing campaign worse than anything yet seen in Aleppo. A key tactic of the ongoing bombing campaign is the deliberate targeting of Aleppo’s medical facilities, which already suffer from dire supply and equipment shortages. With no aid reaching the city and no renewed ceasefire in sight, options for relieving the massive human suffering in the rebel-held areas of the city are limited.

On October 1, Russia issued a warning apparently intended to preempt any notion—however unlikely—that the U.S. would directly engage Assad regime aircraft dropping bombs on civilian targets in Aleppo. The Russian news outlet Sputnik quoted a Russian Defense Ministry spokeswoman as stating that if the U.S. was to directly engage regime forces, it would lead to ‘terrible tectonic shifts’ in Syria, as well as the broader region. Russia’s warning represented a clear threat that as bad as Syria is now, it can always get worse—and that other countries could be further destabilized as well. The Russian official’s statement went on to say that any U.S.-led removal of the Assad regime would result in a power vacuum, thus causing the tectonic shifts.

Though Russia has stopped short of warning the U.S. that any intentional attacks on regime forces would be answered by Russia directly, the risk of direct conflict between the two rival countries cannot be dismissed easily. Unlike in previous proxy wars, both countries are openly engaged in Syria. The longer that Russia and the U.S. each have air forces operating in the same relative airspace, engaging in airstrikes against differing targets in a highly complex civil war, the greater the risk of either accidental or intentional direct engagement. 

The U.S. is operating in Syria under the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which is grounded on counterterrorism. As U.S. officials have repeatedly pointed out, the U.S. has no current legal framework to directly target regime forces unless in self-defense. This legal distinction is lost on rebel groups that see the world’s most powerful air force targeting the so-called Islamic State, but failing to protect the civilians of Aleppo. Further, the rebels dismiss U.S. concerns over further involvement and cascading secondary effects, as their sole focus is the overthrow of the Assad regime. The Russian warning of these cascading negative effects will fall on deaf rebel ears as well. As a result, the U.S. will increasingly find itself stuck between rebel groups that do not trust it, and a Russia determined to deepen that distrust while providing cover for the Assad regime to continue bombing Aleppo and other cities.


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