Is Syria Wagging the Russian Dog?
The U.S. has shot down a Syrian Su-22 near Ja'Din and close to the strategic dam at Al Tabqa. The Sukhoi 22M series, the model in the Syrian inventory, is an old and relatively slow aircraft primarily used for bombing targets. First produced in 1970, the Russians improved the model over the twenty years it was manufactured (until 1990). It is entirely noncompetitive against top U.S. jet fighters including the F-18 that shot down the Syrian Sukhoi.
It is unlikely the Syrian pilot had any warning before being shot out of the sky. Indeed, the warning issue is what is at the heart of the dispute between Russia and the United States, and it may tell us more than the Russians would like us to know about their unstable relationship with Syria.
According to the Combined Joint Task Force official report, at around 4:30 P.M. Syria time, there was a Syrian attack on Ja'Din which was held by the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. The SDF is "multi-ethnic and multi-religious alliance of Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkmen and Circassian militias." The SDF took a number of casualties before Coalition aircraft chased the Syrians away. Immediately on the heels of the Syrian attack, the U.S. made use of what is called the deconfliction hotline and called the Russians. A little more than two hours later, another Su-22 was bombing in the same area and this is the plane that the U.S. shot down. There was no further call to the hotline, and while not precisely stated it is nearly certain that the Su-22 was not warned in any way by the approaching F-18.
The U.S. action is consistent with the agreements reached with the Russians. However, the Russians are claiming the U.S. did not use the hotline. Without saying so, they are likely treating the second incident as one that was separate from the first. Of course, this is something of a reach on their part, but it is probably the only response the Russians could have given under the circumstances because the Syrians went ahead with another airstrike on their own after the deconfliction warning was initially given.
Why would the Syrians do this? It boils down to an argument between the Russians and the Syrians over how to treat the Kurds. Last year, the Russians sponsored a peace proposal for the Kurds that would have given them autonomy inside a new Syrian constitution that ultimately would have divided the country into cantons, keeping the appearance of central Syrian Alawite control but in reality changing the nature of the existing unitary state into something different and perhaps acceptable to all sides in the conflict. Moscow flew in a delegation of experts from the Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry to meet with the regime and Kurdish representatives. It appears to have been Moscow's view, which is largely President Putin's idea, that this solution would achieve a number of important goals: move the peace process forward and separate the Syrian Kurds from the Americans. Apparently, the Russians failed to do their homework, for while the Syrian Kurds appeared to be onboard, the Assad regime was contemptuously against the deal and rejected it out of hand, the result being the Moscow delegation was sent home emptyhanded or worse. The current Syrian regime attack on the Kurds near Ja'Din should be seen exactly in this context.
Assad does not want to be pushed into any deal by his sponsors. Neither do the Iranians or Hizb’allah. But the Russians have repeatedly signaled that they want the Syrian problem resolved. The reasons for this are not hard to see. The Russians, even though their arms sales have spiraled up thanks to their successful show of force in Syria, are bleeding money. They can ill afford to stay in Syria for very long. Furthermore, there are Russian casualties and this information, though suppressed has a way of getting around in Russia and undermines Putin's popularity. There is also the risk of a big confrontation with the United States, something the Russians really want to avoid; and an equal risk that if the Russians lose control there can be provocations by Iran and Hizb’allah plus Syria against Israel that will trigger a general war that would wipe out the Syrian regime. That would be a terrible defeat for the Russians.
This is very tricky waters for the United States too. A big confrontation with the Russians is a very bad idea with unforeseeable and dangerous consequences. The U.S. interest in Syria is not at all strategic; ISIS, as much as it is a threat to stability in some countries, doesn't amount to much and in any case is slowly being defeated. Indeed, with far less military commitment, the U.S. is objectively doing far better against ISIS than against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The best policy for the United States is to stay the current course and destroy ISIS. At the same time, the U.S. is obliged to protect its allies, especially the Kurds (even strong-arming the Turks) and this is precisely the point of the shoot down this week.
For Putin, the shoot down of the Su-22 is a defeat, but not a defeat against the Americans. It is a defeat handed to Putin by the Syrians who have boxed him in and made his hotline and his efforts to find a bridge to the Americans a failure so far.
Now Putin has to decide if he can do an end run on Assad. It is too bad that the U.S. administration, under fire by the Congress over Russia, has its hands tied.