There has been some discussion, especial on social media, as to whether or not Russia might shoot down US aircraft or missiles attacking Syria, and of the circumstances in which that might happen.
There have even been some suggestions that there are no circumstances where the Russians would ever shoot down US aircraft or missiles in Syria, and that the whole Russian military position in Syria is limited to fighting Jihadi terrorists and with respect to the US is essentially a bluff.
This is certainly wrong and is contradicted by the Russians’ own statements and by the actions they have taken. Since this is a vitally important point, I have decided to discuss it in some detail.
Firstly, it is necessary to go back to the summer of 2015, when the Russians decided to intervene militarily in Syria.
At that point the military situation in Syria was in deep crisis. With Saudi and Turkish support Al-Qaeda had brought together a coalition of Jihadi groups under the umbrella title of the ‘Army of Conquest’, which stormed the province of Idlib, capturing the provincial capital and threatening Aleppo, which by the late summer was completely surrounded and was about to fall. Simultaneously ISIS, which had declared its Caliphate the previous year, captured Palmyra and brought all the eastern territories of Syria previously captured by the Jihadis under its control.
The greatest threat to the Syrian state came however from a plan – widely and openly discussed in the Western media and agreed by the US and Turkey – for the US to declare a no-fly zone over Syria whilst the Turkish army established ‘safe havens’ supposedly to protect civilians in Syria, but in reality intended as a cover for an armed invasion of the country. As I have pointed out on numerous occasions, in Western parlance ‘no-fly zone’ means today unrestricted bombing campaign, and that is undoubtedly what in the summer of 2015 was being planned. Subsequent events shows that it together with the Turkish invasion was planned to start sometime in September 2015.
The Russians were informed of these plans and were told that unless they arranged a ‘political transition’ (ie. the removal from power of President Assad) the Syrian government would soon collapse as a result of the Jihadi offensives, the incursions by the Turkish army and the US bombing campaign, and that ISIS would be in control of Damascus by October. This was confirmed by Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s ambassador to Britain, in an article published in the British media written in February 2016
Last summer we were told by our Western partners that in October Damascus would fall to IS (ie. the Islamic State – AM).
What they were planning to do next we don’t know. Probably, they would have ended up painting the extremists white and accepting them as a Sunni state straddling Iraq and Syria.
Yakovenko’s claim received unexpected but conclusive corroboration when Wikileaks published secret recordings of comments US Secretary of State John Kerry made to a group of Syrian opposition leaders at the UN General Assembly last year. During those comments – which have received startlingly little attention – Kerry frankly admitted that the US had not been fighting ISIS in Syria before the Russians intervened there because it was using ISIS to scare President Assad into stepping down. Here is what Kerry said
And we know that this was growing, we were watching, we saw that DAESH [the IS] was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened. (We) thought, however we could probably manage that Assad might then negotiate, but instead of negotiating he got Putin to support him. I lost the argument for use of force in Syria.
The entirety of Kerry’s highly revealing comments can be heard here.
As Kerry admitted, the ploy failed because rather than allow the US to put its plans into effect and risk the fall of Damascus to ISIS Russia unexpectedly chose to intervene militarily in Syria. The Russian action was intended to forestall and defeat the US plan, which it succeeding in doing. In October 2015 the Financial Times admitted that the Russian deployment had scuppered US plans to declare a ‘no-fly zone’ in Syria.
Implicit in all of this is of course the implicit threat of military action by the Russians in the event that the US were to attempt to carry out its plan despite the Russian military presence in Syria. The point is that though the Russians took on no legal obligation to defend Syria from US attack when they deployed there, there was no doubt even then that they would defend themselves in Syria if threatened or attacked, which is what imposing a ‘no fly zone’ would have required. The US was not willing to take on the enormous risks of doing it, and this made the whole ‘no fly zone’ plan effectively impossible.
