By Joseph Klein
In what may turn out to be a major inflection point in the Syrian conflict, an American fighter jet on Sunday shot down a Syrian warplane, which was said to be dropping bombs near U.S.-supported Kurdish and Arab ground forces fighting ISIS in the vicinity of ISIS’s de facto capital of Raqqa. It was the first time during the six year Syrian conflict that a U.S. jet had shot down a Syrian jet. In fact, it has been approximately 18 years since the U.S. had shot down a warplane belonging to any country since a Serbian plane was shot down over Kosovo in 1999.
The U.S. Central Command leading the anti-ISIS coalition effort said the Syrian jet was “immediately shot down… in accordance with rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces.” The statement added that the coalition’s mission was to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria and was not to fight the Syrian regime or its allies. However, it added that the coalition would not hesitate to defend itself or its partner forces “from any threat,” and that “[T]he demonstrated hostile intent and actions of pro-regime forces toward Coalition and partner forces in Syria conducting legitimate counter-ISIS operations will not be tolerated.”
According to a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, the U.S. had first warned the Syrian plane away from the area, but to no avail. An F/A-18 “Super Hornet” thereupon shot down the Syrian plane.
Syria claimed its plane was targeting ISIS militants at the time, a dubious claim in light of the Assad regime’s long record of bombing civilians and all rebel groups indiscriminately in the name of combating “terrorism.”
Syria’s principal ally Russia regarded the U.S. attack on the Syrian warplane as a hostile act. It said that it would treat U.S.-led coalition planes and drones operating west of the Euphrates River where Russia’s air forces operate as “targets.” Russia also said it would suspend indefinitely the use of the communications channel that had been set up between the two countries for the purpose of reducing the potential for direct military confrontation between U.S. and Russian warplanes. Russia had made a similar threat after the U.S. missile strike on a Syrian airfield in retaliation for the Syrian regime’s alleged chemical attack on civilians last April, which turned out to be a hollow threat.
“All kinds of airborne vehicles, including aircraft and UAVs of the international coalition detected to the west of the Euphrates River will be tracked by the Russian SAM systems as air targets,” the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement. “The US’ repeated combat operations under the guise of ‘combating terrorism’ against the legitimate armed forces of a UN member-country are a flagrant violation of international law and an actual military aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic.”
The Pentagon responded with a stern warning to the Russians that the U.S. would not be deterred in its support of coalition operations against ISIS. Department of Defense spokesperson Maj. Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway said coalition aircraft would continue conducting “operations throughout Syria, targeting ISIS forces and providing air support for Coalition partner forces on the ground.”
General Jack Keane (Ret.), a Fox News military analyst, believes Russia is bluffing. “That’s rubbish,” Keane said on “Fox & Friends.”They’re not gonna shoot at U.S. airplanes. They’re not gonna take on the United States. They have very limited capability in Syria by comparison to U.S. capability.”
General Keane may be underestimating Russia’s defense capabilities in Syria, which include surface-to-air missiles. In particular, Russia’s S-400 air defense system is highly sophisticated, with a range of more than 200 miles. Nevertheless, the correct response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bullying is to push back in no uncertain terms. The United States cannot allow Russia to declare what amounts to a no-fly zone in Syria that would undermine the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against ISIS. The U.S. has not interfered with Russian aircraft operating in Syria. Nor should Russia interfere with ours. Not only would a surrender to Russian threats simply invite more Russian aggression. It would send a signal of weakness to ISIS and al Qaeda. And it would embolden Iran, a staunch ally of the Syrian regime along with Russia, to continue its quest for hegemony in the Middle East region.
In fact, Iran added to the seething Syrian cauldron on Sunday with its own launching of missiles into Syria. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps claimed the missiles were aimed at “the headquarters and meeting place and suicide car assembly line” of “ISIS terrorists.” However, nothing the Iranian regime says can be taken completely at face value. Iran is no doubt also sending a message to the U.S.- led coalition members and Israel that the gains the Syrians and Hezbollah forces have been making with Iran’s support in southern Syria, near the Israeli and Jordanian borders, would be defended with Iranian missiles if necessary. “The Saudis and Americans are especially receivers of this message,” Gen. Ramazan Sharif of the Revolutionary Guard told Iranian state TV in an interview, as quoted by the Associated Press. Moreover, whatever territory Iran helps Syrian forces and Hezbollah militia take away from rebel control, including from ISIS, increases Iranian control over strategic positions bridging Iraq and Syria. This in turn would enhance Iran’s so-called “Shia crescent.”
Whether the U.S. downing of the Syrian plane turns out to be just another bump in the road of the long conflict in Syria or represents a true inflection point, accelerating a potential direct collision between the United States and Russia, remains to be seen. However, the Trump administration needs to be clear-eyed in the strategic objectives it seeks to achieve in Syria to avoid getting drawn into a prolonged ground war. Regime change in Syria must not become the objective for its own sake. The disastrous outcomes in Iraq and Libya prove what can lie over the cliff of regime change.
Defeating ISIS should remain the number one objective. Containing Iran is also a key strategic objective, given its hegemonic ambitions and its state sponsorship of terrorism. We should not be fooled into thinking that Iran’s assistance in fighting ISIS will come without a heavy price that may turn out to be even more dangerous in the long run than ISIS to the U.S. national security interest.
As for Russia, we have little choice at this point but to live with its presence in Syria in support of the Assad regime, lest we risk an all-out military confrontation that could spin out of control. Efforts are already underway behind the scenes to lower tensions from the latest incident. A Russian official has clarified that Russia would only threaten coalition jets that “take action that pose a threat to Russian aircraft.” We can take reasonable steps to demonstrate that striking Russian aircraft is not our intention. However, the U.S. should not permit Russia to interfere in any way with the U.S.-led coalition fight against ISIS, which means not allowing Russia to put into effect its own version of a no-fly zone against coalition aircraft operating in support of coalition forces fighting ISIS anywhere in Syria. Russia should also not be permitted to shield the Syrian regime from a further military response if it once again uses lethal chemical weapons against its own people.
Most importantly, we need to stop being reactive and start thinking strategically. As Daniel Nidess, a guest columnist, wrote recently: We need to get back to playing chess — to deliberately planning several moves ahead and accepting that achieving some interests may mean temporarily sacrificing others. The alternative is to continue the trend of the last decade and a half of U.S. foreign policy, which has alternated between half-heartedly committing to our stated goals and sleepwalking through shortsighted escalations that lack clear objectives, both of which have left the U.S. worse off strategically.