Syria’s civil war, a conflict that has lasted for more than a decade and has killed more than 300,000 civilians, is for all practical purposes more. Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s war criminal president, has survived the rebellion against him and is now in the depths of his rehabilitation tour of the Middle East. Assad’s armed opponents are trapped in the northwestern province of Idlib, completely dependent on international aid. ISIS, located in the east, is a local irritant at best.
While large-scale fighting has subsided since Türkiye and Russia reached a 2020 ceasefire agreement in Idlib, Syria remains a combustible place. Turkish, Iranian, American and Russian forces are all deployed in the country. Turkish troops and the Syrian militias they support frequently engage in firefights with Syrian Kurdish fighters the United States trusts as its main counterterrorism partner. The Russians and Iranians, who came together to save Assad, they start to compete as both try to recruit Wagner mercenaries who may be out of work after their aborted mutiny against the Russian government last month. The United States launches airstrikes against ISIS positions in the east, and Israel often attacks Iran-affiliated sites in the west, sometimes such attacks close the main airports in Syria for days at a time.
The United States has been especially busy in the skies over Syria recently, trying to avoid collisions with a Russian air force that is increasingly willing to defy, if not outright ignore, the conflict resolution protocols Moscow signed with Washington. years before. Those agreements, designed to ensure that American and Russian pilots reduce the chances of a disaster, are still technically in place. But US defense officials are having a hard time explaining why their Russian counterparts are refusing to comply. Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, commander of the US Air Force Central Command, has all but asserted that the Russian airmen expect to fight. “They are aggressively maneuvering against us when our protocols would say we are supposed to stay… several miles apart and just monitor each other,” Grynkewich. said defense one in April. “The guidance that I have given our people is that we are not going to act like them.”
American pilots have followed their commander’s orders with precision. Even so, Russian warplanes have continued to challenge the US in Syrian airspace, forcing US planes into evasive maneuvers. US Central Command has reported five separate incidents in the past 12 days. July 5ththree Russian planes harassed US MQ-9 drones while on a mission against ISIS, dropping flares in front of the planes. July 14, a Russian surveillance plane flew over the small US base at al-Tanf, allegedly in an intelligence-gathering operation. Two days later, a Russian Su-35 jet approached a manned American MC-12 reconnaissance plane. and forced the American crew to fly through the wake turbulence of the largest jet.
What is causing the Russians to behave so aggressively? The simple answer is that we don’t know. It’s not that close calls between US and Russian forces in Syria haven’t occurred before. In one of the most infamous confrontations of August 2020, a Russian military truck rammed against a US mine-resistant armored vehicle in the northern Syrian city of Derik, injuring US soldiers.
The reasons behind the increased regularity of these hostile interactions are difficult to understand. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, was asked to provide one during a press conference on July 18, but he objected. American analysts, Milley said, were hard at work.”trying to figure that outWhile it is true that Russia wants the 900 or so US troops in Syria to leave after an eight-year presence on the ground, it is puzzling that Moscow thinks that military pressure would actually force Washington to withdraw. If anything, aggressive Russian military actions in the air may do the exact opposite: convince US military planners partly responsible for the US to send additional F-35 and F-16 fighters to the region (although the Pentagon justified these deployments as a reaction to Iran’s harassment of civilian ships in the Strait of Hormuz).
Ultimately, the bigger question is why US forces remain in Syria in the first place. Asking this question is not meant to excuse Russia’s unsafe and unprofessional military conduct or to ignore the fact that Russian fighter pilots are acting like careless teenagers going for a fun ride at 80 miles per hour. Rather, it is meant to look at why the US continues to put itself in the position of having to avoid these types of near misses in the first place.
If the US presence in Syria were absolutely necessary for the security of the American people, repeated disputes with the Russian military would be the unfortunate cost of doing business. But that case has lost its luster. ISIS may not be out of the fight, but its territorial caliphate certainly is: The group hasn’t controlled any territory in Syria for more than four years. According the Pentagon’s inspector general for the counter-ISIS mission, ISIS’s cash reserves are depleted, its leadership cadre is under continual pressure, and the group’s fighters lack the ability to conduct operations beyond unsophisticated attacks against rudimentary targets. If he thinks this progress would be sacrificed after the withdrawal of US troops, think again: no one in Syria, not Bashar al-Assad, the Iranians or the Turks, has an interest in allowing the terror group to reemerge.
The bottom line: As long as the United States remains in Syria, the kinds of airborne incidents we have witnessed almost daily with the Russians for the past week will continue.
Daniel R. DePetris is a member of Defense Priorities and a syndicated foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.