This became even clearer in November 2015 after the Turkish air force shot down a Russian SU-24 fighter bomber in Syria. The Russians responded by deploying the S-400 surface to air missile system to Syria. The purpose of that deployment was to defend Russia’s military forces from air attack – whether by Turkey or anyone else – with no conceivable reason to deploy such a system to Syria for any other purpose.
The US military fully understood this, which is why in September 2016, when talk of the US declaring a ‘no-fly zone’ in Syria re-started in the West in connection with the attack on the humanitarian convoy earlier that month and the fighting in Aleppo, General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, in Congressional testimony, said this would require the US to take control of Syrian air space, which would risk war with Russia
Right now… for us to control all of the airspace in Syria would require us to go to war against Syria and Russia
General Dunford’s full comments can be heard here.
The talk of the US imposing a ‘no fly zone’ and thereby intervening in the fighting in Aleppo, together with the US air raid on Syrian troops in Deir Ezzor in September 2016, provoked the Russians in October to deploy the S-300VM Antey-2500 surface to air missile system to Syria to supplement the S-400 system already deployed there. The S-300VM Antey 2500 system is specifically designed to shoot down cruise missiles as well as aircraft.
The Russians also publicly declared that they would defend their troops in Syria if they were attacked, and warned the US of the capability of their air defence system in Syria. This is what General Igor Konashenkov, the spokesman of the Russian Defence Ministry, said
Most officers of the Russian Centre for Reconciliation of the Warring Parties currently work ‘on the ground,’ delivering humanitarian aid and conducting negotiations with heads of settlements and armed groups in most Syrian provinces.
That is why any missile or air strikes on the territory under control of the Syrian government, will create an obvious threat for Russian military.
And finally, I draw attention of ‘hotheads’ that after a strike on Syrian troops in Deir ez-Sor by planes of the coalition on September 17, we have taken all necessary measures to rule out any such ‘mistakes’ against Russian military and military facilities in Syria (NB: this clearly refers to the deployment of the S-300VM Antey-2500 systems to Syria – AM).
The crews on duty will hardly have the time to calculate the missile’s flight path or try to find out their nationality. As for the laymen’s illusions about the existence of ‘invisible planes’ they may confront a disappointing reality.
These missile deployments and warnings from the Russians caused the US a week later to back down and declare publicly that they had no plans to intervene militarily in Syria. Subsequently, a few weeks later, James Clapper, President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, confirmed in Congressional testimony the capability of the Russian air defence system and Russia’s readiness to use it if its personnel were threatened
I wouldn’t put it past them to shoot down an American aircraft if they felt that was threatening to their forces on the ground. The system they have there is very advanced, very capable and I don’t think they’d do it – deploy it – if they didn’t have some intention to use it
Simultaneously articles began to appear in the media obviously sourced from the US military that spoke of the US military’s apprehensions about the capability of the Russian air defence system and of the irresponsibility of calls by certain politicians and journalists to challenge it.
Thus an article appeared in The Washington Post which said the following
While there is some disagreement among military experts as to the capability of the Russian systems, particularly the newly deployed S-300, “the reality is, we’re very concerned anytime those are emplaced,” a U.S. Defense official said. Neither its touted ability to counter U.S. stealth technology, or to target low-flying aircraft, has ever been tested by the United States. “It’s not like we’ve had any shoot at an F-35,” the official said of the next-generation U.S. fighter jet. “We’re not sure if any of our aircraft can defeat the S-300
Whilst an article appeared in the Guardian sourced from retired US military officials saying the following about Hillary Clinton’s talk of declaring a ‘no fly zone’
Retired senior US military pilots are increasingly alarmed that Hillary Clinton’s proposal for “no-fly zones” in Syria could lead to a military confrontation with Russia that could escalate to levels that were previously unthinkable in the post-cold war world.
The proposal of no-fly zones has been fiercely debated in Washington for the past five years, but has never attracted significant enthusiasm from the military because of the risk to pilots from Syrian air defenses and the presence of Russian warplanes.
Many in US national security circles consider the risk of an aerial confrontation with the Russians to be severe….
