Syrian conflict heightens dangers of US-Russian confrontation

US troops and Russian mercenaries exchanging fire in Syria is a dangerous twist in an already overcrowded battlespace

East is east: Russian and Syrian troops
East is east: Russian and Syrian troops

For some, the Cold War is a distant memory from a dangerous period of history that holds few lessons for modern society. For those who lived through it between 1945 and 1989, they still remember that tensions were high, and the threat of nuclear war hung over the world’s head daily.

There were a few occasions in which both sides came close to open conflict, but thankfully, that had never come to pass. American and Soviet ground troops are not known (publicly, at least) to have fired upon one another on the battlefield, although Soviet advisors may have been engaged in combat in Vietnam and Korea. This changed just a few weeks ago.

Last August, I wrote that Syria represents the most complicated, and understated international conflicts of our time. That a miscalculation by one of the warring sides could lead to an instant crisis. This was only narrowly averted a few weeks ago.

On the night of 7th February, forces allied to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attacked a Kurdish-held base of operations in north-eastern Syria, which would not make front page news on an average day. However, in this case the Syrians were backed by what appears to be Russian mercenaries working for a paramilitary outfit with alleged ties to the Kremlin, and US military forces were there supporting their Kurdish allies. The attack itself is unusual, as it crossed a “deconfliction line” established by the Russians and Americans to avoid direct confrontations between the two countries.

Syria represents a battlefield for the interests of regional and global powers. But the biggest danger is a direct confrontation between American and Russian troops in the country.

Moreover, both sides are in constant telephone contact to advise one another of operations to avoid bringing American and Russian troops into conflict with one another. In this scenario, given that the Russian forces were mercenaries working for a Russian paramilitary outfit, these precautions did not seem to come into play.

US and Kurdish forces repelled the assault with considerable ferocity, only advising the Russian military command of their defensive response once it was underway. American Special Forces called in air and artillery support which led to heavy casualties for the Syrian and Russian forces. The Kremlin disavowed any knowledge of the attack, saying that these were independent citizens and not part of the Russian military.

The US Defence Secretary James Mattis also publicly expressed bewilderment as to why the assault took place, given that the Russian government was aware of the American presence in the area. Reportedly some 200 Russian mercenaries were killed, according to some reports in the Russian press.

The attack by individuals employed by a Russian private military company would fit in well with the Kremlin’s hybrid warfare strategy (unmarked military uniforms, misinformation campaigns, etc), which it had employed to good use in Crimea and the Donetsk region of Ukraine. The US reaction to the attack, bringing in overwhelming air and artillery support to repel the attacks is in line with their rules of engagement. Thankfully, neither the Russians nor the Americans have sought to make this into an international incident which would push them even further apart.

A point of concern is that the chances for a reoccurrence is not zero. Both Russia and the United States appear to be committed to retaining their troops in Syria for the foreseeable future, and this ensures that the risk of an inadvertent clash between their troops will remain a real danger. Whereas the US is less committed to the conflict in Syria than Russia is (both in terms of military resources and politically), it does run the risk of allowing Russia and Iran to expand their influence in the region, which is something that the Pentagon and State Department will view with some trepidation. On the other hand, expanding the US footprint in Syria will raise questions of what its policy objectives are. Russia is clearly determined to see that Assad, or any successor, will remain aligned with Moscow. They are willing to dedicate troops, military hardware and financial resources to guarantee this outcome – not least because the nature of their government ensures that Vladimir Putin’s orders automatically translate into Russian foreign policy objectives. The US foreign policy decision making process hinges on directions from the US President, but subject to change depending on pressure from Congress and public opinion. This explains why Russia has been far more nimble and effective in the Syrian war – they know what it is that needs to be achieved, and they have everything necessary to achieve it.

The US has been in a position of foreign policy strategic drift since the turn of the millennium. Like a football team that has dominated league and cup competitions for years, it has allowed complacency to set in. The war on terrorism, along with the war in Iraq have come to define its foreign policy vision, at the detriment of other challenges.

Syria represents a battlefield for the interests of regional and global powers.

But the biggest danger is a direct confrontation between American and Russian troops in the country. On this occasion, plausible deniability has allowed Russia to quietly distance themselves from the actions of a Russian private military company, and the US has acted confused in all this in order to downplay the incident, and has not pursued the matter further. This was a responsible move from both countries.

But if communication between the two sides breaks down, and one side’s military personnel are casualties in an inadvertent battle with the other, the odds of escalation are uncomfortably high. Domestic political pressure from the public and parliamentary figures would provide momentum for some form of retribution which neither capital would really desire. A standoff between Russia and the US is just too dangerous for the world.

The war in Syria needs to be brought to an infinite number of reasons. A standoff between two global powers is high on that list.

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