The strong Russian reaction to the shooting down of the Syrian SU-22 near Rusafa in northern Syria is unlikely to be matched by a similarly strong Russian response to the US shooting down of an Iranian built drone near the US base in southern Syria at al-Tanf.
As my colleague Adam Garrie has rightly pointed out, this base was established by the US illegally on sovereign Syrian soil without permission from the Syrian government or the UN Security Council. Moreover a senior Russian official – Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov – has today made the same point
It is absolutely illegal. There is neither a United Nations Security Council resolution nor a request from Syria’s legitimate authorities to this effect. It’s a principle of international law. We are present there at the request from the legitimate authorities. Any presence, especially military presence, on the territory of a sovereign state is possible only when there is a corresponding resolution of the United Nations Security Council or a request or consent from the legitimate authorities
The Russians nonetheless are most unlikely to respond harshly to this incident, and the location explains why.
Whereas the US shooting down of the Syrian SU-22 fighter near Rusafa was clearly intended to deter the Syrian army from capturing Rusafa – a vital point in the battle for Deir Ezzor – the shooting down of an unmanned Iranian built drone – whether operated by the Syrians, the Iranians, Hezbollah, or someone else – close to a US base in southern Syria will not concern them anywhere near so much.
Provided the US military stays in al-Tanf and does not interfere in Syrian army operations against ISIS or other Jihadi groups either on the Iraqi border, or on the road to Deir Ezzor, or in the bitterly contested southern Syrian town of Dara’a, the Russians will leave them alone.
As I said in my article discussing the Russian reaction to the shooting down of the Syrian SU-22 fighter, though their possession of a powerful air defence system in Syria gives them the whip hand in their dealings with the US in Syria, “the Russians must act carefully so as not to provoke the US into an unnecessary confrontation which would serve no-one’s interest”.
That this is the Russian policy in relation to the US base al-Tanf is shown by the fact that this is the second Iranian built drone shot down by the US in this area. The first such drone was shot down by the US on 8th June 2017, without this provoking any Russian reaction. I am sure the same will happen in this case.
Indeed I would not be surprised if the Russians are angry with whoever it was who sent the drone close to the US’s al-Tanf base possibly seeing in it a provocation intended after yesterday’s warning to push them into extending the area covered by the warning to al-Tanf as well. If so they will undoubtedly make known their anger to whoever was responsible.
As every chess player knows, the end game in chess is the most difficult and requires a particularly cool head. The Russians – consummate chess players that they are – know this well, and they will be weighing their moves carefully.
I would finish by making a few further points.
Inevitably since the Russians gave their warning yesterday there have been many claims that it is no more than a bluff. This article by my colleague Alex Christoforou provides typical examples of such claims made by people working for neocon think-tanks.
The military of the US led Coalition does not consider the Russian warning a bluff. The Australian air force has now suspended its air operations in Syrian air space as a result of the Russian warning, there is some talk of Britain doing so also, and this article in the London Times confirms what was said by Coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon yesterday, that following the Russian warning the US is redeploying its aircraft out of harm’s way.
What is more true is that the Russians have not said that they will actually shoot down US aircraft if they fly west of the Euphrates. Claims that the Russians have declared some sort of ‘no-fly zone’ west of the Euphrates are untrue.
What the Russians have said is that they will treat US and Coalition aircraft which fly west of the Euphrates as potentially hostile targets, and will track them accordingly.
That is not something the Russians have ever done in Syria before – though close to their own borders they do it all the time – and US pilots flying west of the Euphrates knowing that they are being tracked by the Russians – with the alarm systems in their aircraft telling them as much – are bound to feel threatened by it.
Lastly, I cannot forbear to mention the rather pathetic US attempt to maintain the illusion that the ‘de-confliction’ hotline between the US and Russian militaries in Syria is still in effect notwithstanding that the Russians suspended it yesterday. Note the tortuous language the US uses about the ‘de-confliction’ hotline in the statement announcing the shooting down of the drone which it issued today
The Coalition has made it clear to all parties publicly and through the de-confliction line with Russian forces that the demonstrated hostile intent and actions of pro-regime forces toward Coalition and partner forces in Syrian conducting legitimate counter-ISIS operations will not be tolerated.
There is a de-confliction mechanism in place with Russian forces to reduce uncertainty in this highly contested space and mitigate the chances of strategic miscalculation.
These words convey the impression that the ‘de-confliction’ hotline is still operating without actually saying that it is.
It reminds me of the situation following the Al-Shayrat cruise missile attack when the US could never quite bring itself to admit publicly that the Russians had turned off the ‘de-confliction’ hotline and repeatedly gave the wrong impression that it had been turned back on weeks before it actually was.
The very fact the US is engaging in this sort of language shows how dependent the US is on the ‘de-confliction’ hotline for the smooth operation of its air campaign in Syria, and how unwilling it is to admit that this puts the Russians in Syria in a position of advantage.