Russia’s declaration to scrap an agreement on military air operations over Syria with the United States has increased risk of confrontation or an incident in the skies of the war-torn nation in the midst of a bloody six-year civil war, some analysts say.
The U. S. launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against a Syrian air base Thursday in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack that killed more than 80 civilians in the country April 4.
Russia is an ally of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who is in the midst of a civil war that has killed thousands of civilians and drawn the United States and Russian military forces into the country. The U.S. has targeted ISIS locations in Syria, officials say.
In condemning the U.S. attack, Russia vowed to bolster air defenses in Syria. The U.S.-Russia agreement exchanged information on flight operations by both sides inside Syria’s borders.
Locally, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s security threat level remained unchanged after the strike, a spokesman said Friday.
Syria is smaller than the state of Kansas and “and it is surrounded by neighbors who are very touchy about airspace incursions,” Loren B. Thompson, a senior defense analyst with the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute, said in an email. “When you combine those features with a fluid situation on the ground and the presence of Russian military forces, the potential for mistakes is high.”
Thompson said President Donald Trump “made the right choice” to order a barrage of ship-launched cruise missiles to send a message to Damascus.
“On the one hand, he needed to demonstrate that Washington would not be passive when confronted with war crimes,” Thompson said. “On the other hand, he needed to minimize the danger of crossed signals putting U.S. pilots at risk. Tomahawk cruise missiles were the best tactical solution to these challenges.”
U.S. Russia escalation?
The American military strike won support among international leaders, but angered Russia and could escalate violence in the Syria, said Glen Duerr, assistant professor of international studies at Cedarville University.
“Since the United States is now going after the Syrian government more vehemently over this attack, I think the Syrian government will try to ramp up its efforts to try to win the Syrian war which will increase the violence and then we’ll see how things pan out outside that because certainly it’s been at a stalemate,” he said.
The U.S. should act cautiously militarily in Syria in the next few days, he said.
“It will more clearly put Russia and the United States on the collision course for something wider, for some kind of escalation,” Duerr said. “I think it would be prudent for the United States to lay low until the diplomatic channels have reopened.”
In the aftermath of the strike, U.S. pilots could face greater risks not only from beefed-up air defenses, but U.S. ground troops may face potential attacks by Iranian-backed groups in Syria, said Melissa Dalton, a Center for Strategic and International Studies deputy director of international programs in Washington, D.C.
Yet the risk of an escalating military conflict with Russia was low, but higher on the diplomatic stage, she said. It appeared Friday that Russia still has an open military hotline with the U.S. to de-conflict incidents in Syria, she added.
“I think there’s a moment of opportunity here,” said Dalton, a former Pentagon expert on Syria. “We established a line of deterrence in terms of the use of chemical weapons, which I think is very important in terms of international norms … But Assad has shown a great propensity to using all sorts of tactics at the conventional level to barrel bomb his civilian population pretty indiscriminately against schools and hospitals, to use starvation tactics, and really besiege his population.
“Those conditions have continued to feed recruitment for groups like the Islamic State and like al-Qaida, so even if we have drawn this red line and we continue on the counter ISIS fight, I think in the absence of a broader strategy to address the drivers of the broader Syrian conflict, it’s just going to go on and on and we will continue to flight the counter-terrorism fight for years,” she said.
Dalton advocated diplomacy and tighter economic pressures on Russia and Iran to bring Assad to the negotiating table, and use of governance and developmental aid to enable Syrians to rebuild “from the bottom up.”
Vaughn Shannon, a Wright State University associate professor of international studies with a focus on the Middle East and terrorism, said the U.S. will likely proceed cautiously to avoid escalation with Russia. In 2013, the United States condemned a chemical attack on Syrian civilians, but took no military action.
“The difference between 2013 and 2017 is that Russia is now embedded in Syria’s defense in a very real way,” he said. “Any American escalation risks killing Russians.”
Even so, he said the U.S. strike was an “appropriate response” for Syria “flaunting previous commitments” to rid itself of chemical weapons.
While Trump appears “decisive” to order the attack after the Obama administration failed to act four years ago because it could not get congressional support, the U.S. military strike does not make up for the “incoherence” of Trump’s policy on Syria, said Mark Ensalaco, director of research at the Human Rights Center at the University of Dayton.
Prior to the attack, Trump administration officials had said they no longer prioritized the removal of Syrian leader Assad from power, Ensalaco said, who noted Trump declared as a private citizen the U.S. should not get involved in the Middle Eastern nation.
Further, Ensalaco said, the president has issued executive orders to block the entry of Syrian refugees into the United States, which federal courts have struck down.
Between the two actions, Ensalaco said, “it’s morally incoherent.”
However, he said, the strike may aid Trump facing congressional and FBI probes into alleged ties his presidential campaign may have had to Russia.
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