“The Race to the Elbe”
The current situation resembles the closing months of World War 2 in Europe, when Soviet and Western Allied armies were racing into the collapsing Third Reich. While they were still fighting against a common enemy, it was already clear they were staking out territory in anticipation of a post-war world order which would be divided, in keeping with the Tehran and Yalta conference understandings, into great power spheres of influence. But in 1945 the situation did not escalate into an armed clash between the erstwhile allies because there already existed a political framework for their ultimate meeting, namely the Elbe River. However, it should be noted, this framework did not preclude a number of clashes in between US and Soviet aircraft, and was barely sufficient to contain fanatically anti-Soviet US officers like General George S. Patton from seeking to press forward in violation of the political agreements. It also helped that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not interested in a US-Soviet confrontation and his authority and reputation were sufficient to rein in the anti-Soviet faction of the US and British military and intelligence services.
Today we are once again seeing to coalitions, one Russia-led and one US-led, racing to fill the void leaving by the rapidly vanishing ISIS whose fighters are either choosing to go to the ground or are being evacuated to safe havens to be used in another theater of war. But there is no political framework on how the void is to be filled, and there is no FDR in the White House to rein in the anti-Russian faction in the US military and intelligence. The last but not least difference between Germany and ISIS is that US forces are operating in and over Syria wholly illegally from the point of view of international and even domestic US law, and the fact the US is waging an illegal “shadow” war makes it that much more difficult to work out common rules to avoid incidents.
Who gave the order?
Unlike the Shayrat strike, which was clearly approved at the very top of the US chain of command, the earlier incidents at al-Tanf and the current one at Tabqa were most likely motivated by the unilaterally adopted US rules of engagement which posit any and all force may be used to prevent harm from coming to US servicemembers who are embedded with a variety of irregular formations, such as the so-called “Free Syrian Army” or the Kurdish “Self-Defense Forces.” The rapidity with which the situation over Tabqa escalated means that there was no way a decision to shoot-down the Su-22 could have been made had higher authorities at the Pentagon or the White House been consulted. In all likelihood, the highest US officer to be involved in the decision was the duty officer at the CENTCOM headquarters in Qatar, and the incident was most likely the product of a combination of the rapid SDF and SAA advances that put the Su-22 over an area which was believed to be still held by ISIS. The Su-22 pilot or the command which planned the mission, for its part, likely had no inkling US military personnel would be present in the area to which it was dispatched.
This is not to say the US is not pursuing an agenda of limiting Russian influence in Syria, or the level of control of the legitimate Syrian government over its country’s territory, to the maximum extent possible. While “regime change” is no longer on the agenda in Washington, the goal of dismembering the Syrian state in order to establish a variety of US-controlled Sunni and Kurdish enclaves to serve as a barrier between Iran and Lebanon and as a corridor for pipelines toward Turkey and, ultimately, Europe, still remains. It is likewise plainly evident that Russia, Syria, Iraq, and Iran are doing everything in their power to prevent that agenda from being implemented, and the Tabqa incident is but the most recent manifestation of that clash of interests. What the two nuclear superpowers backing each of the coalitions have thus far shied away from doing is targeting each other’s personnel and assets directly. It is notable that US aircraft do not fly in the vicinity of Russian ground units in Syria, and likewise there were no Russian aircraft present over Tabqa, either. What unfortunately complicates the situation is the absence of not only a political agreement but also a unified chain of command that ensures both coalitions know exactly what the other is doing and prevent incidents such as al-Tanf and Tabqa. Syrian, Iraq, and Iranian forces involved in the conflict are waging their own wars whose aims may not wholly coincide with those of Washington or Moscow, but which may nevertheless draw Washington and Moscow into a direct confrontation with each other, not unlike the 2008 conflict in Georgia or the current civil war in Ukraine.
Since the US evidently does not want to be the first to shed blood in a US-Russia confrontation, the most obvious “symmetrical” response is to embed Russian troops with every SAA, Hezbollah, and Shia militia unit operating in the Raqqa Province, back them up with fighter air patrols, and to make the US military command aware of that fact. So far, US forces have shied away from clashing with Russian forces in Syria, therefore that particular “red line” will likely be advanced as far forward as possible to prevent further US attacks on Syrian, Iranian, or Shia forces operating in eastern Syria.
Secondly, Russia would definitely benefit from having a powerful military ally akin to Turkey that can occasionally target an asset of a nuclear superpower and…largely get away with it. Iran’s launch of ballistic missiles at ISIS targets near Der es-Zor suggests it has decided to enter the fray in a far more overt fashion, likely secure in the knowledge that US is no more likely to attack Iran in retaliation for a ballistic missile strike that kills or wounds some of its troops in Syria than Russia was going to attack Turkey in retaliation for the Su-24 shoot-down. Moreover, the US does not even have the ability to use sanctions to force Iranian compliance, in the way that Russian sanctions have forced the Turks to moderate their own policy in Syria.
Fortunately, Washington seems aware that Moscow will not be bullied into appeasement by such incidents or, especially, attacks on its own forces. Such attacks are far likely to provoke a symmetric Russian retaliation against US assets in the region, all of which are vulnerable to Russian cruise missile strikes, just as US aircraft would quickly suffer losses if confronted with Russian fighters and ground-based air defenses. Unfortunately it means that the only way to contain Washington’s adventurism in Syria is by deliberate Cold War-style “brinksmanship” by Moscow in concert with Tehran.