Are Russia and the US About to Go to War Over Syria?

A expert breaks down the new tensions in the long-running, multifaceted conflict.

by Mike Pearl
21 June 2017, 7:04am

An F-15 being fueled after a 2014 strike in Syria. Photo via US Air Force

On Monday, the US shot down its third Syrian aircraft in a month—an Iranian-made drone that the US-led coalition says appeared to be armed and within shooting distance of coalition forces. This comes after the US shot down a Syrian warplane on Sunday night, prompting Russia, a close ally of both Iran and the Syrian regime, to announce that it will regard any US planes in proximity of its allies as potential hostile actors.

Russia claims the US failed to use the "deconfliction" hotline—a line of communication created in 2015 to help the two countries' militaries know when there's a problem and generally stay out of each others' way. So Russia says it's shutting the hotline down. (The US is working to reestablish the hotline.)

With Russia angry over the US supposedly mistreating its ally, and discarding a tool that could help prevent hostilities from spiraling, are US-Russian relations on an inexorable decline? And could that decline lead to all-out war?

To sort through those questions, I reached out to Omar Lamrani, a military analyst for the conflict forecasting firm Stratfor, and asked whether a US-Russian war is on the horizon. Lamrani put the situation in context for me, and said war is possible, but he also pointed out that the odds are slim, since neither the US nor Russia actually wants to see further escalation.

VICE: Is Russia saying it's about to shoot down American planes?
Omar Lamrani: Basically what they're saying is that they're going to consider US-led coalition aircraft flying in the vicinity of Russian air operations as potentially hostile. It's a lot of confusing words, but that's essentially what it comes down to.

And they say they're shutting down a hotline set up specifically so the US and Russia would stay out of each others' way. Is that just out of spite?
It's not a spite thing necessarily, but it's a way to get the US's attention. To say, Listen. You've pushed us too far. This is unacceptable. If you don't backtrack this is gonna hurt both of us. We're willing to withdraw the deconfliction channel because it's not working with us anyway.

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Could a lack of communication lead to direct confrontation between US and Russian forces? Like the US shooting down a Russian plane, for instance?
The US definitely wants to avoid shooting down a Russian plane. However, there are circumstances where [direct confrontation] is pretty much unavoidable. Let's say the Russians start hitting the positions where American forces are present. In a circumstance where you have American forces on the ground that are directly being attacked by Russian aircraft, or Russian artillery, or whatnot, it's very hard to see how the United States military will not respond kinetically, and with violence, toward such an action. Obviously this is something that the United States would want to avoid very much, because they don't want a war with Russia. That's why they're determined to maintain that deconfliction channel with the Russians.

This recent escalation started with the US shooting down that Syrian plane, rather than a Russian one. And the American version of the story is that that plane was bombing US allies. Why was that such a terrible thing to do from the Russian perspective?
Russia feels forced to stand up for its allies—feels forced to do something. Obviously they're not going to go so far as to shoot back at the United States. But they had to show that they stand by their ally. They have to show that the United States cannot just go around blowing up Russian allies.

Speaking of which, how reliable is that US account of what happened?
There's two sides to the story, and it's a question of who you believe. From the US perspective, the Syrian pilot was attacking Syrian Democratic Forces on the ground. Syrian Democratic Forces are direct allies of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State, so the United States felt obliged to protect them. That's the US storyline. The Syrian government storyline, backed by Russia, is that it was a completely unprovoked attack. They were attacking the Islamic State. It's less important what actually happened as much as the greater context of the situation.

In larger context, my understanding is there's the US-Iraqi-Syrian rebel side in the conflict, and then a Russian-Iranian-Syrian loyalist side—and then ISIS against them all. What happens next because of this threat from Russia?
These skirmishes are going to happen. We're entering this phase of conflict where you have this race to the Iraqi border. Far more than at any point in the Syrian conflict thus far, you have US-led coalition forces in close proximity to loyalists and Russian-Iranian forces. So these skirmishes are going to happen and the question then becomes: How do these powers deal with that, and are they going to be able to maintain a levelheaded approach that's able to deconflict these crises that are bound to happen over the next few months?

You mentioned a "race to the Iraqi border." Can you remind me why that's happening?
Iran is determined to establish a land corridor between Iran, through Iraq, through this region that's now being raced toward, all the way to Damascus, and then Lebanon and the coast. Ultimately that land corridor is much more conducive to supplying Hezbollah, and the Syrian government establishing its network there. I think that's why we're seeing Tehran at the very forefront of this race, backed by Russia to an extent.

But to be clear, Russia may be part of that race? Why do they care?
Russia is involved in this race because they're allies with Iran in this conflict, allies with the Syrian government, determined to have their presence felt across the country, and determined to bring the United States into a conversation. They want to be involved, and as they're getting involved they're being dragged into this race.

So, big picture: Does that mean war is coming?
Do I think it's probable? No, I don't think it's probable. I think the US will try and avoid such a scenario. Do I think it's impossible? Certainly not.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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