Another U.S. military strike inside Syria — this time, shooting down a Syrian bomber — has escalated tensions with Russia, even opening the possibility that Russian anti-aircraft missiles will target U.S. warplanes, reports Gilbert Doctorow.
By Gilbert Doctorow
The Pentagon’s announcement that the U.S. military had shot down a Syrian warplane inside Syrian territory merited only inside-the-paper treatment at The New York Times and The Washington Post on Monday, but it became the featured article on the Russian version of Google News citing a Moscow newspaper reporting a warning from Russia’s Federation Council that “the USA can receive a return blow in Syria.”
The article in Moskovsky Komsomolets and several similar accounts in other leading Russian print media recounted the warning issued by the Deputy Chairman of the Committee on International Affairs in Russia’s upper house, Vladimir Jabarov, that the shoot-down of the Syrian SU-22 bomber on Sunday by the U.S.-led coalition can lead to “a major conflict.” The Senator noted that Syrian air space is protected both by a Syrian operated S-300 ground to air defense system and by Russian-operated state-of-the-art S-400 missiles.
Jabarov called for diplomats of the interested parties to meet as soon as possible to discuss the incident. And he warned, in dark tones, that the plane’s destruction could lead to a return attack from the Syrian armed forces. The article also quotes the first deputy chairman of Russia’s Committee on Defense and Security in the upper chamber, Frants Klintsevich, describing the shoot-down as “a provocation directed against Russia.”
The Syrian government said its bomber was operating against Islamic State forces near Raqqa, though the U.S. coalition claimed Syrian forces and the plane had attacked rebels, called the Syrian Democratic Forces and operating under the guidance of U.S. Special Forces.
It perhaps should go without saying that under international law the Syrian government has the right to operate inside Syrian airspace and that the U.S. military has no legal right to have personnel inside Syria (since they lack the Syrian government’s permission) let alone to attack the Syrian military or its allied forces. Another curious feature about this situation is that the U.S. mainstream media sees nothing illegal or unusual about the U.S. military operating inside another country uninvited and shooting down government aircraft.
That assumption that the U.S. military has the right to intervene in any conflict of its choosing was reflected in the decision by the Times and Post to minimize coverage of the shoot-down of the Syrian bomber and accept uncritically the Pentagon’s explanation that the shoot-down was in response to Syrian government attacks on U.S.-backed forces. (The Wall Street Journal did lead its Monday’s print edition with a story about the shoot-down of the Syrian plane, but also acted as if the U.S. military was within its rights in doing so.)
Given the potential for a dangerous U.S. military showdown with Russia, whose forces have been invited into Syria by the internationally recognized government, the Kremlin initially tamped down concern about the clash. Russian state television on Sunday night and into Monday paid almost no attention to the shoot-down, apparently awaiting a decision on a suitable response to the American “provocation.”
That response came on Monday when the Russian military command once again declared that the deconflicting hotline between U.S.-allied and Russian forces on air movements over Syria has been severed. That is to say the Russians reinstated the response they made following Donald Trump’s Tomahawk missile attack on a Syrian air base in April. In effect, this Russian action halts all flights into the area from the U.S. aircraft carrier that launched the plane that shot down the Syrian bomber. In line with that decision, the Kremlin warned that all allied air operations near where the Russian air force is flying will be targeted and destroyed.
Only then did The New York Times and The Washington Post begin to react to the seriousness of the confrontation. The former produced an analytical article entitled “Russia Warns U.S. After Downing of Syrian Warplane,” published Monday at its Web site. The Post did the same under the heading “Russia threatens to treat U.S. coalition aircraft as targets over Syria.”
These articles are unusual in one respect: they quote extensively from official Russian sources, including the accusation that the U.S. actions in Syria are in violation of international law. They also mention the dynamism of the Syrian armed forces in bringing the fight to the east of the country even if this means pushing against U.S.-assisted rebels.
What these newspapers do not explain is how and why the Syrian army has been energized to pursue national unification: namely it is the direct result of freeing up Syrian forces, which had been tied down in the west, through the implementation of “deconfliction” settlements that Iran, Turkey and Russia hammered out in the so-called Astana talks earlier this spring. Those settlements never received U.S. approval, though Moscow hoped they would become a platform for a broader U.S.-Russian understanding regarding possible areas of cooperation before the first meeting between Presidents Putin and Trump.
Instead, the U.S. shoot-down of the Syrian bomber, the first direct U.S. attack on a Syrian aircraft in the six-year conflict, signals a return to the Pentagon’s actions undermining the accommodating policies of a U.S. president in Syria. Last September, when Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reached agreement on a partial cease-fire in Syria with the support of President Obama, a U.S. air attack killing Syrian troops in the besieged eastern outpost of Deir Ezzor scuttled the arrangement.
Now it appears that the Pentagon may be sabotaging another possibility of accommodation between Putin and Trump by escalating the U.S. military intervention in Syria at a time when the Syrian government has been consolidating its control over large swaths of Syria. The latest clash also heightens the possibility that Russian air defenses may shoot down a U.S. warplane and push tensions to even a higher level.
Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming book Does the United States Have a Future? will be published on 1 September 2017.