National Security

The Escalating Tension in Syria

U.S. shoots down first enemy fighter in nearly 20 years and Russia issues its own threats.

Lewis Morris · Jun. 21, 2017

The conflict in Syria got significantly more complicated over the last couple of days with Russia now threatening to target U.S. aircraft protecting anti-Assad forces on the ground.

On Sunday, a U.S. F/A-18 Hornet shot down a Syrian-piloted SU-22 bomber that was targeting U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces near Taqba. The Russians, who may have been just as upset about the downing of one of their Soviet-era clunkers as they were about an attack on their Syrian ally, boldly announced that they would target any U.S. or allied planes operating over Western Syria. They also shut down the emergency communications channel that allowed U.S. and Russian military leaders to share movement of forces to prevent military mishaps.

In other words, if the U.S. wants to prevent an accidental engagement with Russian forces, then it should steer clear of the area west of the Euphrates River and stop protecting its anti-Assad allies on the ground.

This level of escalation was not necessarily inevitable when the Syrian civil war threatened to destabilize the region and created an epic humanitarian crisis in 2011. But thanks to the feckless foreign policy of former president Barack Obama, America is now engaged in a battle of wills with Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin and Iran, an axis dedicated to propping up Assad’s regime and emasculating America at the same time.

Obama’s policy, which consisted of leading from behind (i.e., letting other countries do the work) while giving tiresome moral lectures about the “right side of history,” only served to embolden Syria. Russia was all too eager to join the fight on Assad’s side. It was an opportunity to reestablish its presence in the region, prove its international might, and provide a counterweight to the U.S. — which has pretty much been that country’s one standing order of foreign policy for the last hundred years.

President Trump is now left dealing with the consequences of Obama’s bungling of the Syrian conflict, Iraq, al-Qaida and his creation of the Islamic State. Whatever Obama’s mistakes, and they were legion, Trump now is faced with managing a conflict that is evolving in Syria.

The Islamic State’s forces have been rolled back to the point where defeat now seems a realistic and not-far-off possibility. This leaves the anti-Assad and pro-Assad forces with little left to fight except each other. The Russians and Syrians have been able to blame their indiscriminate attacks on civilians on the Islamic State terrorists, but with fewer terrorists left to fight, they can no longer hide behind that flimsy excuse.

On the flip side, the SDF and its U.S. protectors will now increasingly find themselves in direct engagement with Assad’s forces. It’s unlikely that Assad will accept the partition of his country, especially with Russia in his corner. Emboldened by his allies and his experience with a spineless U.S. president, he aims to fight for the whole of Syria.

President Donald Trump, who for some reason once believed that Putin would be an ally in fighting the Islamic State, now finds himself having to prove again America’s resolve in the Middle East. America’s actions on Sunday are a good step in the right direction.

Some experts claim the Russians are merely bluffing in their threat to shoot at American planes. This could merely be a test of just how far America will go to honor its commitments to its allies and defend its national interests. Time will tell if this is indeed the case.

Still think Trump and the Russians are in cahoots together?

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