Last Sunday, a U.S. F/A-18E warplane shot down a manned Syrian SU-22 fighter jet over the skies of Syria. This very rare air-to-air engagement marked the first time since 1999 that a US military aircraft has managed to down a manned enemy aircraft.
Russia, who has been a staunch ally of Syrias President Bashar al-Assad, firmly warned that it would now treat any U.S. – led coalition aircraft caught flying west of the Euphrates River in the north-eastern part of Syria as potential targets. “All flying objects, including planes and drones of the international coalition, detected west of the Euphrates, will be followed by Russian air defense systems as targets,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement.
This particular and carefully crafted language from Russia, in the context of its critical interests in Syria, implies tracking these aircraft with a variety of missile systems and military aircraft, but does not explicitly mention actually firing missiles that would result in the intentional downing of U.S. – Coalition aircraft.
To further assert the tone for Russia’s red line, the Russian Defense Ministry said that it was also officially abandoning the Syrian Air Safety Agreement and Deconfliction Line with the United States; an agreement designed specifically for the purpose of avoiding potential deleterious encounters between Russian and U.S aircraft that are currently in the skies over Syria.
This move by Russia is designed to come off as bellicose, careless and brash. It ultimately puts the U.S. in a position to question its hegemonic fortitude and put it on International display, as well as challenge its willingness to expand its role in Syria. This kind of heavy-handed strategy by Russia had been prevalent during the U.S. – Soviet cold war, and plays a very specific role in manipulating U.S. foreign policy and escalation calculus. Modern contests, like those in Syria and Ukraine, are a just a couple examples of a canvas for reoccurring strategies like this on the part of modern Russia under President Vladimir Putin.
The more recent U.S. strategy in Syria has veered away from its initial targeting of the Assad regime through indirect means, with the long-term goal of regime deposition. The subsequent spread of ISIS into Syria, and the international agenda to defeat the Islamic State, are now the main line of justification for U.S. intervention in that country. The initial strategy included the periodic, small scale arming and training of “moderate rebels” by the U.S. who were inclined to fight against Assads SAA in a proxy war between the U.S. and Russian; reminiscent in many ways to the old Soviet-U.S. proxy wars that existed during the cold war. However, with firm Russian support for the Assad regime, along with the major gains that the SAA has made in recent months, the Islamic State in Syria is now on the verge of defeat. As the Islamic State continues to experience repeated defeats and quickly inches closer to collapse, it is most likely that Iranian and Syrian backed forces will be scrambling to fill the void that ISIS leaves behind. It is also expected that these components are going to be challenging the U.S. and its Kurdish and Syrian rebel allies that are currently in theater.
Iran is very unlikely to directly confront the U.S. military presence in Syria in any major way, so long as long as the Russians keep their distance from U.S. assets in the north-east, and the tit-for-tat war games do not escalate beyond either countries control. As Russia and the U.S. continue to increase their presence and solidify their hold on their respective western and eastern regions, Iran continues to ramp up its own involvement in the Syrian civil war, and has overtly made its presence known through wide-spread deployment of its Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran and Syria have been strategic allies ever since the Iran-Iraq war, when Syria sided with non-Arab Iran against its fellow Baath-ruled neighbor. Since January 2013, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has lost more than 1,100 troops in Syria, including several brigadier generals.
The major options that the U.S. has in Syria to justify remaining in-country are two fold: to maintain order, or to leave with the hope that the forces it has invested in arming and training can stabilize the situation; potentially even a combination of both. The absence of congressional approval and the lacking of any meaningful public debate may cause the U.S. to find itself in a limbo that places it in another Middle Eastern Quagmire. The U.S. ultimately needs to have this debate in an official capacity, and thoroughly define a cogent and sound foreign policy agenda in Syria that coincides with its objective national interests.