In the wake of a US F/A-18 shooting down a Syrian Su-22, Russia issued strong warnings to the US by threatening to target US and US-led coalition planes in Syria.
But a head-on, conventional fight with the US is the last thing Russia wants, and it has already started to backpedal.
At first, Russia said it would target US aircraft west of the Euphrates river in Syria.
Then, just a few hours later, another statement refined that point, saying US aircraft in that region would be “tracked by the Russian [surface-to-air missile] systems as air targets.”
The incident resembles the aftermath of the April 7 US strike on Syria’s al Sharyat airbase, where 59 cruise missiles from US Navy destroyers took out a handful of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s jets after a chemical-weapon attack killed civilians, many of them children.
At that time, Russia suspended the deconfliction line – a line of communication established to reduce the risk that Russian and coalition aircraft could get too close. Russia also vowed to meet additional strikes against Syria with force.
Military experts shuddered at the thought that Russia and the US were operating within mere miles of each other with no mechanism to deconflict possible incidents, but Russia reestablished the deconfliction lines just days later.
Now Russia has again suspended this line of communication, and again threatened force against the US. But according to Anna Borshchevskaya, an expert on Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, it’s all just bluster from Putin.
“I don’t think Putin wants a direct military confrontation with the US. He never wanted it,” Borshchevskaya said. “In fact, I think it’s the last thing he wants.”
Borshchevskaya pointed to Turkey’s 2015 downing of a Russian jet that only entered their airspace for a few seconds as evidence of Putin’s lack of resolve when it comes down to brass tacks. “There were multiple ways that Putin reacted” to Turkey’s shoot down “but certainly not a direct war,” said Borshchevskaya.
And if Putin was wary of war with Turkey, he’d be downright fearful of a fight with the US.
“To be perfectly frank, no one can really match the US in conventional terms, and certainly not Russian armed forces,” said Borshchevskaya.
Instead, Russia can continue to prop up Assad and bomb small rebel factions in asymmetrical warfare without much fear of reprisal. Similarly, Iran has sent in proxy militias to fight on Assad’s behalf but likely wouldn’t dream of lining up their armed forces against the US’s.
Perhaps H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s National Security Advisor, said it best: “There are two ways to fight the United States military: Asymmetrically and stupid.”
Nick Heras, an expert on Syria from the Center for New American Security, told Business Insider that in terms of Russia directly going after US forces in Syria, “We’re not there yet in the escalation chain.”
Instead, Russia is reacting to the reality that the US and partnered forces have gained control over a large swath of eastern Syria that ISIS once held, which would be “an existential threat to the Assad regime, as it opens it up to internal dissent and destabilizing,” said Heras.
But as Assad-aligned actors try to nudge the US and its partners out of eastern Syria, they meet with stiff resistance. Five times in a little over a month, US-led coalition planes have struck pro-Syrian forces that they claim were advancing on or threatening their partners’ positions.
“My assessment is that Assad and his Iranian sponsors have tried to test a theory to target US proxies in Syria rather than to respond to US soldiers,” said Heras.
According to Heras, Assad and his allies may now try to knowingly target ground forces that have US elements in them. But Iran can do that through proxies, and Assad can do it knowing the US won’t advance west toward Damascus.
But, he said, if Russia does the same with its air force, the US would respond in kind – and that would be bad news for Moscow.
“Putin responds to strength, and if he perceives weakness he always pushes ahead. That’s what happened in Syria,” Borshchevskaya said.
If Putin or his allies decide to push ahead against US forces on the ground in Syria, the US seems willing to respond.