New Russian Air Defenses in Syria Keep U.S. Grounded
There is a new crisis for the international effort to destroy the Islamic State, created by the Kremlin. The U.S. has stopped flying manned air-support missions for rebels in a key part of northern Syria due to Russia’s expansion of air defense systems there, and the Barack Obama administration is scrambling to figure out what to do about it.
Russia’s military operations inside Syria have been expanding in recent weeks, and the latest Russian deployments, made without any advance notice to the U.S., have disrupted the U.S.-led coalition's efforts to support Syrian rebel forces fighting against the Islamic State near the Turkey-Syria border, just west of the Euphrates River, several Obama administration and U.S. defense officials told us. This crucial part of the battlefield, known inside the military as Box 4, is where a number of groups have been fighting the Islamic State for control, until recently with overhead support from U.S. fighter jets.
But earlier this month, Moscow deployed an SA-17 advanced air defense system near the area and began “painting” U.S. planes, targeting them with radar in what U.S. officials said was a direct and dangerous provocation. The Pentagon halted all manned flights, although U.S. drones are still flying in the area. Russia then began bombing the rebels the U.S. had been supporting. (U.S. manned airstrikes continue elsewhere in Syria.)
Inside the top levels of the administration, officials are debating what to do next. The issue is serious enough that Secretary of State John Kerry raised it with Russian President Vladimir Putin when they met on Tuesday, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General John Dunford has discussed it with his Russian counterpart as well, a spokesman for U.S. Air Force Central Command told us.
"The increasing number of Russian-supplied advanced air defense systems in Syria, including SA-17s, is another example that Russia and the regime seek to complicate the global counter-Daesh coalition’s air campaign,” said Major Tim Smith, using another term for the Islamic State.
The increasing number of Russian air defense systems further complicate an already difficult situation over the skies in Syria, and do nothing to advance the fight against the Islamic State, which has no air force, Smith said. He added that Russia could instead be using its influence with the regime to press President Bashar al-Assad to cease attacking civilians. “Unhelpful actions by Russia and the Syrian regime will not stop coalition counter-Daesh operations in Syria, nor will such actions push the coalition away from specific regions in Syria where Daesh is operating,” said Smith.
Smith did not deny the administration officials' characterization of the situation in Box 4. Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, told us that the U.S. continues to fly manned and unmanned strike missions in the areas of Syria where the Islamic State is active, including strikes Wednesday in the northeastern towns of Manjib and Mara. He also acknowledged that Russia's recent deployment of air defense systems have complicated U.S. air missions there.
In Washington, top officials are debating how to respond to Russia's expanded air defenses, said another administration official who was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations. The administration could decide to resume flights in support of the rebels fight Islamic State, but that could risk a deadly incident with the Russian military. For now, the U.S. seems to be acquiescing to Russia’s effort to keep American manned planes out of the sky there and "agree to their rules of the game," the administration official said.
With U.S. planes out of the way, Russia has stepped up its own airstrikes along the Turkey-Syria border, and the Obama administration has accused it of targeting the rebel groups the U.S. was supporting, not the Islamic State. The Russian strikes are also targeting commercial vehicles passing from Turkey into Syria, the administration official told us. The Washington Post reported that the Russian strikes have resulted in a halt of humanitarian aid from Turkey as well.
These heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia on the ground run counter to the public outreach Kerry has been pursuing as part of his effort to kick-start a peace process between the Syrian regime and the opposition. In remarks at the Kremlin Tuesday, Kerry said he was “grateful for President Putin” and looked forward to cooperating with Russia on the fight against the Islamic State. Kerry will meet with Russian leaders again Friday in New York.
Kerry also said the U.S. is not pursuing “regime change” in Syria, comments that were seen by many as another step away from the long-held U.S. call for Assad to step down. The latest U.S.-Russia talks didn’t focus on Assad’s status, Kerry said, adding that he was working to establish a political process that would allow Syrians to choose their own leadership.
While the diplomacy drags on, the Russian military continues to place Assad in a stronger position and constrain the coalitions' operations, said Matthew McInnis, a former Iran analyst for U.S. Central Command and now a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “The Russians are trying to create zones where they would have to give permission for U.S. flights,” he said. “The Russians are increasingly defining the military landscape by their actions.”
McInnis said he has heard other Western diplomats express concern about how much the U.S. may give in to the Russian and Syrian position to get a cease-fire. "There is definitely some nervousness about how far the administration is willing to go to accommodate the Russian position on Assad," he said.
Robert Ford, Obama’s former ambassador to Syria, said the Russians may have another motive in expanding their military operations in northern Syria: to put pressure on Turkey. Russian-Turkish relations have turned ugly since Turkey shot down a Russian plane near its border last month. Turkey is keenly interested in the Box 4 region in Syria because it supports the Sunni Arab groups fighting there, working covertly with the U.S.
“The Russians are doing this to squeeze the Turks," said Ford. "It’s going to cause problems for the CIA program."
The actual number of U.S. flights that were supporting Syrian groups in this area was not large. Officials told us that Defense Secretary Ash Carter had been resisting a more comprehensive air campaign in the area for two reasons: Some of the groups fighting there are not vetted and include Islamic brigades, including the al-Nusrah Front. Also, Carter prefers a strategy of supporting Syrian Kurds with weapons and having them take over the border territory.
But the Syrian Arabs and the Turks don’t want Kurdish troops to control Box 4, said Ford, because then the Kurds would then have a proto-state reaching all the way from the Mediterranean Sea to the Iran-Iraq border.
The success of any U.S.-led effort to bring Assad to the negotiating table will depend on squeezing the Syrian regime. Yet at this crucial moment, the U.S. is not only decreasing pressure, but acquiescing to Russian pressure. This benefits not only Assad and Russia, but also the Islamic State.
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