If the U.S. military continues to run amok, it is hard to see how armed conflict with Russia in Syria can be avoided
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
This morning’s featured article at the top of the News on Google.ru was taken from the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets. The heading ran: “Federation Council: the USA can receive a return blow in Syria.”
This article and several similar accounts in other leading Russian print media recounted the warning issued by the Deputy Chairman of the Committee on International Affairs in Russia’s upper house, Vladimir Jabarov, that the shoot-down of the Syrian SU-22 bomber yesterday by the US-led coalition can lead to “a major conflict.” The Senator noted that Syrian air space is protected both by a Syrian operated S-300 ground to air defense system and by Russian-operated state of the art S-400 missiles.
Jabarov called for diplomats of the interested parties to meet as soon as possible to discuss the incident. And he warned, in dark tones, that the plane’s destruction could lead to a return attack from the Assad armed forces.
The article explains that Syrian government forces claim the bomber was operating against Islamic State forces near Raqqa, while the U.S. coalition claims the bomber had dropped munitions on Syrian Democratic Forces, which enjoy U.S. support.
The article also quotes the first deputy chairman of the Committee on Defense and Security in the upper chamber, Frants Klintsevich, describing the shoot-down as “a provocation directed against Russia.”
In the same time frame as the Russian newspaper articles, America’s leading mainstream papers, The New York Times and The Washington Post gave insignificant coverage to the shoot-down of the Syrian bomber. This was simply not newsworthy from their perspective. However, the NYT article included the official U.S. explanation that the shoot-down was in response to Syrian government attacks on US-backed troops in the area of Raqqa. Of course, there was not a word in the NYT about the legal basis for US armed forces to be active on the ground in Syria and working against the internationally recognized government of the country.
Perhaps the scant coverage in U.S. media can be justified by the way the Kremlin first dealt with the issue. Russian state television on Sunday night and then all day Monday paid almost no attention to the shoot-down. It would be safe to say that the signal came from on high to wait until a definitive decision was taken on a suitable response to the American “provocation.”
That response came in the course of today, when the Russian military command once again declared that the deconflicting hotline between US Allied and Russian forces on air movements over Syria has been severed. That is to say, the Russians reinstated the response they made following Donald Trump’s Tomahawk attack on a Syrian air base in April. In effect, this halts all flights into the area from the US aircraft carrier that launched the plane which shot down the Syrian bomber. In line with that decision, all allied air operations near where the Russian air force is flying will be targeted and destroyed.
Now The New York Times and The Washington Post came to life. The former issued an analytical article entitled “Russia Warns U.S. After Downing of Syrian Warplane.” The latter did the same under the heading “Russia threatens to treat U.S. coalition aircraft as targets over Syria.” These articles are remarkable in one respect: they quote extensively from official Russian sources, including the accusation that the U.S. actions in Syria are in violation of international law. They also mention the dynamism of the Syrian armed forces in bringing the fight to the East of the country even if this means pushing against U.S. assisted rebels. What these newspapers do not explain is how and why the Syrian army has been energized to pursue national unification: namely it is the direct result of freeing forces that hitherto were kept in the West following the deconfliction settlements that Iran, Turkey and Russia agreed in Astana earlier this spring. Those settlements never in fact received U.S. approval, though it had been hoped for by Moscow as the platform for a global U.S.-Russian understanding on Syria in time for the meeting of the presidents.
Instead, the U.S. shoot-down of the Syrian bomber, the first direct U.S. attack on a Syrian aircraft in the six year civil war, signals a return of the Pentagon’s policy of undermining the accommodating policies of a U.S. president in Syria. The last, fateful such occurrence was in September 2016, when a U.S. air attack on Syrian forces in the besieged eastern outpost of Deir Ezzor scuttled the just concluded cease fire in Syria agreed between Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry with the approval of Barack Obama. Now it appears that the Pentagon is once again the most powerful force against the accommodating policy on Russia that Donald Trump has been attempting to implement. The opposition of Congress and the hostile media looks tame by comparison.
If the U.S. military continues to run amok, it is hard to see how armed conflict with Russia in Syria can be avoided.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017
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Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming book Does the United States Have a Future? will be published on 1 September 2017.