Syria becoming a key battleground in US-Russia rivalry
A growing strategic consensus gaining influence inside Washington suggests that Russian President Vladimir Putin is stepping up the pressure on the US in Syria in a bid to force American troops out of the country. And some US military experts are blaming the Biden administration for being too timid to confront the Russians.
To realize his goals in Syria, Putin is escalating tensions with the US troops that have been deployed in the country since 2015. The Biden administration must clearly articulate its strategic goals in Syria. President Joe Biden must find ways to contact Putin and convey to him America’s anger regarding the Russian threats to the lives of Americans in Syria.
The EU can mediate between Russia and the US as far as their policies in Syria are concerned. This is the only way to stymie any combined Russian-Iranian-Syrian attempts to expel US forces from the country. Realistically, there is little cooperation or coordination between the US and Russia in fighting terror groups in Syria. Washington’s strategic dilemma stems from the simple political fact that, so far, Biden has failed to tell Putin to stop Russia’s provocative actions against US military personnel.
Mona Yacoubian, vice president of the US Institute of Peace’s Middle East and North Africa Center, believes that Putin’s frustrations over Ukraine are to blame. “We have seen, clearly since at least March of this year, a clear escalation of tensions, driven largely by Russian provocations of the US in Syria,” she said. “Those heightened tensions derive directly from the war in Ukraine, where I think the Russians are looking to stick a finger in the US eye, and provoke the US to the extent that they can in a place that is a bit removed from the Ukraine conflict arena itself.”
Those who criticize Biden for his failure to challenge Putin say the US leader has shown little strategic interest in Syria. According to Mary Beth Long, assistant secretary of defense during the George W. Bush administration: “What really happens is, you issue orders to your pilots and NATO folks, to basically be careful and do everything possible not to allow them to provoke you because they want an incident in order to have an excuse to escalate. So, what we really do, although we don’t admit it, is we put our airmen and our sailors at higher risk, because they basically have to absorb these things. It’s a safety issue; it’s an emotional issue. It’s tough on these guys.”
Between March and July, several near misses took place between US and Russian military aircraft in the skies over Syria. In June, Russian aircraft intentionally crossed the flight paths of US warplanes. Late last month, Russian fighters fired flares that damaged a US MQ-9 Reaper drone.
Syria can be a game-changer for the American-Russian global and regional competition going on at present.
At present, the strategic balance between the US and Russia favors Moscow. The number of American troops in Syria is low, at about 900. Russia has at least 6,000 soldiers in the country. Armenia, a former Soviet republic, is helping the military effort. Russia controls vast areas of Syria, which it administers jointly with the government of Bashar Assad. The US operates from territory it captured from Daesh.
There are also six strategic problems that President Biden has to deliberate on with his top advisers in reference to the Russian-Iranian aggression versus American troops in Syria. First, what will Turkiye do regarding the increase in assaults on US forces in Syria? Biden must consult with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on these Russian-Iranian moves. Second, what role have the Kurdish militias been playing in this anti-American escalation in Syria? Third, is the Russian-Iranian campaign against American troops deployed in Syria the cause of the reduced efforts to defeat Daesh?
Fourth, will Putin allow for direct military skirmishes between Iranian and American forces in Syria? Putin can pressure Iran not to be engaged in such fighting. Fifth, how are Russia and Iran assisting the Assad regime economically in a broader campaign to bolster the government? Finally, how will the increasing Iranian-Russian influence in Syria — through their joint efforts to oust America — affect and impact Lebanon? Will such a military tactic enhance further the power of Hezbollah?
The possibility that the US and Russia will go to war over Syria is slim. Biden has few options. He is constrained by the strategic limitations imposed by his predecessor, Donald Trump, who withdrew most US troops from the country. America cannot arm many of the anti-Assad groups, as the Obama administration did. Whether Russia and Iran use Syria as a constant threat to American forces is a big political and military question and challenge that will be tested in the next few weeks. Syria can be a game-changer for the American-Russian global and regional competition going on at present.
Putin, meanwhile, can rely on support from Iran and its militias to challenge the US presence. It is also unknown whether future confrontations will be limited to the air or will evolve dangerously in other military arenas. US intelligence must also monitor the Wagner Group’s activities to guard against potential acts of sabotage or aggression against America and its allies.
Ultimately, it is Putin who will call the shots as he sets out to make it more difficult and burdensome for the US to be an active player on the Syrian scene. Another conclusion is that the situation in Syria is fluid. America can resist the encroachment against its forces in Syria. It is difficult to make predictions with any degree of confidence about the future of American, Russian and Iranian troops in Syria. Biden is vulnerable in Syria, as is Putin. Syria will determine the level of authority, competence and leadership of both Biden and Putin.
- Maria Maalouf is a Lebanese journalist, broadcaster, publisher, and writer. Twitter: @bilarakib