Where Two Giants Meet: The Growing Friction between the U.S. and Russia over Syria

ipelekis Analysis

6 minute read

For many it has been a matter of time before Russian and American interests physically clashed in Syria. Both sides back different, opposing factions to varying extents and have significant resources deployed in Syria (Russian deployments, American Deployments). This has led to a number of painful interactions since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, with different proxies clashing, but the hostility was not so open and broadcast until recently. The first event that sparked this spiral was the retaliatory strike against the Assad government at the Shayrat airbase for a disputed chemical weapons attack. While the utility of this strike is questionable, a signal was clearly sent by the Americans: we are not scared to get involved. Recently, with American deployments in the Al-Tanf area, further friction has erupted. Syrian forces are heavily involved in fighting in the area against both the FSA and ISIS. American jets bombed SAA fighters in the area, and shot down Iranian drones. Finally, to mark the serious deterioration of relations, they shot down a Syrian jet in the Taqba area, leading the Russians to cut off all communications and claim they will target any coalition forces west of the Euphrates. This has created an environment prone for accidents and miscommunication to cause events to spiral out of control.

What are each stakeholder’s positions, goals, and the most likely outcomes? No side wishes to confront the other so directly, but this added pressure is putting both the United States and Russia in a corner. Before we explore the future, let us look at what has led to this point. While both the US and Russia had clear support for different sides, Russia substantially stepped up support in 2015, and their support was, perhaps, the largest factor contributing to the fall of Aleppo. Many regard the city’s fall to the Assad regime as the turning point in the civil war. Since then, Russian-supported SAA pushes have been calculated and careful, slowly crushing pockets of FSA resistance, like the Qabun and al-Wa’ar pockets. They have sensed that the FSA lacks the strength to win, and can now be dealt with and mopped up at a future date, especially since Assad’s forces are weakened and drained from 6 years of fighting. They will not risk costly offensives and lose the advantage when they can pummel the FSA with air raids supported by their Russian allies.

On the other hand American support has been limited. Under the Obama administration support was limited to arming the FSA with limited weaponry. Yet, this showed a limited understanding of the situation on the ground. The FSA is more of a conglomerate of different militias who choose to work together, and have various objectives, including extremist motives. These groups eventually split and led to the more extremist groups taking control in the fight against Russian and Iranian proxies. Groups like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, a rebranded al-Qaeda affiliated ground force, replaced the gutted moderates and increasingly have become the face of anti-Assad resistance.

This has led us to today. The Americans have realized that if they wish to counter a Russian backed Shi’a crescent from Iran to Lebanon, they need to start acting quickly. They were late to the game and now are trying to make up for time wasted in ineffective strategies by being increasingly assertive and belligerent. Yet, they fail to realize that by waiting this long, they have let Russia accrue too many sunken costs. Russia cannot simply back off from their investment in Syria at this point in time. They have spent significant resources propping up the Assad regime, and to abandon them now in the face of American pressure would be to take all those costs for no gains.

It would be much worse than simply accepting the losses, it would damage all allies’ confidence in Russia and display to the United States that if they take even a small limited action they can bully them out of their position. The United States has forced the Russians, with their back against the wall, to make a decision. This has led to the politically charged and escalatory response of declaring the airspace west of Euphrates as theirs to monitor. This is not an uncalled for action as much as it is an American miss-assessment of the Russian position, and as per usual, a critical failure to understand the situation. For the Russians to accept the shooting down of a Syrian Jet would simultaneously be domestic suicide for Putin, who has built his position on defending Russian interests and has been highly critical of American double standards. On an operational level it was misguided, as the land supply route established by reaching the border close to Al-Tanf. In sum, they would compromise their alliances, their efforts to date, their operational viability, and their domestic standing if they do not respond forcefully and publicly to the latest move by the United States.

With American support for Saudi Arabia deeply pledged after Donald Trump’s visit, and his anti-Iranian position firmly embedded after appointing Michael D’Andrea, one of the CIA’s best assassination coordinators, as the director of Iran Operations, it can be easily deduced that they do wish to counter all these moves. What they wish and what can be achieved without disastrous consequences are two different stories. The Russians have been moving pieces on the board for the past two years. The United States has just sat down at the table and expects to be given all their moves back after a cursory glance at the board and finally realizing this is a very important game. To think they can force their way back into it, given the new context and growing multi-polar environment, would be a mistake. It is time to be increasingly selective with the way the hegemon spends their resources, to spend resources on an already concluded event to attempt a change of course is futile, wasteful, and will further demonstrate that they are caught in an immediate post-Cold War mentality.