…..the most distinguishing feature of a Syria no-fly zone in 2017 would be the aerial presence of another great-power air force with an objective which is diametrically opposed to Washington’s.
Russia and the US currently share the skies above Syria and maintain a military-to-military communication channel to avoid confrontation.
But since they operate over different parts of the country and with different objectives – the US in the east against the Islamic State, Russia to the west against Assad’s opposition – a US-imposed no-fly zone would put their objectives into conflict. No one knows how either side would respond if Russian aircraft violated a US air cordon, nor how to de-escalate a clash before it spiralled into extended combat.
In recent days, in connection with the US missile strike on Syria’s Sharyat air base, the Russians have again reiterated their warnings about the capabilities of their air defence system in Syria and of their willingness to use it defend their troops there.
Thus five days ago, on 8th April 2017 – the day after the US missile strike – Lieutenant General Viktor Gumenny, Russian Air Defence and Missile Defence Troops commander and Aerospace Forces deputy commander, went on the radio station Ekho Mosvky to say the following
We have set up a group of forces in Syria over the past two years in line with the decision of the supreme commander-in-chief and the defence minister. Our bases in Khmeimim are protected today. Navy facilities in Tartus are protected. In such a way, we ensured our Aerospace Forces’ activities in terms of aircraft use
The Russians have made their position completely clear, and they have been doing so since the start of their intervention in Syria in September 2015. Whilst they have taken on no legal obligations to defend Syria from external attack, they have repeatedly said they will defend themselves if they are themselves attacked or threatened in Syria, and they have also said they have the capability to do it.
The US for its part has repeatedly said it understands and accepts this.
Given that the US – as General Dunford has admitted – cannot intervene militarily to overthrow the Syrian government by for example declaring a ‘no fly zone’ over the whole of Syria without risking military confrontation with Russia, in any half-ways rational world that in effect rules the entirety of that option out.
This is why the US was so careful to inform Russia in advance of the missile strike on Sharyat air base, why the US has gone to such lengths since the missile strike to say that it is not planning a wider intervention in Syria to overthrow President Assad’s government, and why the US has been obliged to scale back its air operations in Syria since the Russians switched off the deconfliction hotline between their military in Syria and that of the US.
I have laboured these points because there seems to be some doubt about the extent of Russian willingness to shoot down US aircraft and missiles in Syria. This is strange because the Russians have issued repeated warnings that they are prepared to do it, and that they will do it if they decide their personnel in Syria are being threatened, whilst the US for its part has gone out of its way to say that it has heeded these warnings and has adjusted its strategy in Syria in response to them.
Everything I have just said is a matter of fact and of public record. It has been confirmed in public statements by members of both the Russian and US militaries. It has also been confirmed by their actions. To refuse to recognise it is an exercise in denial.
None of this is to say that the situation has not become much more dangerous since the missile strike.
The point is that both the Jihadis in Syria and the regime change hardliners in Washington and elsewhere have now been emboldened, and an inexperienced US President obsessed with demonstrating his ‘toughness’ has shown that he can be easily pressured and manipulated by them. The seeds for further escalation are now there, and unfortunately one can no longer be confident it will not happen.
However it is a fundamental error to think that if a truly major escalation – one going far beyond an isolated and ineffectual missile strike on a single Syrian air base – is threatened, the Russians will simply sit back and let it happen. On the contrary they have clearly signalled that they won’t, and the US military has repeatedly made clear that it recognises the fact. The Russian decision to switch off the deconfliction hotline is intended as a reminder to the US of this reality, and the scaling down by the US military of US air operations in Syria is intended at least in part as an acknowledgement of this signal.
General McMaster’s public comments show that he fully understands the situation, and that in his role as the President’s National Security Adviser he is explaining it to the President, and the President’s public comments show that for the moment he is listening to General McMaster’s and the US military’s advice.
The big unanswered question is whether the President – if he is goaded again – will continue to listen to the advice of General McMaster and of his other military chiefs, and what they – McMaster, Mattis and Dunford – will do if one day he does not.