How Russia & Iran’s Actions in Syria Test U.S. Strategy

The Cipher Brief
June 20, 2017 
Read the full version of this excerpt on the publisher’s website.

Moscow ratcheted up its war of words against the U.S.-led coalition in Syria, after the Pentagon said it downed a Syrian military plane for the first time. That came as Tehran took an unprecedented step of firing ballistic missiles into eastern Syria, against what it called ISIS targets, over the weekend. The threats from Russia and show of force by Iran over Syria — the regime’s strongest supporters — may force Washington to re-consider its Syrian strategy.

On Monday, Russia’s defense ministry warned it would view any aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition in Syria as “targets” after a Syrian army jet was shot down near Raqqa the day before.

After the strike, U.S. Central Command issued a statement saying the coalition did not “seek to fight the Syrian regime” had acted in “self-defense of Coalition-partnered forces” when Syrian forces dropped bombs near U.S. led forces, identified as fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). It went on to say it “contacted its Russian counterparts by telephone via an established ‘de-confliction line’ to de-escalate the situation,” before taking action.

The Russian defense ministry said it did not get a warning and responded with a terse statement. “Any aircraft, including planes and drones belonging to the international coalition operating west of the Euphrates river, will be tracked by Russian anti-aircraft forces in the sky and on the ground and treated as targets,” it said.

It stopped short of saying it would shoot down coalition aircraft, but Moscow said it would suspend a military hotline between the two sides, which aims to avoid collisions in Syrian airspace.

That wouldn’t be the first time. In April, the hotline was shut down after a U.S. strike on a Syrian airbase suspected of being the launch pad for a chemical attack. The use of the hotline had just resumed last month.

But after Moscow’s statement on Monday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford said the two sides were working on re-opening the communications channel.

“We’ll work diplomatically and militarily in the coming hours to re-establish de-confliction,” Dunford said. In the meantime, he said “We have an effective link between our operations center in Qatar and the Russian Federation on the ground in Syria. That link is still ongoing.”

Anna Borshchevskaya, the Ira Weiner Fellow at The Washington Institute, says Russia’s strong words simply point to posturing. “This is bluster, just as it was after the April 7th U.S. strikes. We’ve seen this before,” she says. “The last thing [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants is a direct military confrontation with the U.S.” she adds. “Putin wants the U.S. to be afraid, but he knows very well that he can’t take on the U.S. military.”

[Click here to read full article on publisher’s site. It includes insight from Retired Admiral James ‘Sandy’ Winnefeld, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.]

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