Commentary: Air battle over Syria danger-close to triggering Russia and U.S. engagement

Editor's note: The following is an opinion piece. The writer is not employed by Military Times and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff. 

According to our military leaders, the U.S. and its coalition partners around the world have one purpose and one purpose only: to defeat the Islamic State, a radical organization that has brutalized Iraqis and Syrians under its control, planned and inspired terrorist attacked in the West, and destabilized a region already known for insecurity.

But what happens when the U.S. and its coalition partners come into contact with pro-Assad regime units launching operations in some of the very same areas of Syria where American soldiers are based?

It's a question the Pentagon has needed to answer on the fly a lot lately; pro-regime militias and U.S. military personnel have engaged in an heightened pace of skirmishes over the last month, to the point where the U.S.-led command was forced to make difficult decisions about using force for the purposes of self-protection with significant policy ramifications.

On Sunday, U.S. fighter aircraft were scrambled to defend a detachment of Syrian Democratic Forces south of Tabqa that was being attacked by the same Iranian-sponsored and -organized Shia militias that have saved Bashar al-Assad's skin more than once. After the militia refused to stop advancing into an SDF-held town and a Syrian Su-22 dropped its payload on the group of SDF fighters, an American F/A-18E Super Hornet was called in to provide assistance.

The coalition reported that the Syrian jet was shot down "in accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces," the first time since 1999 that a U.S. aircraft blasted an enemy pilot out of the sky.

Even more significant, the air-to-air engagement was the fourth time in a little under a month that the U.S.-led coalition has taken some kind of military action against the Syrian government or the militias operating on its behalf. 

The first incident occurred May 18, when U.S. aircraft bombed an Assad-affiliated militia force when it didn't withdraw from a swath of eastern Syria that the coalition has designated as a no-go area. Several weeks later, the U.S. Air Force shot down an armed drone conducting an airstrike against SDF partner forces in yet another example of the counter-ISIS coalition having to adapt to a combat environment that can charitably be described as chaotic.

Calling the action "a deliberate flouting of its obligations," Russia all but threatened that any additional non-Russian or non-Syrian aircraft flying west of the Euphrates River would be treated as hostile. The deconfliction channel that Washington and Moscow established last year to ensure misunderstandings among American and Russian pilots were minimized was suspended in retaliation (although, as of this writing, the Pentagon claims the channel remains in effect and is working as intended).

Members of the Syrian army — or what's left of it — are now in the desert west of Raqqa and are no doubt hoping they will be able to recapture the city themselves. It's at least a possibility that the two ground forces will come into conflict with one another, inevitably bringing U.S. and Russian fighter and bomber aircraft into the same airspace. 

This is the same scenario Washington and Moscow have tried to avoid due to the serious risk of a midair collision or a miscalculation. With the deconfliction hotline supposedly scrapped, the dialogue that is required to mitigate this kind of situation is limited.

When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters during his April trip to Moscow that U.S.-Russia relations were "at a low point," he wasn't being a pessimist. Although Washington and Moscow view the world through different lenses and have perceived the conflict in Syria to be a mini-contest of wills, both would be foolish to close the door to dialogue entirely.

Nobody pretends U.S. and Russian interests in Syria are in lockstep alignment — the history of Washington's regime change efforts over the last 15 years has convinced Vladimir Putin and his cronies in the Kremlin that the Washington foreign policy establishment won't stop until and unless Assad is removed from his post. The U.S., in turn, views Russia as a guardian of war criminals and authoritarian governments, and there is perhaps nobody in the Middle East today who more accurately encompasses both of those characteristics than Assad.

But the escalation between U.S. and pro-Syrian government fighters, coupled with Moscow's belligerent rhetoric, is getting increasingly out of control.

At the rate things have deteriorated over the last four weeks, there may soon come a time when American and Russian aircraft do engage. Putin's response to such an incident might incite further confrontation between these powers. Avoiding such conflicts is a vital U.S. national security interest.

The solution to this turbulence is the obvious one: Cool things down.

The Trump administration should do everything it can to keep the deconfliction line open, explain in clear terms to Russian counterparts in the defense and foreign ministries why the U.S. took the action it did and what the Syrian army can do to refrain from a similar punishment in the future, and attempt to lay some specific rules of the road that will assist the two biggest nuclear powers in cutting down the unpredictability.

Whether arranging a consensus is even possible is unknown, and Moscow may not be ready to talk about it one way or the other. Washington, however, needs to at least try.

Daniel DePetris

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Daniel DePetris

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a think tank that promotes a return to a restrained and realist U.S. national security strategy. Follow him on Twitter (@DanDePetris).

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