Russia’s Escalation in Syria: Making It Tougher to Fight ISIS? – By Nicholas A. Heras

Russia’s Escalation in Syria: Making It Tougher to Fight ISIS?
By Nicholas A. Heras – Bacevich Fellow, Center for a New American Security @NicholasAHeras
For Syria Comment: April 8, 2017

On Thursday, the Trump administration decided to fire 59 cruise missiles from U.S. naval vessels in the Mediterranean at the Al-Shayrat airbase, an important Syrian military airbase in central-western Syria. President Trump ordered this strikes as a firm response to the Assad regime’s reported recent use of chemical weapons against civilians in the country’s northwestern Idlib province, an event that seems to have deeply impacted the President. More important than the American strike’s impact on Bashar al-Assad’s military is that the Al-Shayrat base was also host to Russian forces working with Assad’s forces.

Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the Assad regime in September 2015 has been the most significant event in the conflict. Not only does Russia provide great power support for Bashar al-Assad, it also forces the United States to engage with Russia on most all matters concerning Syria, including the U.S.-led Coalition’s current campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In the wake of the strike on the al-Shayrat airbase, the Russians denounced the Trump administration’s decision, threatening to escalate their force presence in support of the Assad regime, and closing the direct “de-confliction channel,” between the U.S and Russian militaries. Assad referred to the U.S. airstrikes as “arrogant aggression,” hinting that his forces would seek to respond to the American attack.

Keeping the Russian Connection Going

There were no Russian casualties at the al-Shayrat airbase because the Russians were warned beforehand through the de-confliction channel. This channel is a basic mechanism of direct military-to-military communication between U.S. and Russia that was established to prevent American and Russian and Assad’s warplanes from striking each other, or each side’s local partners.

Preserving this de-confliction channel was a major concern of the Obama administration, which wanted to focus on conducting a “light footprint” counter-ISIS campaign that featured U.S. Special Forces supporting local, Syrian partners without being distracted by Russia or Assad. Through the de-confliction channel with the Russians, U.S.-led Coalition warplanes could conduct raids against ISIS without being harassed or targeted by Assad’s anti-air defense systems, often-times operated with Russian support and guidance.

U.S. close air support is a vital component of the counter-ISIS campaign in Syria, and it allows the Coalition to take the fight to ISIS working, by, with, and through local Syrian partners, which are basically militias that are coordinated into an effective fighting force under U.S. guidance. Two local partner forces, the U.S.-backed, multiethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its attached force the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC), have with American-led Coalition air strikes, steadily more and more territory from ISIS in eastern Syria. Working carefully and closely with the SDF/SAC, the United States has only had to commit around 1,000 troops on the ground inside of Syria, and in the coming weeks, these local Syrian partner forces are set to begin the operation to seize ISIS’ “capital,” the central-eastern city of Raqqa.

However, as successful as the American strategy against ISIS in Syria has been up to this point, a reality that is not widely noted is that this success is the product of the general freedom of action that is enjoyed by the U.S.-led Coalition as result of Assad and Russia’s apathy. Preoccupied with the civil war raging in western Syria, where the chemical weapons attacks occurred, the Assad regime and its partners have allowed the U.S. to focus on ISIS, which is more of a long-term threat to the rule of Bashar al-Assad. However, the threat that Assad and Russia would turn their attention to the growing American military presence in eastern Syria and decide to undermine the U.S. counter-ISIS campaign, was a major concern for the Obama administration. It continues to loom over the American military effort against ISIS in Syria

A Proxy for a Proxy

President Trump is generally following the same counter-ISIS strategy is Syria as his predecessor, which means that the Trump administration is relying on local proxy forces to reduce total number of U.S. forces required to be inside of Syria. This strategy aligns with Trump’s campaign pledge to destroy ISIS and to keep the United States out of another costly occupation of a Middle Eastern country. Yet, this strategy is only as effective as the local partners that the U.S. must work with, and the freedom of action that American aircraft have to provide the vital air support that these partners need to overcome ISIS’ fierce resistance.

Assad and Russia do not need to attack U.S. forces inside of Syria, or shoot down American warplanes, which could start a chain of escalation that could result in a larger, regional or global conflict. Simply put, Bashar al-Assad and his allies can instead turn their fire on America’s partners on the ground inside of Syria, which would be a major setback, perhaps even a mortal blow, to the restrained but effective strategy the U.S. has been pursuing against ISIS.

There is already a model for how Assad and Russia could respond like this: both have conducted airstrikes either “accidentally,” or purposely, on America’s local, Syrian partner forces over the last year. In three incidents, in June 2016, August 2016, and last month, Assad and Russia have directly attacked counter-ISIS, Syrian partners, prompted a U.S. air force response to warn off further attacks. Without a reliable de-confliction channel, these one-off strikes by the regime and Russia could become part of a systematic campaign against the best Syrian counter-terrorism partners the U.S. military has fought and shed blood next to.

And this strategy of aggressive escalation against America’s best friends in Syria would likely force a response from the Trump administration, to protect local partner and to send the message that the United States will not be deterred in its mission to defeat ISIS. These responses could range from a show of force such as the deployment of U.S. Army Rangers that were sent to the northern Syrian town of Manbij to support the SDF from the Turkish military all the way to American forces returning fire to protect Syrian partners. However, these responses would be fraught with risk, the counter-ISIS campaign would be ground to a halt, and American soldiers could be killed in the escalation.

The current situation in Syria is fraught with the risk of escalation. The Syrian president has recently called American forces conducting the counter-ISIS campaign in Syria “invaders.” Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies have long been uneasy with the American military’s expanding presence and zone of control in eastern Syria. Now, directly attacked by the U.S. “invaders”, the Assad and his friends can try to ruin the American counter-ISIS strategy, and frustrate President Trump’s ambitions to knock the hell out of ISIS in Syria.

Comments (16)

ALAN said:

Nicholas A. Heras
The Impending Clash Between the U.S. and Russia

April 8th, 2017, 4:37 pm


Eugene said:

Shooting from the hip. Without finding out the who or what in the attack, cruise missiles were launched. A message, but to whom? Of course, the deed has been done, there’s no turning back, risky business. Too many questions asked, but aside from saying it had to be the Russians/Syrians, we don’t really know, probably wont either.

April 8th, 2017, 4:39 pm


ALAN said:

One of the leading German investigative journalists, Gerhard Wisnewski, show in this short video that the official fotos cannot possibly be real.
First, people are touching the freshly gas bodies with bare hands while one drop of the gas would already be deadly. Also, one child looks very healthy with red cheeks and clear eyes while the gas should first had attacked the mucous membrane.
Second, we see a father with black hair crying about kids with blonde hairs.

April 8th, 2017, 4:52 pm


Ali Alwahsh said:

Alqyadeh “leadership” knows exactly how to respond and hurt its foes. Neocons rest assured that poking the leadership does not come with no consequences.

April 8th, 2017, 6:26 pm


ALAN said:

American Sheeple!
In order to rally people, governments need enemies. They want us to be afraid, to hate, so we will rally behind them ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

April 8th, 2017, 6:46 pm


Ali Alwahsh said:

God bless Putin! Protector of freewill and freedom in Syria.

April 8th, 2017, 8:21 pm


Tara said:

Another peice of cheap propaganda to convince people that fighting Assad risks taking ISIS down. Too bad for propagandists to learn that this administration is aware that Assad created the vacuum that lead to Isis .

April 9th, 2017, 5:21 am


Ali Alwahsh said:

If president Bashar goes away the terrorism will spread globally across borders. He’s protecting the whole world, something the West is failing to acknowledge for many reasons but the history will write his name in gold when he emerges victorious after eradicating the terrorists in Syria.

April 9th, 2017, 5:57 am


mjabali said:

Fake Chemical attack ….

Lucky for those planning that fake play that Trump is at an all time low in popularity..


April 9th, 2017, 6:02 am


Roland said:

1. While Obama was not to blame for the invasion and devastation of Iraq, on the other hand no one could ever call Obama’s ISIS policy a success. During Obama’s tenure, the world watched ISIS emerge as a major regional and international terrorist organization, which took control of a significant metropolitan area such as Mosul, and then successfully governed it for nearly three years. How can the author possibly regard prevailing anti-ISIS policies as any sort of success? It’s not only untruthful, it’s also silly.

2. The headline itself makes no sense. The author cannot cite any actual Russian “escalation” in Syria. And why would you have “Russian escalation” in the headline, when the key recent event is an American escalation to direct attack on Syrian government forces? Can this author show the reader that he is able to look at what’s right in front of him?

April 9th, 2017, 3:36 pm


ALAN said:

Mr. Putin
Please throw the second monkey with the bomb in his hand in a deep hole.

April 10th, 2017, 3:18 am


Ghufran said:

People who insist that their side is innocent of war crimes are either lying or in denial. The West and Israel do not want a winner in Syria, they much prefer a weak country and government that is hostile to Iran and serves the interests of Israel. They attacked and will attack any side that seems to be winning, so when Isis is gone a new enemy needs to be announced. Sos is in Russia to sell a potential deal but the lack of a cohesive and reliable regime that can replace Assad is a deal breaker for Russia. Ksa paid and will continue to pay to get Trump’s blessing, the price is paid not just in money but in a new campaign to cement Israel’s position as a friend to ” moderate” Arabs and to list Iran as the “real” enemy. Arabs are destined to lose strategically even if their favorite side wins, this is a nation or a group of nations that did not matter since the 13th century !!
يا امة ضحكت من جهلها الامم

April 11th, 2017, 8:52 pm


ALAN said:

Patrick Lang is truly a top expert on the Middle-East. The former DIA Colonel is highly respected for his deep knowledge and absolute honesty.
This attack was violation of international law. Donald Trump authorized an unjustified attack on a sovereign country. What is even more disturbing is that people like Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and NSA Director General McMaster went along with this charade. Front line troops know the truth. These facts will eventually come out. Donald Trump will most likely not finish his term as President. He will be impeached, I believe, once Congress is presented with irrefutable proof that he ignored and rejected intelligence that did not support the myth that Syria attacked with chemical weapons.
It should also alarm American taxpayers that we launched $100 million dollars of missiles to blow up sand and camel shit. The Russians were aware that a strike was coming. I’m hoping that they and the Syrians withdrew their forces and aircraft from the base. Whatever hope I had that Donald Trump would be a new kind of President, that hope is extinguished. He is a child and a moron. He committed an act of war without justification. But the fault is not his alone. Those who sit atop the NSC, the DOD, the CIA, the Department of State should have resigned in protest. They did not. They are complicit in a war crime.

April 12th, 2017, 7:37 am


ALAN said:

Sputnik reports:
The combat capabilities of Russia’s nuclear triad have increased, with 60 percent of modern weapons now in operation, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said Wednesday. “The combat power of the nuclear triad has increased, it is now equipped with advanced weapons at 60 percent,” Shoigu told Rossiya 24 television. He said that 99 percent of Strategic Missile Forces launchers are on combat alert, 96 percent of which are “in constant readiness for immediate launch,”

April 12th, 2017, 3:22 pm


habib said:

“Second, we see a father with black hair crying about kids with blonde hairs.”

Not that I believe the American narrative, but Syrian kids with blonde hair that turn darker with age is incredibly common. It would take a German to find this suspicious.

April 13th, 2017, 5:40 am


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